There is a heated argument on whether New York Post should have posted the photo of the last moments of the unfortunate man who was pushed on the tracks in front of an oncoming train. As a person who’s long advocated publishing of graphic photos, I feel compelled to spell out why I think this one was wrong—and why this is not at all like other incidents people are comparing this one to, like the photo of starving child stalked by a vulture which still makes me cry.
I see a lot of graphic pictures. During my visit to Mexico last month, my location got Facebook suspicions. I could not log on without verifying that I was indeed, me. I chose the standard method of verifying my account by identifying Facebook friends from photos they posted.
I soon hit a glitch. My many Facebook friends in the Middle East and North Africa post pictures not of themselves, but of what’s going on in their countries. Hence, I found myself staring at pictures of people being tear gassed, clubbed, dead children, dead adults, body parts, a lot of blood, people rushing people in make-shift stretchers and taxis, collapsed houses, rubble, mortar, and the occasional baby picture, Christmas tree, and conference photo from my academic friends!
I wanted to log on to Facebook so I tried to see if I could figure it out. Facebook lets you choose poster of photo among five choices so I tried to guess the country depending on the level of violence.
“This one has dead people in a rubble, so probably Syria or Gaza. The house is pancaked, so likely missile not a mortar, so Gaza?” “Hmm, a person was shot directly with a tear gas canister, probably Egypt or Bahrain.” “This has a very large crowd, so the demonstration is probably in Egypt, not Bahrain where they would have been dispersed quickly and the Tunisian demonstration was smaller.”
From there on, I’d look at the list of options and hope there was only one person from Egypt among the choices for what looked like a Cairo protest or one Syrian for the dead child photo. It turns out, countries have signature violence. I managed to make enough guesses and log on.
These days, my social media stream is one long stream of such graphic photos. I dare not open Facebook unless I’m sitting in a safe space, preferably door closed, and with some time on my hands and an emotional space to deal with whatever I am going to look at.
I often wish more of those pictures made it to mainstream newspapers. I was incredulous that the front page Washington Post photo of the 11 month old baby boy of BBC cameraperson in Gaza, wrapped in shrouds and no dead baby visible, caused controversy and some people argued it should not have been published. Compared to what I look at every day –and what many people in the region and other war-torn places live with—that was a very, very tame photo. More photos of human damage of war, famine and other threats to human beings should be published.
I’ve long advocated for publishing graphic photos as appropriate. I’ve defended many such decisions. I think TV news distances and “shrink-wraps” human suffering, and I believe such mode of reporting is against the public interest. I do understand that graphic photos can’t just be splashed everywhere at all times, but I do advocate more displaying of reality of war and other tragedies.
And I think publishing graphic photos is especially important in cases where there is something that can be done, or if we bear some collective responsibility either by acts of omission or commission, to try to do something, or stop doing something. For example, if we had on the ground reporting after every drone strike in Afghanistan, would the humanitarian implications of these attacks receive so little attention? Would “collateral damage” remain so acceptable?
Coming from this background, I’ll admit that when I first saw the graphic photo of the unfortunate person pushed to the tracks in New York City subway on the front page of the Post, I was startled. To be clear, the photo has news value. There certainly are reasons to publish it, if for no other reason to create the discussion it did on the role and obligations of bystanders in cases of dangers to others in such moments.
But, overall, the publishing of that photo and the manner it was handled is wrong on multiple accounts. Let me try to get away from the specifics a bit and try to draw out some thoughts on ethics of such cases.
1. First let’s be clear. The cases in which there is a split-second in which the decision whether to take the photo or help the victim are very, very, very few. Almost all graphic photos I have seen in my life are not of this kind. I can hardly think of a few. (No, the other famous cases you are thinking of –starving child and the vulture and the Vietnamese Napalm victim aren’t such photos—I’ll explain in a moment). So, here’s a clear ethical principle. If the photo represents a choice between potential saving a life, or clicking, that photo should not be purchased, monetized or paid for. The split-second decision is for the photographer to make –what level of danger can we impose on other people?—but the decision to purchase is clear. It should not be purchased. *IF* NY Post paid for that photo, that is wrong.
That split-second moment is harrowing enough. There should be no money equation entering the already difficult moment. The next person who finds herself in such a difficult, tragic moment should instinctively know that there will be no money in this picture. Paying-after-the-fact is wrong not as a single act, but as creating a climate.
2. If the photo is representative of an on-going, massive crime or tragedy for which that photo is indeed a striking representative of other numerous victims, there is strong argument for the photo. A one-off, random and fluke tragedy –person pushed on to the tracks which happens once a decade or even less often— does not have the same news value in terms of representativeness as one child among tens of thousands of dead in a famine, or one child burnt by Napalm among hundreds of thousands maimed in the same war. In such cases, the impulse to take the picture and to publish it is more defensible, but should still be subject to the split-second rule. It takes a second to take the photo. If the line between life and death is a second, choose life.
3. The pictures people are comparing this to –like that photo of the vulture stalking a child or the girl burnt by Napalm (links found at Kelly McBride’s excellent article here) pass the split second test. In both cases, the photographer snapped the photo and rushed to aid—the vulture was chased off and UT aided the child and took her to a hospital. The split second was not between life and death. (Kevin Carter who photographed the starving child committed suicide that year). Further, in both cases, the victims were representatives of tens of thousands of suffering children whose plight was exemplified and graphically captured by the photo—and the publicizing of the suffering is thus valuable and can potentially help save many, many others. Those photos itself has argument for life on its side, as tragic, harrowing and awful the situation and the choices in that moment may be.
4. Whenever possible, victims’ families should be consulted or considered, although they do not always have the final say. There are many cases of activists, for example, who have different wishes than their families so care and sensitivity and care is called for in this judgment. In this case, the NY Post chose to put the photo on the front page in a sensationalized, insensitive manner in the city where the victim’s family lives. Considering the rare nature of the tragedy, lack of broader news value, and the question that will haunt the victim’s loved ones forever –could he have been saved?—it seems like nothing but crass opportunism.
5. None of us were there so we also need to be sensitive to judging the photographer or the other bystanders. How dangerous did the situation seem? How many seconds was the unfortunate man on the tracks? Could he have been helped? That is all past, now, and this man is dead. It is not like the other cases where ethical on-going and active judgment is called for because a tragedy is ongoing due to our acts of commission or omission –such as in cases like wars, famines, and natural disasters. There is little point to second guessing that sad, tragic awful moment and it is time for let the family mourn. (We can, however, freely celebrate those who do act heroically in such moments such as Wesley Autrey or Chad Lindsey).
In sum: if the event is one-off and rare in nature, if the subject of the photo is not representative of an ongoing tragedy with many other victims, and if there is a split-second decision in which taking of the photo and trying to save the victim clash, that does not qualify as a graphic photo whose taking, purchasing and publication serves public interest and consequently what New York Post has done is crass and indefensible—and also indefensibly insensitive to the victim’s family.