The cover of today’s New York Post is stunning. The image it carries of Ki-Suck Han* scrambling to escape from the subway tracks just seconds before being crushed by an oncoming train literally stuns: it paralyses, astonishes, shocks, at least momentarily, into quiet attention. Though the paper is infamous for its love of wild front pages, this horrific photo of a person in the last moments of his life transcends base sensationalism (though it is also that) and enters somewhat the controversial realm of tragedy photography—images of war and atrocity, disease and death; frozen slices of time that touch on the profound truth of human mortality while revealing the deep, voyeuristic and uncomfortable hunger we all harbor for consuming such moments from a distance.
We can be sure that we are dealing with something of this genre because people are responding to it with the same anxiety, contempt and criticism that so often greets these kinds of pictures. To summarize the response in a question: Why didn’t the photographer, Post freelancer R. Umar Abbasi, put down his camera and save the man instead of capturing his death on film? Indeed, why does any photographer of a tragedy stay behind the lens when he could be assisting the victims in front of him?
According to a Post video segment, Abbasi, who waiting for the subway on an unrelated assignment when Han was pushed off the platform, was not “strong enough to physically lift the victim himself,” and so chose to use “the only resources available to him, and began rapidly flashing his camera to signal the train conductor to stop.” This image, then, is ostensibly a dark serendipity, an accidental artifact delivered by happenstance from the ether. But many, like Gawker writer (and Slate husband) John Cook, aren't buying it: “amazing Post photog R Umar Abbasi took a focused composed pic of man abt to die on subway even tho he says he was just using flash to warn.”
Whether or not we believe Abbasi’s explanation for the photo, the fact that he and the Post feel such a strong need to account for the document’s existence by erasing its author is telling. They realize that the question above must be dealt with—that the public will insist on posing it—even if the query’s origin is more than a little hypocritical.
To understand what I mean, consider how this photo functions. It forces us into an almost unbearable exchange of gazes—between the doomed man, the helpless train driver, the onlookers further up the platform, and finally, the photographer, with whom we are implicated in choosing to look. Of course, we demand images like this with our news, yet we also clearly feel a great deal of guilt in consuming them. It feels vulgar to fixate upon such a “private” moment, and no one wants to feel vulgar, so we try to rationalize our looking, try to find a person to blame for “making” us look. We imagine, naturally, that we would respond with heroism in such a situation (despite the fact that all kinds of variables are in play restricting what that would even mean), thus giving rise to the question of why the callous photographer did not act as we surely would have done.
Indeed, as Barbie Zelizer, author of About to Die: How News Images Move the Public, explained to Slate last year, images of almost-death are particularly adept at worming their way into our imaginations.
Pictures of people about to die, less graphic than pictures of corpses and body parts, also play on different parts of a viewer's psyche. Where images of dead bodies often push viewers away, creating a sense of distance and objectification, images of impending death do the opposite: They often draw viewers in, fostering engagement, creating empathy and subjective involvement, inviting debate. … About-to-die images tweak the landscape on which images and public response work, suggesting that certain news pictures do not surface by playing to the much-touted rational and reasoned understanding that journalism is supposed to provide. Instead, images of impending death play to the emotions, the imagination, and the contingent and qualified aspects of what they depict.
In looking at an image like this, we can’t help but identify with the victim (or perhaps even with the train conductor); we are forced to imagine the horror of being in either of their positions because in a certain sense, the feared event hasn’t happened yet, to them or to us. For New York subway riders in particular, this image manifests a collective nightmare, the reality that something like this could easily happen to any one of us on our morning commutes. But no one likes a nightmare, and so we resent being forced to experience it.
This is why, as photography critic Susie Linfield points out in her book on the ethics of looking at violence, The Cruel Radiance, we have such a fraught relationship with photojournalists.
Contemporary critics dismiss problematic images as pornographic and launch ad hominem attacks against photojournalists. These critics seek something that does not exist: an uncorrupted, unblemished photographic gaze that will result in images flawlessly poised between hope and despair, resistance and defeat, intimacy and distance … They want the worst things on earth … to be represented in ways that are not incomplete, imperfect, or discomfiting.
Linfield is, to be clear, writing about photos of Holocaust-level atrocity, but her analysis still applies here. Not only has the decision to publish the photos been questioned, but Abbasi’s personal character has also been impugned. Clearly, Abbasi’s photograph, accidental or not, shows us a lot of things we don’t like—about mortality, sure, but also about the dismal state of our outdated transit system that is laughable in its lack of modern guard gates, for instance, or our management of New York’s mentally ill (and often homeless) population, one of whom is allegedly responsible for the push. But more than this, our dumping of a whole mess of anxieties on this photographer and this picture shows that in an increasingly visual culture, while we desperately want to see, we really can’t bear to look.
*Correction, Dec 13, 2012: This post originally misspelled Ki-Suck Han's first name.