A cropped version of the New York Post cover. See the full image here.
Yesterday, the New York Post published a picture on its front page of a man about to be killed on the subway tracks at Times Square station.
It was taken by a distastefully disingenuous man who has said he was trying to warn the conductor by using his camera’s flash, as if a human standing on the tracks metres in front of him was easy to miss.
The man on the tracks, Ki Suk Han, had apparently been pushed onto the tracks by someone who, it now seems, has some mental or emotional problems.
I would not want to see a similar picture of someone I loved. I would certainly not want to see it on the front page of a newspaper with an average weekday circulation of half a million.
None of this means the disingenuous photographer, R. Umar Abassi, should not have taken the picture, nor that the New York Post should not have published it.
The publication of the picture has raised two significant ethical questions: Should Abassi have tried to help Han instead of taking his picture; and should the New York Post have published the picture.
We can dispense with the first one, since this is a media column, and the answer to the question is obvious. As the picture shows, no one else was helping Han, no one is getting upset at them, and what any one of those people was doing while they were to helping Han — being frozen by terror or indecision, wondering at the fragility and/or meaninglessness of life, or harrumphing about the inevitable transit delay the mess would cause — is of no ethical consequence.
Helping, or trying to help, would have been a good thing to do. But not helping is not a bad thing to do. The vast majority of us spend our entire lives not helping. This does mean the vast majority of us are not exemplary human beings. It does not mean we’re bad.
The media question is not quite so straightforward, though it is as clear.
Though different newspapers have different missions that cater to different demographics and their expectations, all of them have agreed over the past century or so that human-interest angles are of general human interest. People like stories about people. They like them so much that even when the story is not about a person but rather, say, debt financing or the effects of agribusiness on soil erosion, most publications will anchor it in the story of a person who is either acting or being acted upon.
We especially like stories about dead people. We are far more interested in a story about someone being killed than we are about someone being robbed. We have a positively ravenous appetite for dead children, but in the absence of a dead child, any dead person will usually do. (Unless they’re aboriginal, but that is another very big story.)
We like these stories because we are aware of our own mortality, are mostly anxious about it, and since we will never know the exact circumstances of the moment our own deaths, we greedily cling to the ones we can apprehend, to give us a little more insight into the possible scenarios of our own endings.
Some of the most compelling death dramas are the ones that involve people aware they are about to die: people sentenced to death; people with illnesses or who have been poisoned who have been given a certain amount of time to live; people in planes that are crashing and boats that are sinking. We like them because, in reality these situations are very rare, and they are little dramatic metaphors for our whole lives. We all know we’re going to die, but can, with greater or lesser degrees of success, make ourselves forget about it for long stretches of time. These people, in these stories we like to watch and read and listen to, cannot.
For 22 seconds, Ki Suk Han was one of those people. He was on the tracks, a train was coming, and he could not get out of the way. In Abassi’s picture, he is looking down the track at the train that’s about to hit him, and the driver who can’t stop in time.
There is a personal story there, of course, for those who knew Han, and like the story of anyone’s death, no matter how quotidian, it is probably nearly unbearable. Whether having this picture published makes it worse for them or not, I don’t know. What I do know is that, though most of us have the luxury of dealing with the death of those we knew and loved in private, or with the consolation of the presence and commiseration of other family and friends, those who know people who are killed in dramatic, public or otherwise newsworthy ways do not. This is not a new thing. Though mass media has been able to spread the news around more widely, the basic barrier between private and public has always been broken in these circumstances. The families of chieftains have to share their grief with the tribe, those killed in war with the military, those who die in public with the public who witnessed it. A stranger is a stranger and privacy is a binary proposition. In the realm of personal grief, there is little appreciable difference between having 10 people you don’t know gossiping about the death of your husband or child and having a thousand, or a million. From the outside, the larger numbers are certainly more unseemly, but from the inside, people barging into your grief is people barging into your grief.
So, people like stories about death, and newspapers are in the business of giving people stories they want to read. Their responsibility is to the many, not the one, as even the screenwriters of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan knew. But a case like this goes beyond that. Though we are transfixed by images, issues and stories of death we are very bad at thinking about it, dealing with it, understanding it or working it into our lives. It’s like sex that way. We hide it away from ourselves, putting dying people in hospitals and hospices, and having them picked up and handled by professionals when they’re dead. We’re not especially susceptible to logic on this front. Jessica Mitford laid out the absurdity of the way we deal with death in 1963. It was a bestseller upon publication and has sold widely since. It changed nothing. We continue to shield our eyes from death, peaking out between our fingers, allowing ourselves only glimpses.
So more than simply being not unethical, the Post’s publication of this picture is a positive social good, as would any decision to publish pictures of people killed in war, or in other newsworthy circumstances. We used to be more able to handle these sorts of things. Tabloids used to publish pictures of crime scenes complete with bodies, as late as the 1940s and 50s, a time when, if you were already sending your loved ones away to die, you were no more than a generation away from having them die at home, in full view of all, children included. Magazines in Mexico and, I assume, elsewhere, still publish pictures of newsworthy corpses, sometimes in colour on their covers. They do it to make money, of course, just as every business does everything it does to make money. That doesn’t make it any less socially and culturally useful.
Abassi’s picture of Han forces us to confront a death, as well as death in general, in a more direct way than we are almost ever able to. It’s painful, uncomfortable, outrageous, unseemly and intrusive. Like death.
While we’re talking about it: According to the TTC’s Brad Ross, there have been 11 deaths on Toronto’s subway tracks so far this year, and another 7 suicide attempts.