Lot of discussion out there about the dramatic photo on Page 1 of the New York Post of a man on the subway tracks just moments before the train hits him. Should ther Post have used it at all, or put it on an inside page? Could/should the photographer tried to help the victim instead of taking the photo?
The image it carries of Ki Suk 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.
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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.
Some of the most memorable photos of my lifetime are these moment-before-death photos. There was the Vietnamese official with a gun to his head just before he was shot. And remember the woman just after she let go of the balcony she had been holding on to? Every time one of these photos comes along we have the same discussion in the newsroom. I've always had mixed feelings about them. I've defended them at times as useful reminders of our mortality, and I've argued against them as exploitations.
It all depends on how they're used and in what context, but on balance I guess I'd be more for using such photos than against. When the Anne Frank exhibit was here a few years ago, I was drawn to a photo of all these people standing over a ditch, with a German soldier behind each one of them. It was painful to imagine what happened in the next moment, but impossible not to.