The Murder of Ki Suk Han: Should a Photo of a Man About to Die Be Considered Photojournalism?

We’re all behind the lens now. Photo credit: BigTallGuy.

In the wake of the brutal murder of Ki Suk Han, who died when pushed in front of a train, S.E. Smith examines the role of photojournalism in exploiting human suffering.

In the digital age, with technology at our fingertips, it seems like everything is instantly documentable, and more so, should be. We share everything with the world around us, creating a network of interconnected data and media — Allan Mott, for example, Tweeted in search of comfort when his mother was dying, while the “New York Times” crowdsourced storm photos for its front page.

 

IMAGES THAT PUNCH YOU IN THE GUT

Last Night’s [Monday December 3, 2012] “New York Post” featured a horrific full-cover image of a man scrabbling at the side of a subway platform, having been pushed to the tracks. An oncoming train looms in the background. His head is turned away from the camera, which illuminates the scene in a harsh, glaring flash. The camera angle makes the platform appear empty, creating a strange tableau; the doomed man, the approaching train, the photographer. It is difficult to see the driver at this resolution.

On its own, the image is a striking, cold, clinical piece of photojournalism. It reminds me of scores of other images taken through the years; for as long as the camera has been used in journalism, people have been taking wrenching images like this, capturing moments in time for the viewer. A starving child, a man setting himself on fire, a man on the verge of execution, a pop star carried out of her home in a body bag.

These images create strange ethical tangles, as one wonders whether the photographer took action, and what happened right before and right after the image was taken. When photographs depict human suffering, there’s something ghoulish and troubling about them. As viewers, we wonder why we’re fixated on them, and we question the photographer’s decisions as well.

This photographer happened to be in the right place at the right time; he wasn’t sent here on assignment, nor was he stalking someone in search of the perfect shot. Yet, at the moment a man was pushed off the subway platform, his first instinct was to pull out his camera and photodocument it, knowing it would make a great image. He claims he was trying to use his flash to get the attention of the driver, while witnesses say people were screaming and waving at the driver in an attempt to get the train to stop.

This man on the tracks, Ki Suk Han, died moments after the photograph was taken.

Alfred Eisenstaedt’s iconic photograph appears on the surface to be a celebratory moment, but the origins of the photograph have since been challenged, with some critics suggests the scene depicts something very different.

ARE PHOTOJOURNALISTS JUST DOING THEIR JOBS?

Was the photographer just doing his job? Documenting newsworthy events? Should he have set the camera aside and lunged in to help? Many people say yes, that as humans we have an ethical duty to step in and take action at moments like those. The circumstances on that platform, though, aren’t fully known. Could the photographer have done anything? What were other bystanders doing? Should he have tried anyway, even if it was futile?

Photojournalists have a long tradition of distancing themselves from their subjects, focusing on reporting the news. They’ve been present at lynchings, natural disasters, murders, executions, refugee camps, pogroms and more. As observers they also become participants in these events, and as documentarians they perform an important, if sometimes troubling, role.

Some of the most powerful works of photojournalism have also been those that have shaped hearts and minds, have turned the tide of public sentiment, have served as evidence of unspeakable horror; think of images from the liberation of concentration camps, think of the famous Eddie Adams photograph of a cursory street execution of a Viet Cong soldier.

Extensive documentation of this scene, including a film, exists, making it a particularly interesting piece of photojournalism.

This is not the first or the last time someone has chosen to take a picture rather than act, and it’s something that has become more and more common with the ubiquity of the camera. Bystanders pull out cell phones and small digital cameras instead of rolling up their sleeves to help, send Tweets instead of calling an ambulance. It is almost as though we are living behind glass, watching things happen before us without really understanding their meaning, because we live with one foot in an artificial world. These things are not happening to real people, are not occurring right in front of our eyes, but rather are yet another thing to put on Instagram, another thing to share around.

Maybe this will be the Tweet that catapults you to momentary fame, the photo that shows up on the front page of the Times. Anyone can become, for a moment, a major media event, the stories of the people actually affected forgotten in the rush to print. For photojournalists, stringers, and freelancers, the pressure is on; anyone can be a citizen journalist now, so you have to go above and beyond to keep your job, to get paid for your work, to justify your presence on staff.

SENSATIONALISING HORROR

The Post’s headline tells us “Pushed on the subway track, this man is about to die.” In the classic all-caps, sensational journalism the Post is famous for, the editors added “DOOMED” to the bottom of the image. In a strange twist, it almost feels like one of the endless macros circling the Internet, right down to the choice of font. The digital world comes full circle and we turn a horrific image into something to be passed around, captioned and recaptioned. I am afraid to look, but I know someone’s probably already done it.

Their treatment of the image is striking, and it’s been condemned in many circles. Many people are troubled by the decision to print the picture on the front page, and more troubled still by the sensational titling. This is a human tragedy, they argue, and one that shouldn’t be exploited for sales.

 

Dorothea Lange’s “Migrant Mother” is one of the most famous images from the Depression.

Yet, the Post is accomplishing its goal of selling papers (to pay photographers like the one who took that photograph) and sparking conversation. It’s generated a sprawl of conversation about sensationalism, journalistic responsibility, and more, all by printing a horrific image with an exploitative caption.

Has that conversation included a larger discussion about what was going on in that photograph? Does it belong in the ranks of famous images that changed the way people thought about and approached the world? Or was it just a piece of cheap tabloid journalism that sold papers and got the Post reams of free publicity?

Warren Zinn’s photograph of a soldier evacuating an injured child attracted international headlines. The soldier in the photograph, PFC Joseph Dwyer, later killed himself, leading Zinn to wonder if his image was to blame.

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Comments

  1. Richard Aubrey says:

    The journos certainly exploited human suffering in New Orleans after Katrina. Without, it seems, offering anybody a ride out on their press vehicles.

  2. This photo reminded me of the image by Stanley Forman for the Boston Herald, of the fire escape collapse in Boston in 1975 (he talks about that photo in this bbc article: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/4245138.stm)… The other images are iconic but the controversy surrounding the picture of Ki Suk Han and Stanley Forman’s image are somewhat similar, though from what I have read the controversy with the Forman picture was more because people felt that the woman’s privacy was invaded/violated than today’s accusations of sensationalism to breed sales & suggestions that the photographer should have helped in some way (from interviews with him it seems that he was worried for his own safety, which is understandable considering how violently this happened, and the time time was rapid at approximately 22 seconds from start to finish… The image, while tragic, isn’t a particularly great image and it’s clear that he wasn’t thinking about framing, camera settings, or anything of the sort. It also looks like a telephoto shot that has been cropped and enlarged for printing, so I don’t think he was right on top of the situation as the photo might suggest at cursory glance.).

    I do wonder how many people may have taken iPhone/phone camera shots of the events but are scared to share them with officials because of the internet smackdown the photographer has been subjected to. Many of the comments on some of the news sites are really showcasing the internet’s armchair quarterbacks.

  3. There’s something sort of magical about the hypocrisy of journalists and pundits who regularly cover and opine about wars, natural disasters, and genocides, fretting about whether or not the subway “death photo” is “real journalism.” If it had been a photo taken in a war zone of a man about to be executed, it would have won the Pulitzer. We have become a soft and flabby culture that’s more than happy to see photos of approaching death as long as they’re 5000 miles away. Not so much when it’s in our own subway.

  4. Can you get to the person in question before the train hits?
    Can you do is safely or do you accept the risk to yourself?

    If no then taking photos is newsworthy. His reasoning though was he was trying to get the attention of the driver with the camera and the settings weren’t even right which may or may not be true. In situations of war where it’s not feasible to stop someone murdering since you’ll probably be murdered but your photos can help bring awareness then it can be good. In this situation it seems more tricky…I’m not sure how fast these trains go so I dunno if he had the time to drop camera, run to the guy, pull him out before the train hits. There’s also the issue that in doing so YOU may be pulled down by the guy, especially if you are small and he is larger which means you’re putting your life in danger. Sure we SHOULD help where possible but it’s not always something we have to do. Why should I put my life in danger to save someone else? Is my life not worth protecting? I admire those who save others and I’d probably try myself but if I see the risk is too great then I am probably going to try keep myself safe ESPECIALLY if I have a family that relies on me.

    This is also the U.S where someone has been sued for pulling someone from a car, they got injured by the good Samaritan who believed the car would burst into flames. So help and be liable for any injury or stand back and hope they’re able to free themselves. In Australia at least I believe we are protected by good Samaritan laws so we don’t get sued like that. There is another issue at play here too, this was someone who was pushed by another so there is potential risk in helping them as the attacker may turn to you.

    The image can be considered selfish but it’s also a rare glimpse into another issue, others standing around whilst this guy was in trouble, others who were closer than the photographer. I think the newspapers headline is pretty bad though with the DOOMED.

Trackbacks

  1. [...] In the wake of the brutal murder of Ki Suk Han, who died when pushed in front of a train, S.E. Smith examines the role of photojournalism in exploiting human suffering.  [...]

  2. [...] The Murder of Ki Suk Han: Should a Photo of a Man About to Die Be Considered Photojournalism? /* post_widget("#but1"); Filed Under: Good Feed Blog Tagged With: flushing, Kathryn DeHoyos, man pushed to his death, new york police department, new york subway, Oasis Restaurant, paul j. brown, queens boulevard, The New York Times About Kathryn DeHoyosKathryn DeHoyos currently resides on the outskirts of Austin, TX. She is the News Editor for the Good Feed Blog and absolutely loves what she does. She is the happy mommy to a wild 2 year old girl-child, and is blissfully happy being un-married to her life partner DJ. [...]

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