5 Keys to the Controversy Over NY Post Photographer's Subway Death Photo

R. Umar Abbasi, the photographer who captured the last moments of Ki Suk Han’s life, has had a lot of explaining to do. Critics have blasted Abbasi for not doing enough to save Han after he was pushed off a subway platform. Since then, Abbasi has said he was too far away from Han to save him.

As people try to figure out their views, here are five things about Abbasi to consider:

1. He is cashing in on the photo. On Tuesday, CNN contacted Abbasi for an interview, but found out he wasn’t going to talk for free. They reported: “Abbasi was adamant that he would talk to the network only for pay.” Perhaps Abbasi wised up after seeing Tweets and headlines that ran “The Post’s Subway Photographer Will Only Talk to You For Money,” because since then, he spoke to the New York Times and went on the Today Show Wednesday morning.

However, asked on the Today Show whether he had any misgivings about selling the photograph to the New York Post, Abbasi preferred the word “license.” He said, “Selling a photograph of this nature sounds morbid, I licensed these photographs.” He also revealed on the program that others have expressed interest in the photo, and he has sold it.

2. He took a really good photo. Who knows why Abbasi’s first instinct after seeing Han on the subway tracks was to run down the platform, taking pictures to alert the subway driver with flashes? (Although according to him it worked. He told The New York Times that the driver told him he slowed down after seeing the camera’s flashes.) Most people would instinctively wave their arms.

But Abbasi’s intuition was oddly different, and happened to yield a near perfect photo artistic-wise. iMediaEthics, a media ethics group, wrote that Abbasi’s photos seem to reveal that he wasn’t running down the platform at all, and his photos follow certain rules in photography, like the rule of thirds and lead lines. Still, a lot could be done to enhance a photo. As Abbasi said on the Today Show, he wished everyone could see the raw footage.

3. Suspect who pushed Han ran past Abbasi. Abbasi said that while he was running toward the subway driver, flashing his camera, the man who pushed Han came toward him, and so he backed up against a wall and waited for him to pass. Abbasi was still flashing his camera at this point, he said. This is the moment Abbasi could have captured the photo, intentionally or unintentionally, as he was steadied against the wall. This quick moment in time could have also further prevented Abbasi from reaching Han. After all, Abbasi said there were only about 22 seconds between the time he heard yelling and the time Han was hit by the train.

Naeem Davis, the suspect who shoved Han off the subway platform after a confrontation, was taken into custody Tuesday. On Wednesday he was arrested and charged with depraved indifference murder and attempted murder.

4. He made no editorial decision. If there’s one thing we can all agree on, it’s that the worst part of this whole story is the New York Post. They ultimately decided to run the photo, with the most disgusting headline imaginable: "DOOMED! Pushed on the subway track, this man is about to die." It seems impossible to come up with a more insensitive headline than that. But, this is perhaps why everyone’s more concerned with Abbasi than the New York Post — because we have more faith in a human being to do the right thing than a profit-driven tabloid owned by Rupert Murdoch.

Abbasi said that after police officers examined his photos for images of the perpetrator at the Post’s office, he left the camera’s memory card with the editors. On the Today Show, he said that using the photo on the cover “is not my decision, I was on assignment and all the images were provided. I don’t control which images are used and how it is used and how it is presented.” Although it may seem easier to just let editors decide what to do with one’s photos, we all have important viewpoints and are fit to give editorial advice. Abbasi could and should have been a part of the Post’s editorial process (however crazy it may be). He took these tragic photographs, and so he should want to have a say in if and how they are used.

5. He has continued to defend himself. Speaking to The New York Times yesterday, Abbasi said, “Every time I close my eyes, I see the image of death. … I don’t care about a photograph.” On the Today Show as well as in a piece published by the Post, Abbasi reiterated that he was too far from Han to help him, but he still tried his best to do so.

In the end, we will never know what happened, and so it doesn’t make much sense to focus on demonizing Abbasi alone. As Abbasi wrote in the Post, “I can’t let the armchair critics bother me. They were not there. They have no idea how very quickly it happened.”

But we can always learn something from tragedy. For one, hopefully advertisers and readers will one day realize the excessive damage done by the New York Post, and the tabloid will cease to exist.

This incident in particular also sparks a discussion on how to make subways safer. Some cities can learn good tips from others. For example, some metro stops in London have a glass structure between the platform and the tracks, with doors that open with the train’s doors.

It also encourages people who happen to capture tragedies via photos or videos to take part in the editorial process, making rules and setting limits on how their captures are used. Also, hopefully people never cash in on tragedies. But, if they think their photo or video is important for the public to see (which in a personal tragedy like Han's is doubtful), they can make sure it’s not used in a sensationalized way.

Most importantly, it reminds all media professionals that they must be human beings before journalists — something that, with the abundance of competitive, profit-driven media, they may often forget.

Watch Abbasi's full interview with the Today Show here:


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