The Ethics of Photographing Tragedy

Friday, December 07, 2012


This week a man was shoved off a New York subway platform and killed by an oncoming train. A freelance photographer on assignment for the New York Post happened to be on the platform, camera in hand. He shot the scene, and the Post printed a photo of the man’s last moment before being struck by a train on the front page. Brooke talks to New York Times media columnist David Carr about the resulting controversy around the photo.


David Carr

Hosted by:

Brooke Gladstone

Comments [11]

Francisco from Newcastle upon Tyne, UK


You might be right in your assertion. After all, newspapers could argue that the families of those immediate affected by the tragedy are more likely to be subscribers if they are American. On the other hand, newspapers could argue that those deaths (the ones they highlighted before) were the *direct* results of a Government's policy (i.e. it's soldiers, security forces, distribution of food) that caused their deaths whereas this was a victim of crime (where Government policy only has an indirect effect).

Either way your question should make news organisations stop and think.

Dec. 15 2012 02:25 AM
Janet Huston from Tustin Ranch, CA

At the end of the interview there was discussion about what, if anything, can be learned from viewing the photograph of this tragic event. Brooke concluded perhaps the lesson is that one should not stand so close to the edge of the platform. Well, that's one option but, for two reasons, I was quite disappointed that the previously thought-provoking conversation ended on such a shallow, in my opinion, note. My first concern is that it seemed to blame the victim - the poor man was pushed off the platform. He didn't stumble drunkenly over the edge, he wasn't acting carelessly, he was the subject of an irrational and completely unexpected act of violence. My second concern follows in that this was another missed opportunity to address how the media often trivializes, at best, or demonizes, at worst, the mentally ill.

I'm a huge fan of this show and of David Carr, so my expectations were quite high. I believe In this instant they missed the mark and lost an incredible opportunity for examination of media behavior toward an issue which is cruelly and tragically ever more present in our news cycle - the consequences of our public policies addressing, or not, mental illness. I thought the dismissal of the true issues at hand was even more interesting when later in the show there was another discussion about our fascination with impending doom and how media of all types play to that supposedly universal appeal. Seems it was another lost opportunity.

My two cents.

Dec. 11 2012 02:27 PM

Today 12/11/12 The AP is running NYPD released security camera image of the Columbus Circle shooting victim about to be shot. He too is "About to Die," why isn't there similar outrage?

Dec. 11 2012 01:19 PM
Linda Tobias

My comment is not as much about weather or not it is ethical to take and print a photo of a man just before his death, as he is dying or just after a death as it is about the outrage about this.
I am old enough to remember a 1968 photo of a Vietnamese man being shot in the head that was widely circulated in the media for all to see. Several years ago there was a video on the NYT web site of a burka clad woman being shot to death. I went to the Pulitzer Prize Photos site and was stunned to see how many of these photos showed people in the processes of being killed or having just died and, even, children starving to death. Where is the outrage?
Perhaps the conversation should be: When is it OK to photograph pain, suffering and death. When is it worthy of a Prize to photograph pain, suffering and death? When is it an outrage to photograph the same? And to what extent do we hold the value of a life in the United States to a different standard than we hold the lives of people in different countries?

Dec. 10 2012 10:53 AM

Outrage? Well for one thing it is no mystery to many that the mantra of many journalist is to not become part of the story. Regardless of the details of this individual situation it did occur to me the maybe this was one of those situations: the photographer/journalist decided to be a journalist and not a human being. That assessment, fair or not, may be why there is so much outrage.

Dec. 10 2012 08:10 AM
Francisco from Newcastle upon Tyne, UK

My first response on hearing the news about what had happened was:

"What do you expect from a Murdoch publication?"

The discussion about what the New York Times did showed that it did not happen in isolation of culture. That said, the experience that Britain has had of the Murdoch press is that they will push at boundaries and they will cheapen public debate and, over time, they lower the standard of news organisations.

To follow up on what David said, it need not be as expensive as the Japanese system. The Tyne and Wear Metro has a similar button on every platform (some have two). Putting it on every column may cost too much but putting one or two on a platform should be able to save some lives. Another thing that the Tyne and Wear Metro has is an emergency contact button on every platform so that you can raise the control centre in an emergency.

Dec. 09 2012 02:52 PM
Julio Tenada from LES

David at Buffalo: That would be great, but the MTA is still operating with a system that is at least 50 years out-of-date. It would make too much sense. Our leaders have much more important priorities. I bet they they eat a lot more salt in Tokyo than we do here in New York. And the 7-11s in Osaka still serve 48oz. Big Gulps.

I'm sure idiots were "tweeting" about the horror while it was happening.

So "no one knows how they would have reacted". Okay, I guess that absolves us all. Next story. Next horror.
What a smug effer David Carr is. So I guess he'd be alright with some bloodsucker taking and publishing photos of his loved ones? Well, at least after they were dead, right? And can he at least take the ham sandwich out of his mouth before he garbles into a microphone!

Dec. 09 2012 01:11 PM
David at Buffalo

In Japan, there's a emergency button on every column on the platforms, it's open to everyone to press and cut off the whole line coming trains in case any emergency happened on the rail or platform.

Dec. 09 2012 11:44 AM
Chris from Survivor

The reason many species have morbid curiosity is that morbid curiosity has survival value. By studying and contemplating others' deaths, we may learn to avoid that particular way to die.
We can learn much from the photo. I heard the victim's body was wedged between the car and the platform. Observe how the curved floor of the car would pinch his body against the platform.
He'd have been better off to be struck by the front surface of the train, suffering only impact, not the shearing and crushing between two massive objects, which would mangle a body even at low speeds.
He could have lain under the center of the train, between the rails.
He could have leaped between the columns to the next track.
There might have been room for him below the platform in some stations.
Some of these escapes can be gleaned from the photo.
Occasionally, I have been in some dangerous circumstance, similar to one that I had read about another person suffering. My somewhat prepared reaction likely saved me from the victim's fate.
So I have no sympathy for the pious moralizing of those who would stifle morbid curiosity, or suppress tragic information, including photos and videos. Suppressing fatal stories can kill people.

Dec. 09 2012 10:12 AM

Wow, you went ahead and put the photo on the web, with no warning. I HAD been avoiding it, but now you've sprung it on me and I'll never get it out of my head. What a bonehead move, particularly for people who claim to be media watchers.

Dec. 09 2012 03:50 AM
Mariam Touba from New York City

I don’t know if you mentioned that, on the inside pages, the Post showed an earlier photo of the victim, Ki Suk Han, still sitting stunned on the tracks. According to their account it took Han a while to take stock, get up, and try to move away. In other words, there was a little more time to intervene than we might think. While it was hard for anyone on the platform to play the hero, we might need to non-judgmentally recognize that photojournalists are a bit of a different breed: people whose first instinct is to snap pictures rather than get involved. Think Robert Capa, the Spanish Civil War, and all that.

Dec. 08 2012 09:33 AM

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