< The Ethics of Photographing Tragedy


Friday, December 07, 2012

BOB GARFIELD:  From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media. I’m Bob Garfield.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:  And I’m Brooke Gladstone. On Monday a man was shoved off a New York subway platform and about a half a minute later killed by an oncoming train. A freelance photographer named R. Umar Abassi happened to be on the platform, camera in hand. He shot the scene, and the New York Post printed that photo of a man's last moment on the front page. The Post is infamous even among tabloids for its love of the lurid, but this photo ignited a national debate. Abassi insists that he wasn’t even trying to take a photo, he was using his camera's flash to alert the conductor that there was a man on the tracks.

R. UMAR ABASSI:  Well, it took me a second to figure out what is happening, and the only thing I could think of at that time was to alert the driver with my camera flash, and I started running.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:  Abassi has generated nearly as much outrage as the man who actually shoved the victim in front of the train. What is it about this photo? Why has our response as a nation been so visceral? The New York Times’ David Carr has some potential answers. David, welcome to the show.

DAVID CARR:  Oh, a pleasure to be with you, as always.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:  So you wrote that anyone who views this photo is implicated by it. How’s that?

DAVID CARR:  Well, I felt a little dirty when I looked at it, and I’d sort of shot the next frame in my mind, which was full of gore and mayhem, and I thought, I don’t feel too good about staring at this, ‘cause it feels like this guy’s getting run over twice and I’m on the train.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:  This seems to matter to people outside of New York City, in fact, outside of cities, in general.

DAVID CARR:  There may be something specific about this is New York, this is a subway but what was underway was a fundamentally human drama, a person in peril. And it’s a reminder, I think, to all of us, that sometimes when danger comes near we are all very much alone. That's the power of the photograph, is this guy’s in the busiest city in the world, on one of the most massive subway systems there is, and yet, he is all by himself.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:  Are people mad that this was published? Are they mad because the photographer didn't intervene? If he’d shot it and also tried to save the guy, would there be this kind of uproar?

DAVID CARR:  No, and there’s – I, I was not there and I don't want to assume that I would have done any better than this person. I've been in some perilous physical circumstances, and I've been both a hero and a coward. You know, the first thing he sort of said about it is it happened so fast. And it did. It seemed slow motion, but who really knows how close he was, who really knows who else was standing there? People presume that they would have done better. I think part of what set it off is this embodies a lot of what people think about the media, which is we are bystanders. We’re  people who are moral and ethical eunuchs who don't participate, and when danger drives near we perhaps root for its culmination. You know, the public would want us to imitate human beings, at least for short spurts, when terrible things happen. We are and we aren’t. There’s a famous photo of a child being set upon by a large bird in Africa, who was near death, and the guy who took that picture won a Pulitzer Prize but he eventually took his own life.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:  He says that his intention wasn't to take the photo, so much as signal the conductor. But you think this whole line of inquiry is kind of beside the point.

DAVID CARR:  I do because that all happened very quickly. The decision to frame it in salacious ways, with language that makes it clear that the person is about to die, that didn’t happen very fast. That happened over the course of a news cycle, and I think the editors of the New York Post made a decision to frame this event that maximized not only its dramatic effect but its commercial impact.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:  Back in August, the New York Times was criticized for running a graphic photo on the website’s front page of the victim of a shooting at the Empire State Building. Was that okay?

DAVID CARR:  At the time, I was on Twitter saying that it was, that you couldn't really recognize the victim and, as someone who cares a lot about the issue of gun violence and things, said it’s often depicted in ways that are unrealistic in popular culture. I thought there was value in suggesting that sometimes gun violence ends in ways that are, you know, hard to look at but important to know. His family was actually livid about the photo and felt that we were doing precisely the same thing that the Post did, which was taking a personal tragedy and deploying it to commercial ends.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:  Okay, and you?

DAVID CARR:  I don’t think so. The guy was dead. It was over. He was not about to be shot. I thought it was worth publishing, probably not on the front page of the paper, and we didn’t. But yeah, as one of the images that appeared on our website, yeah, I think it was okay.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:  Would it have been okay if the Post had put the picture of the man on the subway tracks on its website?
DAVID CARR:  I suppose – wow [PAUSE], I’m not sure. I think it would have been better. What has happened is it’s been memorialized and the language is “Doomed.” This man is about to die. That seems salacious. That seems over the top.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:  I am no fan of the Post, but I have been impressed by what the rest of the media have done with the ensuing coverage. And if that picture of the man at the Empire State Building serves a value in illustrating gun violence, why wouldn't this one serve an equal value telling you to stay away from the edge of the platform?

DAVID CARR:  I'm on the verge of being convinced by you, which was not my intention when I submitted to your interview wiles, Brooke.


DAVID CARR:  You – you actually may be right. You’ve made me think. That’s horrible.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:  [LAUGHS]  I am humbled, David. Thank you very much.

DAVID CARR:  Yeah, it’s a pleasure to speak with you, as always.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:  David Carr is a media columnist and a culture reporter at the New York Times.


David Carr

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