Man Defends Taking Subway Death Photo
By Michael Pearson, CNN
(CNN) — The photographer who took the picture of a man about to be fatally struck by a New York subway car said Thursday that he did so in a desperate attempt to alert the driver of the train to stop.
“From where I was, I could have screamed my lungs out; probably nobody would have heard it,” R. Umar Abbasi told CNN’s Anderson Cooper about the incident Monday in which 58-year-old Ki-Suck Han had been shoved onto the tracks in a Times Square station as a train approached.
“The only way, I thought at that moment, was to start clicking away, releasing the shutter that will fire the flash, and make him aware that this is an unusual occurrence — why is there a burst of light hitting him — and catch Mr. Han on the track.”
Abbasi, who asked that CNN note that he was not paid for the interview (CNN does not pay for any interviews), estimated that he had been 400 feet from Han when he saw in his peripheral vision a body being flung onto the tracks. “There was a collective gasp that went into the air that really got my attention,” he said.
“People started waving their hands and screaming because, a few moments earlier, they had made an announcement that the train will be approaching the station and I could see the distant lights of the approaching train.”
Abbasi said he started running toward Han but stood aside and braced himself against the wall when he realized that the suspect was approaching him. “He seemed agitated, and as he was approaching, he was cursing and using profanities.”
Abbasi said the only thing he might have done differently would have been to urge Han to try to outrun the train.
“I would have said, ‘Mr. Han, run the other direction,'” he said. “There were only about three cars in the station and all he had to do was outrun three cars and he would have lived.” Abbasi said he would have saved Han had he been able to do so. “It wasn’t important to get the photograph; the photograph came out as a result of my effort — or what I could think at that moment to do.”
Though he said he heard others urging Han to get up, “I don’t know why anyone did not reach out.”
Abbasi said Han’s end came quickly. “I could hear the sounds,” he said. “I do not want to be too graphic about it for respect for the family, but I could hear all the sounds. Mr. Han did not scream or anything, this is how fast it transpired.”
The whole experience, he said, has been traumatic for him. “If I have to narrate the whole thing, it’s like reliving it. I did not sleep for close to 36, 40 hours.”
Even three days later, he said, the photograph is chilling to him. “It’s like I am looking at his end. And the oncoming train — the metaphor for it — death staring him down.”
Abbasi dismissed those who say he should have helped as “armchair critics.”
Naeem Davis, 30, a homeless man, was arraigned late Wednesday in Han’s death and charged with second-degree murder. His next scheduled court appearance is Tuesday.
Abbasi said he didn’t look at the pictures before returning to the office and turning his camera’s memory card over to police. The Post published them the next day.
“Doomed” the headline screamed. “Pushed on the subway track, this man is about to die.”
Readers and media critics quickly jumped on the newspaper’s decision to use the image. On Twitter, users posted that it was cruel and “snuff porn.”
Lauren Ashburn, a media critic and editor in chief of the website Dailydownload.com, called it “profit-motive journalism at its worst.”
“It’s insensitive, it’s inappropriate, it’s sickening rubbernecking,” she said Wednesday.
But Howard Kurtz, host of CNN’s “Reliable Sources” and the Washington bureau chief for The Daily Beast and Newsweek, said he sees an argument for publishing the image.
“Because this is every New Yorker’s nightmare,” he said.
“I do still wonder why the photographer’s first instinct was to take pictures,” he said. “I do wonder that.”
Jeff Sonderman, a fellow at the journalism think tank Poynter Institute, wrote on the organization’s website that it appeared journalists were largely critical of the decision.
“Even if you accept that that photographer and other bystanders did everything they could to try to save the man, it’s a separate question of what the Post should have done with that photo,” he wrote. “All journalists we’ve seen talking about it online concluded the Post was wrong to use the photo, especially on its front page.”
Kenny Irby, a senior faculty member for visual journalism and diversity programs at Poynter, said Tuesday that what the paper did wasn’t necessarily wrong.
“It was not illegal or unethical given that ethical guidelines and recommendations are not absolute,” he said in an e-mail. But he also said the Post should have used another image.
“This moment was such for me — it was too private in my view,” he wrote. “I am all for maximizing truth telling, while minimizing harm, which can be done by fully vetting the alternatives available and publishing with a sense of compassion and respect.”
The Post is no stranger to walking up to the lines of journalistic ethics — and sometimes crossing them — with its pithy, often lurid, coverage of crime and other news in the Big Apple.
“HEADLESS BODY IN TOPLESS BAR,” the newspaper once famously shouted from its cover.
Nor is the Post shot the first news photo to generate ethics concerns.
An Agence France-Presse photo that won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize generated controversy for its depiction of a girl in Afghanistan crying amid a number of bloody bodies.
Also this year, the New York Times published a graphic image showing blood streaming from the body of a victim after a fatal August shooting at the Empire State Building.
At the time, Poynter quoted a Times spokeswoman as saying the image was “a newsworthy photograph that shows the result and impact of a public act of violence.”
— CNN’s Marina Carver, Pauline Kim, Yon Pomrenze and Mary Snow contributed to this report.