Analysis by ABC News’ Josh Haskell:
New York Post freelance photographer R. Umar Abbasi had little time to weigh the ethics of photographing an oncoming train as it bore down on a man hanging from the edge of a New York City subway platform this week.
“I had my camera up – it wasn’t event set to the right settings – and I just kept shooting and flashing,” Abbasi told the paper in an interview. “Hoping the train driver would see something and be able to stop.”
“It all went so quickly,” added Abbasi, who just happened to be in that particular station.” From the time I heard the shouting until the time the train hit the man was about 22 seconds.”
In the process, Abbasi set off a recurring debate that has raged since his image of 58-year-old Ki-Suck Han – who died from his injuries – hit the cover of Tuesday’s Post: When does a journalist ditch his or her press credentials to become a part of the story?
Abbasi’s decision to take the photo instead of coming to Han’s aid has been roundly criticized, while others reserve their scorn for the New York Post for publishing the images in the first place.
Abbasi says he didn’t even look at the pictures after the incident and dropped the memory card at the newspaper Monday evening, leaving the photos in the hands of the editors.
Post editors made their ethical judgments from the comfort of a newsroom, but Abbasi’s split-second decision is the one with which journalists in the trenches seem to identify most.
Take Stanley Forman’s 1975 Pulitzer Prize-winning photo of a woman and her 2-year-old niece falling to the ground during a fire rescue that went horribly wrong. The fire escape on their Boston Apartment building collapsed, killing the woman; the child miraculously survived.
The picture was published in the Boston Herald American and garnered similar reaction to Abbasi’s New York Post photo.
“I’m sure people thought, why didn’t I catch them,” said Forman, now a cameraman for Boston ABC affiliate WCVB-TV. “But, there was nothing I could have done. I wasn’t close enough to their fall and even the professionals couldn’t save them.”
Forman says he accepts Abbasi’s explanation about trying to alert the subway driver, but believes that stirring up controversy isn’t always a bad thing.
The 1975 photo got so much attention and had such an effect on the public that it prompted Boston officials to rewrite its laws regarding fire escape safety.
“If it ever came between saving a person and taking a picture,” Forman told ABC News. “I would of course save the person. It’s just not always that simple.”
Professor Alisa Solomon, who teaches ethics at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism in New York City, agrees with Forman that photographers in a position to help, would help.
“I don’t think the New York Post photographer is uniquely culpable,” Solomon said. “There were a lot of other people there and he doesn’t bare more responsibility than anyone else.”
But Solomon stressed that it’s not a photographer’s place to publish an image. The publications decide.
“The published photo creates horror and empathy for the victim and his loved ones,” Solomon said. “So there’s a tendency to want to put these feelings somewhere and the photographer is a very handy target.”
From a publishing perspective, Solomon believes the key question is whether the image advances the story. In the case of Abbasi’s photo, she doesn’t believe it did.
Another example of a controversial photo that still has people talking, 40 years later, is the “Napalm Girl,” taken in 1972 by AP photographer Nick Ut during the Vietnam War.
Ut’s photo was of 9-year-old Kim Phuc, running naked after her clothes were burned off from a napalm bomb dropped on her South Vietnamese village. At the time, the highly provocative photo disturbed many, particularly because of the nudity of the girl.
But journalists like Columbia’s Solomon say it was responsible for advancing the story of the war stateside, showing Americans the dangers of napalm.
Ut famously took Kim Phuc to the hospital for treatment after taking her picture. Years later, Phuc went on to establish her own foundation providing medical and psychological assistance to child victims of war.
There’s no way to predict what good, if any, will come out of the New York Post’s photo taken in the subway. But it has certainly rekindled the debate about how far journalists and their publications should go for that priceless image.