In 2012, a photographer happened to be in a New York subway when he saw a man pushed onto the subway tracks seconds before the subway arrived. Knowing that there was no way he could save the man, the photographer took photographs of the incident and sold them to the NY Post, who promptly posted it front page. Crowds of people were there, and the man who pushed him was later caught and convicted of manslaughter.
The public was outraged that the photographer took the photo (without helping the man) and that the Post chose to print it front page, in the way that they did. Weeks ensued where the Post and many other news outlets (including NPR, who interviewed photographers, editors, Getty Images, etc. about this incident — click here for the transcript, and here for the radio spot) discussed the incident.
There are 2 things that bothered me most about this incident:
1) The picture is a moment in time, a grisly moment, mostly based on anticipation. But the outrage that ensued was based on assumptions about the photographer being unwilling to help, assumptions that he only cared about making money off of someone else’s tragedy, and assumptions that the NY Post was doing the same.
2) Denials were rampant, most notably that the public had nothing to do with this — i.e. the public in the subway who didn’t help the man, and the public who buys the NY Post and supports its style of journalism. Like National Enquirer — “nobody believes it and nobody buys it”…
The photographer said that he was too far away to help, using a zoom lens, and there were crowds of people in front him. There were only a few seconds before impact. The Post has said that this is a news photo that the public deserves to see, and perhaps, like many historically newsworthy images, it may spur a change for the good in subway security, or some other good that will save lives in the future.
What do you think?
Does a photographer have a duty to do all that he/she can to save a life before clicking the shutter? If there was no way the photographer could help, does getting paid for a photo debase the morality of his actions?
Does a news magazine have the right (moral or legal) to publish whatever they want, including someone’s final moments? Does it matter if the man’s face can’t be seen (out of respect for family)?
Referring to the famous trolley car example used in countless ethical discussions of common good — would you push one man in front of a runaway trolley car if it was the only way to save the lives of the doomed 20 people inside the trolley? Is it up to the photographer and/or the publisher to determine whether a photo’s value to the public overrides considerations of the graphic nature of the photo,? Or of considerations of the subject or his family’s feelings (though I’m not sure if this man’s family objected)?
UPDATE: June 2017
For all of you who commented on the above scenario that you would run down and try to help the man who was pushed onto the tacks, even if it seemed helpless, here is a amazingly similar situation that happened this month.
A man and his wife were waiting for the 8th Ave subway in NY, when they witnessed ” a late-middle-aged man who had been sitting on the bench got up and moved toward the edge of the platform — a normal action. But he then sat down on the platform with his legs dangling over the edge as the train rushed toward us.
Thinking that the train would not be able to stop in time, almost everyone froze, including me. I even turned away momentarily, afraid of witnessing the carnage. But as the motorman slowed the train a young woman ran over to the man and started to drag him back onto the platform. Her call for help got me moving and I helped her with my left arm, since I have barely started physical therapy with my right arm following shoulder surgery last month. Another man, more able-bodied, joined in as others called for assistance. The train then pulled all the way in and we got in as a transit policeman looked after the man on the platform.
I am sobered by the fact that it took the quick action and call of the young woman to get me and others to act. If I see anything like this again, I hope I can remember and emulate her. In these times, everyone must be prepared to act, whether the incident is one of self-endangerment or harassment.”
So the new question is: was this man’s life saved possibly because 1) New York subways put in safety factors after the previous incident discussed above that allowed them to slow trains down faster? or 2) enough people remembered the discussion and news story from before to overcome their paralysis of fear?
Is there any possibility that this man’s life was saved precisely, or in part, because of the graphic photo printed on page 1 of the NY Post 5 years earlier?