Subway death

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?

20 Replies to “Subway death”

  1. The Updated subway incident in 2017 addresses one of the two main ethical issues in this post — that of whether a photographer or innocent bystander should help someone about to be hurt or killed. In the 2015 incident, it seemed like there was not enough time to help the guy who was pushed down onto the tracks. Also, that incident was the result of a crime, and people were afraid of being hurt by the same guy. So whether it was a photographer or an innocent bystander, the issues were different.

    In the 2017 situation, there was more time to react, and nobody felt threatened by a dangerous person nearby. It was easier to pull the man away from the approaching subway. Plus the subway driver apparently slowed down as well.

    1. As Mr. Levy posted, the fact that people reacted positively and saved the man’s life could still have been due to the publicity from the previous incident (and probably others since then). So perhaps the moral reasons and publicity from the other incident somehow figured into people’s reactions this time around.

      It’s also interesting to note that there were no pictures published from this, which wouldn’t have been as horrifying as the previous incident in 2015. So the issues involving photography (shooting when he could have been helping, or selling the photo to a newspaper afterward) don’t apply. This was simply a case of heroes impulsively acting with sympathy and bravery.

  2. People in the interview focused a lot on why the photographer didn’t help, but why didn’t they discuss equally why other people didn’t help? ust because he documented it, and then got paid, the photographer was villified. How many bad scenes have you witnessed and not helped because you were too much in a hurry, or not “in the right space” at the time?

    With today’s cameras, 49 images takes only a few seconds. That’s not a lot of time to decide to help, especially if the photographer was far away, or there were a lot of people in front of him. People today refuse to get involved for many reasons. Sometimes an individual tries to save a life and then gets sued, too. Lots of things to think about in an instant.

    I disagree with the photographer selling the image. He should have given it to the police first. If he was already working for the Post, that might be different. But even so, you can’t hide behind your job duties to avoid saving a life.

    1. J Robb — Not sure if you mean giving it to the police before then selling it? How would that avoid any moral opinion about selling a tragic image?

      As a side note, giving it to the police still may find it in the public view, as newspapers can publish images under FOA (Freedom of Information Act) rules. But they have to apply for that, and there is still some police discretion to comply.

    2. “you can’t hide behind your job duties to avoid saving a life.”

      I disagree. There are many reasons to “hide” behind your job duties…what if you are paid to shoot anything happening at a dangerous place — riots, war, crime, etc.? You can’t stop every few seconds and try to save everyone. In New York, crime happens all the time. A photographer is not Superman.

      There was a real danger that the man who pushed the victim could have fought and pushed or hurt others. I think that’s why no other people tried to help. We may not be perfectly moral all the time, but when people are afraid of being hurt or losing their lives in a situation, that is a valid reason in my mind to opt for the safe alternative.

  3. I don’t know how I would actually react if I saw something like this. Nothing could happen in so much of an instant as with a train and it’s bit difficult to judge whether or not someone had helped—if they could at all. 

    I can’t see too much public good in publishing this photo. I agree that if violent images are going to be published, it better be clear that they are trying to prevent a future tragedy. Unfortunately, we need to be reminded that this is a kind of reality that still happens. So maybe the New York Post was right: for me, I was made more aware of this possibility by the photograph.

  4. The photographer claimed he only had a few seconds to react to the situation. He said that tried o get the attention of the conductor by using the flash on his camera several times.  I don’t understand that. Why couldn’t he have yelled or run down to the man. He wasn’t that far away to at least try. So I don’t believe the photographer’s defense.   Instead he decided to take the route of self-preservation. He was a coward.

    That being said, though, I understand that if the murderer was still at the scene, most of us would be rightly worried that we could be pushed in too. Still, people should have tried as much as they could. Now the photographer has to live with that decision for the rest of his life.  I can think of doing more useful things to preserve life instead of capturing death.

  5. As a freelance photographer who has submitted many photos to magazines and newspapers, I have come across many situations like this one, though not as tragic. I have had to make the difficult decision to keep shooting even though I know someone is in pain, or will be hurt. But many times I have done so knowing that firefighters are there, or medical personnel are arriving who have the right training to handle the situation. My training is in shooting the pictures and documenting it for the paper and the public.

    The photographer should not feel bad about getting paid for shooting what he felt in his gut was newsworthy, that will affect others as deeply as it affected him. Unfortunately, it is ironic that there can be public good in documenting a tragedy, even if you can’t consider all the possible ramifications at that instant.

    Also, if the paper is going to benefit from the tragedy, the photographer deserves his fair share. Making a living “chasing ambulances” is not very noble, but it does have value. Tragic images have sometimes changed history, and how do you put a price on that?

    One thing that was not discussed was what if instead of a photograph, an artist’s rendering was made from witness descriptions? The artist would get paid, and does the fact that it is a rendering make it any less moral?  Perhaps (since the artist wasn’t there and in no way could have helped the man), but the visual sketch still shows something grusome and violent.

    1. shootfirst –Good observations based on your experience. In general, I agree with them. But you mention that you have been in similar situations though not as tragic. That is the crux of this issue. At some point, don’t you think a real life crisis crosses the line and you feel a tug in your gut to help? What if no fire fighters or medical personnel were around while you were shooting?

      1. If I felt like this photographer did that there was no way I could make it to him in time, I would continue photographing. It’s too easy to criticize the photographer for “not trying”, when we weren’t there. Too many assumptions.

        That kind of answers your other question if no medical personnel were around. It all depends on the specific conditions at the time, so to make generalizations about moral behavior that we should do ALL the time doesn’t seem fair.

        1. I asked myself if I would want to see this image on the front page of the paper if it was my dad, brother, or friend?  Would I want to see the last seconds of my loved one’s life on the front page of the paper with the word “DOOMED” continuously echoing through my mind? No, of course not.

          Unfortunately, the story still exists, the outcome will not change regardless of how you feel about what you witnessed, and the story is still going to be told, with or without your photographs.  You may feel the decision to run the image on the front page was a poor choice on the part of the media, but once you’ve sent it in, it’s too late. 

          1. In general, I would agree with what you said except that you really don’t know if the “outcome would be the same”. For instance, now the outcome includes not just the man’s death, but a lot of talk about the photographer and the newspaper’s decision. And maybe the photograph influenced the judge’s decision when he sentenced the murderer. I don’t think that would have happened with just a written article, or, as somebody else wrote, an artist rendering.

    2. An artist’s rendering seems like a nice compromise, but it still doesn’t carry the weight of reality that a photograph does. And it’s precisely that difference that makes a photograph so much more intensely compelling. We are witnessing the real-time last moments of a man’s life, and the anticipation of a painful ending. That sticks in our minds a lot more than art.

    3. shootfirst — would you take the photograph if you weren’t getting paid? When money makes all the difference, I think it changes all the moral questions. Photographing then becomes all for money, not for documenting something that might save more lives later. For that reason, I think we can make absolute moral generalizations. If there was any chance the photographer could have helped the man, he should have. The idea of letting a man die for a picture (paid or not) is disgusting.

  6. FairviewMonica, the victim’s face wasn’t visible in the pic. So to me, it wouldn’t be disrespectful. Also, it was the newspaper that published the victim’s name, not the photographer. So the newspaper is the one carrying the burden, and the one I have a problem with. They could have just concentrated on the problem — crime, subway safety or whatever — without revealing the victim’s personal information.

  7. I wouldn’t have taken a picture, much less 49, of an someone about to die. My instinct would have been to help first and try to get bystanders helping me. Even if the man had been killed despite my efforts, I would have tried.

  8. I wouldn’t have sent it to a newspaper, or sold it anywhere. Even if I got paid a lot of money. It seems disrespectful to the victim’s family.

  9. I wouldn’t continue to shoot photos of someone close to their death. I would try everything I could, to try and help him myself. I wouldn’t be able to live with myself if I didn’t try everything I could to help someone who was helpless. Even if I couldn’t save his life, I would feel OK knowing I tried my hardest.

    From the public good standpoint, there wouldn’t be any good reason to take this photo if it was never submitted for public view. Therefore, don’t take the photo to begin with. In the world we live in now, people only think about one thing –money. And behind money is a focus on themselves. I think most people in this situation would stand back out of fear or take the photograph instead of helping the man.

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