On Tuesday, the New York Post published a disturbing cover showing a subway commuter, 58-year-old Ki Suk Han, stuck helplessly on the tracks, staring at a speeding train about to crush him. "DOOMED," blared the headline. Critics seized on the insensitive cover, condemning both the newspaper's editorial judgment and the moral compass of photographer R. Umar Abbasi, who just happened to be on the subway platform, and failed to save the man. Abbasi has now responded to his critics with a story in this morning's edition of the Post:
I saw a body flying through the air and onto the track. I just started running. I had my camera up — it wasn't even set to the right setting — and i just kept shooting and flashing, hoping the train driver would see something and be able to stop.
Abbasi insists he was too far away to help, and feared that the allegedly deranged man suspected of pushing Ki Suk Han onto the tracks — 30-year-old Naeem Davis, a homeless man — might have thrown him onto the tracks as well. "When it was all over, I didn't look at the pictures," says Abbasi. "I didn't even know at all that I had captured the images in such detail. I didn't look at them." He continues: "But I can't let the armchair critics bother me. They were not there. They have no idea how very quickly it happened."
On Today, Abbasi offered Han's loved ones his sympathies. "My condolences to the family," Abbasi told Today. "If I could have, I would have pulled Mr. Han out. I didn't care about the photographs."
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So what are we to believe? "I don't know the photographer and I wasn't there, so I'm willing to take his word that he was using the camera flash to try and warn the train's driver," Mark E. Johnson, a Pulitzer-winning photographer and lecturer at the University of Georgia, tells Gawker. "The issue is really whether the images should have been run." Abbasi argues "that he flashed the camera at the train, but in the picture there is nobody near the man," Frank Ritchin, a professor of photography at NYU, tells the Daily Beast. That suggests that Abbasi wasn't in danger from this homeless man — who is nowhere to be seen — and "could have just walked up and helped" Han.
Clearly, "the image is a kind of crucible of self-analysis," says David Carr at the New York Times:
Never mind what the photographer did, what would we do? In that sudden moment, our base impulses emerge. Photographers shoot, heroes declare, and most of us cower. We are not soldiers, expected to engage in selfless acts that trump survival instincts. We are civilians and if called to duty, who among us will accept? ...
Soon enough, new boundaries will be tested. In an era when most people have a camera in their hand or pocket, mass shootings will be memorialized on cellphone videos and ubiquitous security cameras will dish up fresh horrors. I’d like to think that the people’s right to know will be leavened by the people’s right to live in a world where mayhem is not a commodity.