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Documenting Tragedy: The Ethics Of Photojournalism


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Ari Shapiro, in Washington, sitting in for Neal Conan. Last night, a man was arraigned and charged with second-degree murder for allegedly pushing someone into the path of an oncoming New York subway train. This hour we'll talk about the photograph that made Ki-Suck Han's death a national topic of debate.

The New York Post published this chilling image on its cover. The photo shows a man in the path of an oncoming train with the headline: "Doomed: Pushed on the Subway Track, This Man is About to Die." The entire horrifying episode has sparked a conversation about how we capture and share images of tragedy.

Photojournalists and editors, we want to hear from you this hour. Tell us about a time you had to make a tough call, whether to share a troubling image. Our phone number is 1-800-989-8255. You can email us at talk@npr.org, and you can also join the conversation at our website. Go to npr.org, and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in this program, Rhode Island Senator Sheldon Whitehouse on the fiscal cliff. But first the photo everyone's talking about, and we begin with NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik. He's following this story, and joins us from the New York bureau. Hi, David.


SHAPIRO: Before we get to the ethics of what happened, describe what we know. What are the facts of this story?

FOLKENFLIK: Well the facts are fairly straightforward. There was an altercation, you know, at a subway stop here in Midtown Manhattan. Folks were waiting for the Q Line, saw an altercation between the gentleman you mentioned, Ki-Suck Han, he's 61 years old, and a person later identified by police as Naeem Davis, a 30-year-old man. Some eyewitnesses later described Mr. Han to news outlets as having been a little bit aggressive and contentious.

The person identified by police as Davis pushed the man, and he tumbled into, you know, the tracks themselves. The Q Train was coming. He, as the photograph showed that you described, is literally trying to get himself back up onto the platform and cannot do it. And the train strikes and kills him.

Onlookers, you know, pull him back up afterward. A lot of questions raised as the photograph itself raised about the Post, questions were later raised both about onlookers, could they have done more and also whether the photographer himself should have done more rather than trying to take that picture.

SHAPIRO: Most people first heard about this story when they saw the cover of the New York Post, and there was an immediate outcry, as we said, against the photographer. What have we heard from him, and what has he said about what happened in those moments?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, his name is Umar Abbasi. He's been a photographer I believe on contract with the New York Post. Tabloids tend to have a lot of people on contract and freelancers rather than simply having a stable only because photographs are so important to the visual kind of storytelling in tabloid gossip, celebrity, crime, violence that so much is a staple of what they offer.

He says look, headline in front of me, he writes a little essay in the Post yesterday that says anguished photog, critics are unfair to condemn me. What he said after being criticized, ultimately by people as prominent as Al Roker of "The Today Show," CNN's Anderson Cooper, they said put down the camera, fellow, and go help this guy.

He said I was far too far away to help, myself. He said he took pictures in order to set off the flash to warn and alert the person driving the train to try to get them to put on the emergency brake. He did take 49 pictures, and people took that as evidence somehow that he had a lot of time to spare.

Actually, if you think about the way modern digital cameras work, you know, the camera, if you just hold it down, it's going to take shot after shot after shot after shot. He says I couldn't do anything, I responded as a photographer. There were people far closer than me. None of us reacted in there.

A lot of them, they said, were afraid of the way in which the gentleman who had pushed the victim down onto the tracks, was behaving up there.

SHAPIRO: I understand the photographer has also said he was paid for the photograph by the Post, as photographers are when their images are published. The Post has taken some heat for publishing the photo with this headline, doomed. Tell us about how they've reacted.

FOLKENFLIK: The Post has reacted by publishing day after day after day of front-page stories on this. You know, they are in a sense milking this horrific story, as tabloids are wont to do. It's a grisly, terrible story. The original photograph, if you see it, and we're one of the few news outlets that can talk about it without reproducing it as we're doing so, although obviously on our website we have to make choices ourselves, but the photograph in a sense is - evokes the notion of a snuff film.

I mean, you're seeing a guy moments before he's about to actually be killed, and that's a very rare image to capture. It's visceral and haunting, even though you're not seeing the actual violence occur quite yet. So the Post is taking heat, and the Post is liking the attention.

I mean, they're letting the photographer speak for them, in a sense, and they're letting their front page speak for them by reproducing the story in subsequent days.

SHAPIRO: Are there any hard and fast rules about this kind of situation for photojournalists, for newspapers that may publish those images?

FOLKENFLIK: There aren't hard and fast rules. In talking to journalists and news editors, people who are thinking about this issue and issues like this one, you know, they're trying to say what's the public good weighing what's the private pain that's incurred and also what's the effect on people who are going to see this.

After all, if you're putting this on the front page of the New York Post, you're ensuring that people and schoolchildren of, you know, all the neighborhoods in New York are going to see this on the newsstand. After all, that's how the Post is largely distributed. So you've got to think: Is this going to be too upsetting for the public to handle? Is this going to be too upsetting for the family, which has said publicly now that it is absolutely ravaged and distraught by this image?

Or is there a public good being served? I think it's - there's a public good being served in the notion that you are evoking the horror of this moment, you are making clear that it's - you're not sanitizing what violence is person-on-person. On the other hand, you know, you don't have to see all the grisliness of a murder victim to know that a murder is terrible and horrible.

And, you know, our standards in this country, while not hard and fast, as you say, are a lot less likely to be bloody than if you were to look at newspapers in particularly Latin America or other parts of the world.

SHAPIRO: We're going to hear from experts this hour who hold both views, that it should and that it should not have been published. But David, I want to ask you: Is there any difference when you're talking about what you described as tabloid journalism, something like the New York Post in contrast to the Wall Street Journal or the Financial Times?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, I don't think you'd find too many people at the Wall Street Journal or the Financial Times finding a specific instance of violence to be as interesting, unless it's evoking a greater truth. You know, you could see something that showed the horrors of genocide in the Balkans or Rwanda. Or you could show a dead body or some sort of atrocity being committed as a way of bringing attention of the world on something that they needed to bear witness to.

You know, ordinary crime is not something that you see - the prestige - broadsheet newspapers giving that kind of coverage to, nor typically the more prestigious, you know, broadcast news outlets. A tabloid, you know, local news and violence and crime is the texture or the warp and woof of what it does on a daily basis.

And, you know, for them, the controversy is not something to be avoided but courted. You know, I don't see this as being something where it's a gaffe on their part. I think they thought we have something gripping and visceral that everyone will be talking about it, and we don't care if it's in praise or condemnation, they're all going to want to look at the front page of this paper.

SHAPIRO: That's David Folkenflik, NPR media correspondent, following this story from our bureau in New York. Thanks, David.


SHAPIRO: We're going to a caller now. This is John(ph) in Orlando, Florida. Hi John.


SHAPIRO: Tell us about your experience.

JOHN: Well, I was a journalist for the Army, and I was in Afghanistan in 2005, and there was a huge battle, and someone essentially fell dead at my feet. And I took a picture because it was literally at my feet. And that picture never made it out. I think every 10 years - if it had gone out, it would have been something that people would have been talking to.

The feet, the boots of a soldier with a dead person between them. Every many years, something happens, this discussion blows up, and we - it's over and over again. And I wouldn't say that the paper is doing a great job because they're reporting this image, but it is something that people have to see because it's what brings up the discussion of humanity that we have.

And taking the photo is not - whether this person should have tried to save that person or not, you know, I think it's a no-brainer. If you can, you try to save someone. But at the same time, I think that's a completely different issue from taking the photo. The photo has to be taken.

SHAPIRO: You know, John, just from the tone of your voice, it sounds as though the memory of this still has an emotional impact on you. What effect did taking this photo have on you as a journalist?

JOHN: Well, the photo is impressed in my mind forever, along with many, you know, thousands of photos, of the tens of thousands of photos that I took. The entire experiences will never go away. So I mean, I feel sorry for the guy who took the picture because literally that image is going to be stained on his corneas forever.

SHAPIRO: John, thanks for your call and for your service.

JOHN: Thanks.

SHAPIRO: So to help us explore some of the ethical questions surrounding this situation, we've asked Kelly McBride to join us from the Poynter Institute for Journalism in St. Petersburg, Florida. She's senior faculty in ethics, reporting and writing. Welcome back to TALK OF THE NATION, Kelly.


SHAPIRO: So you've been following this story in New York with the New York Post. You just heard this caller, John, who had this experience photographing a tragic, traumatic moment in a war zone. What are the ethics surrounding these situations for photojournalists?

MCBRIDE: Well in general, you have the decision of the photojournalist to take the photo. And John is right: If you have an opportunity to save somebody's life, you should, and I haven't heard anyone argue otherwise. And I'm not going to judge this photographer harshly because I don't know how far he was, and he says he was trying to save the guy's life. So I'm not going to judge him.

But the decision to publish a disturbing photo like that is a more complicated decision. And as a publisher, you're asking questions about the journalistic purpose. When you have an image from a war zone, a famous image that we might compare to this image of this man about to die would be the girl stripping off her clothes after she has been covered in napalm in Vietnam, an image like that causes a lot of harm.

It's an invasion of privacy to the people in the photo, and it's hurtful, harmful to the people who view the photo. But it has a broader journalistic purpose. It's meant to reveal something to the audience so that the audience can uphold their Democratic duties.

I'm not sure that this photo in the subway has any broader journalistic purpose. I've heard some vague descriptions of, you know, being a metaphor for the impending death that we all face, but there's no government to hold accountable. There's no systemic corruption. There's no malfeasance that caused this to happen. So there's nothing for us to do as audience members except look at the photo and be shocked.

And for that reason, I think this is much more prurient and voyeuristic than it is journalistic.

SHAPIRO: Hold on a moment, Kelly. We want you to stay with us. We're going to take a short break and come back with an opposing viewpoint. We're talking with Kelly McBride of the Poynter Institute, and after a short break, we'll hear from Stephen Mays. He has a different take on the New York Post's decision to run this photo.

Photojournalists and editors, we want to hear from you, as well. Tell us about a time you had to make a tough call about a troubling image. The number is 1-800-989-8255. Or you can email us, talk@npr.org. I'm Ari Shapiro, and this is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.


SHAPIRO: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Ari Shapiro in Washington. Today we're talking about photojournalism and ethics, the tough calls the photographers and editors have to make about whether to run disturbing images. Of course we're talking about it because of the image that ran on the cover of the New York Post this week: a man on subway tracks moments before an oncoming train ended his life.

Ever since the image hit newsstands and the Web, a debate has raged about whether it should have run. We tried to contact the photo editor at the New York Post, who has not responded to our inquiry. So photojournalists and editors, we want to hear from you. Tell us about a time you've had to make a tough call about whether to run a photo.

Give us a call at 1-800-989-8255. Or email us at talk@npr.org. Kelly McBride of the Poynter Institute is still with us. She believes the image should not have been printed. But others maintain the New York Post was right to run it. Stephen Mayes is managing director of VII Photo Agency and former vice president of Getty Images. He joins us from our bureau in New York. Welcome, Stephen.


SHAPIRO: So make the argument. Why do you believe the Post was right to run this photo?

MAYES: Well, look, I've devoted the large part of my life to publishing pictures which people find difficult, many sorts of pictures that Kelly has described, you know, important issues, policy-changing subjects. And very often, you know, I find resistance. People don't want to publish the picture. And here's what I find difficult about this conversation is that to me the information is gruesome, the story is itself horrific.

And I first came about this when somebody described it to me, and my imagination just went crazy. I felt sick in my stomach. I use the subways, I'm a commuter, and I could see myself in that situation. That to me was the heart of the story. Why, then, do we choose photography as the medium to censor? What is it about the photograph that can't be shown yet can be said in words?

And that's where I find my struggle. And, you know, with regards to is this is - plainly (unintelligible) life-changing circumstance, but whether this is, you know, era-changing image, well, you know, I think there's even a discussion to be had about that. I mean, millions of us use the subway every day. Millions of us have looked over our shoulders as we stand, you know, hearing the train coming on and looking, just wondering who's behind us.

This is a daily reality for many of us, and this story isn't just about one man. It's about many of us. It's awful, it's horrific. The facts of it can't be varnished. But why censor the photograph?

SHAPIRO: So at the end of the day, it sounds to me, Stephen and Kelly, as though you use sort of the same measuring stick, which is, does this have news value, does this have journalism value? But perhaps you just measure this photograph in different ways on that scale. Kelly?

MCBRIDE: That's entirely possible. I tend to think that when something is going to cause harm that those are the moments when, as a journalist, you have to make sure that you have a higher purpose other than just telling a story. And it sounds to me like we may disagree on whether the standard changes when you're about to cause harm.

SHAPIRO: So let's talk about how photographers and editors make this judgment. Stephen, you've had these conversations before. Talk us through how they play out.

MAYES: Well, I think that very often what I find is people are making judgments on taste, and I find that a very difficult subject to venture into because we as picture professionals are looking at images, and we judge ourselves qualified to look at these pictures, and somehow we're not damaged by looking at them, but we're making the decision that other people will be damaged if they look at them, and I find that a very arrogant position.

What is it that makes me impervious to the message of this picture which somehow would affect other people? And I think it's wrong of us to intervene in that way and try and make those judgments for other people, particularly now in this day and age where we are in the Internet age, where the role of that gatekeeper, that patriarchal, I'm going to make this decision for your good about what you're allowed to see, is actually - is fading.

I think it's coming as a somewhat redundant argument. I doubt if many of your listeners have actually seen this in print. I guess most of them have actually seen it online. And therefore the discussion becomes one about vilifying the Post rather than picking up the issues that it raises, and there are issues around public safety, mental health, things that we should be talking about.

Why are we spending this time talking about the Post when they've brought in a serious issue to us, to our attention, for discussion?

SHAPIRO: Well, even before the Post made the decision to publish the photograph, there was the decision to snap the photograph. And I mentioned, Kelly, as I introduced you, that you advise photojournalists on how to make these decisions in difficult situations. What kinds of advice do you offer? What's the guideline?

MCBRIDE: Well, I tell them that if you are in a situation where someone's death is imminent or serious injury is imminent, and you are the most qualified person to help, and you might be the most qualified person because you're the closest person, or you're the only adult, or you speak the proper language in order to intervene, you have a moral, a human moral obligation to put down your camera and help out. And I've never heard anyone disagree with that.

MAYES: And I wouldn't disagree, either.

SHAPIRO: We're going to take another call now from Tony(ph) in Princeton, New Jersey. Hi, Tony, you're on the air.

TONY: Hi, good afternoon.

SHAPIRO: Tell us your story.

TONY: Well, I'm a photojournalist in New Jersey, and, you know, I was really shocked when I saw the cover of the Post yesterday. And, you know, a lot of the comments that your guests are making are very valid. But on a personal level, I am very sensitive about the people that I photograph, and I have deliberately not taken photos while other colleagues around me have because of the sensitive nature of the situation and putting myself in their shoes and not wanting to be photographed if I were in their shoes in that situation. And...

SHAPIRO: Can you give us an example?

TONY: For example there was a local story where a mother's daughter had died very tragically, and I was in a situation where it was a very personal moment where - between myself and the mom, and there were other photographers there. And I decided to step back and not take photos at this one particular time, and other photographers did.

And the long of the short of that story is that later on, that ended up helping me out because the mother came to me and said, you know, I'm glad you didn't take my picture then. I really appreciate it. And it ended up opening up the story for me later on, where I was given access by the family when other photographers weren't.

SHAPIRO: I imagine there must be two conflicting instincts. As a human, watching someone suffer, you don't want to take a photograph. But as a photojournalist, when you're hearing all the cameras click around you, part of you must just want to pull the camera up and take the shot.

TONY: Absolutely, yeah, that's a huge internal conflict. You know, thankfully I don't want to have to deal with it on a great level every day, but, you know, it's something that we all as photographers have to make a personal decision on. But, you know, with this case of the Post, you know, again I can't speak for the photographer, and in many circumstances I agree with, you know, make the picture if you can, and decide whether it's going to be published later on.

But, you know, my other larger issue is the general perception the public has of news photographers, that we're generally lumped into the whole paparazzi umbrella, which is really nothing what we do as photojournalists every day compares to what paparazzi do. And then in the days following Princess Diana's death, you know, I had somebody get in my face and personally accuse me of killing the princess.

And, you know, these kinds of things, as they build up, and, you know, specifically the Post publishing this picture, you know, is adding to that negative public perception that we as photojournalists have, and it makes my job harder every day.

SHAPIRO: Well, thanks for the call, Tony.

TONY: Sure.

SHAPIRO: You know, Stephen, I'm curious, as Tony raises a question of paparazzi, does it matter that the New York Post is a tabloid, and people expect sensationalism from it?

MAYES: Well, I think that it is part of the discussion, and I think that the reason why the Post has come under attack like this is because it's the Post. There's a certain classism I think at work here in the media. But look, we all play our different parts, and I think that, you know, what the Post has done, you could call it sensational. By the way, I find the headline very descriptive. I didn't see any...

SHAPIRO: The headline, doomed.

MAYES: Well, that's a fact, you know, and there were no adjectives or inflammatory adverbs. I mean, it was this man is going to die, he's doomed. And the Post is playing its part. It's putting this on the front page, running it big, as it had a huge impact. We are sitting here talking about it now. And that's their part in the role.

I think it's up to the rest of us to take any meaning out of that and do stuff with it. Here we are actually doing something very useful now, by the way, discussing photography. And I would just say, if I may, that I'm - the encouraging part about this discussion is that it does reassure me that photographs still have power, and those of us in the business, you know, have struggled a lot of times to persuade people that pictures really can tell stories in ways that have greater impact.

And there is no compassion fatigue. People are moved when they see images like this. It does contribute to the telling of the story. And that I find very encouraging.

SHAPIRO: All right, let's take another call. We're going to Boston, where Essdras is on the line. Hi, welcome to the show.

ESSDRAS: Hi, how are you doing? My name is Essdras. I'm a staff photographer for The Boston Globe. Back in 2004, 2005, when the Indonesian tsunami happened, I arrived at the scene nine days after the fact. So a lot of the images that told most of the story had been told. But I have the luxury of actually being judicious on what photos I took and I didn't. At some - this specific day, I came out to a mobile hospital, and I found this kid, and the kid, he was about three years old.

His skin had been completely ripped off because he'd been caught in the churning water, and I looked at this kid, and I'm, like, this is so sad. And I thought to myself: You know, this kid doesn't need this. I don't need to take this photo to tell the story, and I started walking away. And I literally was pushed out of the way by a Japanese photographer who saw me, and he followed my gaze, and he went and he got in the kid's face with a wide angle, and he made this photo.

I just shook my head, pulled out a telephoto, a long lens, and I made the same photo from afar. And at that point, a doctor in the hospital screamed at the both of us and kicked us out of there, which I was very happy about. That was a case where I made the photo, because the photo was going to show up and my bosses are going to say, where is this photo? I didn't want to take it, but I thought I did it in a more respectful way. So I'm not judging the guy who took the photo, but I know, on a daily basis, you have to deal with those situations, if that is your job.

SHAPIRO: Essdras, is there an argument that taking the photo had value in telling those of us who are half a world away what was actually going on there in a stronger way than words would have been able to do?

ESSDRAS: Well, the thing is, had I gotten there two days after it happened or right after it happened, yes. It had all the value in the world. But because it took us so long to get there, it had been nine days after the fact and so many photos have already been shown, that photo, really, to me, was not going to add anything to the impact that the whole story had already caused. The whole world already knew that hundreds of thousands of people had died. I don't think this photo would have made much difference.

And the photo exists and the photo never got published, and I use it sometimes when I teach ethics of journalism to say, you know, you've got to make decisions. And the right decisions are the decisions that you can live with, and that should be your barometer writer.

SHAPIRO: Thanks for the call, Essdras.

ESSDRAS: OK. Bye-bye.

SHAPIRO: And, Kelly McBride of the Poynter Institute, I wonder what you make of his story. Is this a common conflict for photojournalists in a crisis zone?

MCBRIDE: Yeah, you know, I find that photojournalists tend to be very, very emotional and gut reactive, that I don't know if it necessarily goes in hand-in-hand with operating with the visual medium. But one of the things that I would tell a photographer like that is your job is very important, and the images that you take are very important. You have the privilege of telling stories to the rest of the world, and the choices that you make of which stories you tell can change the course of history.

So I would tell him when you're faced with a situation like that where you have great, great compassion for the suffering individual and you have the opportunity to tell this person's story, look for alternatives that allow - and he did. He shot with the long lens, rather than getting right into the kid's face. Look for alternatives that can tell the story in a way that don't make the kid seem gruesome or disfigured in a way that's repulsive. Look for ways to exercise your compassion.

And most photographers do that every day with the choices that they make. The more sensitive the story, the more they're looking for different angles, different lenses, different ways to approach the story, so that they can show it and not be that paparazzi, callous person who's just invading someone's privacy in order to make a buck.

SHAPIRO: We're talking about photojournalism and ethics, and you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. We have an email here from Chap(ph) in Charleston, South Carolina, and he writes: As a videographer, I find that whenever I'm filming, people are more likely to do risky things. I've had footage of people right before a watercraft plane crashed because they did a barrel roll in the sky and the wing collapsed. I once filmed somebody jump off a 76-foot cliff on a lake and land wrong, both within the same year. He says it's hard to know how to share these images. One way, it's exciting, and another, it makes me want to quit filming people altogether.

So this is a new wrinkle: the presence of a photographer or a videographer actually altering the action. Kelly?

MCBRIDE: Yeah. That happens all the time, and many photographers - I mean, if you've ever been a photographer at a football game, all you have to do is turn around and point your camera at the crowd to see how you change...


MCBRIDE: ...the way people behave. So it does happen, and most photographers are very careful to try and minimize that impact, especially when you have people doing audacious things like jumping off of buildings.

SHAPIRO: Stephen Mayes, as a director of a photo agency, you're often involved in these decisions of whether to publish or not. And we've talked about the decision of whether to take the photograph and the decision of whether to publish the photograph. How often is there disagreement between a photographer who says the world needs to see this and an editor who says, no they don't, or vice versa?

MAYES: It's hard to classify this disagreement, but it's very often the case that we submit pictures for publication that never appear. It's very hard, from our position, to know exactly why in every instance. But we put forward pictures which are disturbing. And a large part of what we do is trying to make people look at uncomfortable things that - you know, looking at pictures doesn't always need to be pleasurable or - but it, you know, one does need to learn from them, which we discussed already, and that can be difficult. And sometimes, editors with commercial considerations, frankly, will make decisions that maybe it's easier for their readers and their advertisers not to publish work. And that is a challenge.

SHAPIRO: We have time for one more brief call from Darren in Granite Falls, North Carolina. Hi, Darren. Tell us your story.

DARREN: Yeah. I'm a photojournalist, and I was a staff photographer at the (unintelligible) Daily News about six, seven years ago, and rolled out on a police scanner call to a child that was drowning in a retention pond. I was able to get out there very quickly, while paramedics and firefighters were in the pond trying to rescue the child. And apparently, he had become caught on something under the water. And while I was there shooting with a long lens, the mother of the child had come out, and was being held back and obviously incredibly distraught.

And about 15 minutes later, they were able to get this kid out of the water. I photographed him on the stretcher as they loaded him on the ambulance, photographed the mother. And in the newspaper, we decided to run the photo of the mother being distraught, and not the photo of the child, because at that point, he was already deceased.

SHAPIRO: Was it a difficult decision?

DARREN: Which part? The running of the photo or...

SHAPIRO: The decision to run the photo of the mother and not the photo of the child, or not to run any photo at all.

DARREN: Well, you know, some of those decisions were made over my head by the editors, but I think that running the child's body, that was pretty much a no-brainer. We weren't going to do that.

SHAPIRO: All right. Well, thank...

DARREN: But running the mother - and it got a lot of negative impact, you know, in the community. We had a whole day of letters to the editor just thrashing me, but I believe that drowning is one of the leading causes of deaths among children.

SHAPIRO: So perhaps some journalistic value there. Thanks for the call, Darren. And thanks also to our guests: Stephen Mayes, managing director of the VII Photo Agency and former vice president of Getty Images. He joined us from the New York bureau. And Kelly McBride, senior faculty in ethics, reporting and writing at the Poynter Institute in Saint Petersburg, Florida, she joined us today from a studio there. And thanks to both of you for joining the conversation today.

MCBRIDE: You're welcome.

MAYES: Thank you.

SHAPIRO: When we come back, Senator Sheldon Whitehouse on the fiscal cliff. I'm Ari Shapiro. It's TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.