Tabloid Photographers Defend Man Who Snapped 'Post' Subway Horror

The Internet's response seems to be that the photographer should have been attempting to help the victim. Is it really that black-and-white, though?

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The New York Post's horrifying cover photo of a man about to be fatally struck by an incoming train at the 49th Street subway station after he was pushed onto the tracks by a yet-to-be-identified assailant after a skirmish has created its own fight on the Internet.

Judging from the reactions on Twitter and elsewhere (see here, here and here), the Internet's collective response seems to be that the photographer who happened to be on the scene to capture the lurid image should have been attempting to help the 58-year-old victim get back onto the platform instead of watching the tragedy unfold through his lens. (The photographer claims he was running toward the victim taking photos in hopes that his camera flashes would alert the train conductor to slam on the brakes.) And that the Post is to be shamed for running a photo of the incident on its front page under the headline: "DOOMED; Pushed on the subway track, this man is about to die." (A spokesperson for the Post did not respond to requests for comment Tuesday afternoon, but we'll update if we hear back.)

Is it really that black-and-white, though?

We reached out to four veteran tabloid photographers, who wished to remain anonymous, to get their takes, which we've edited and published in full below.

"Honestly, I can't fault this photographer."

There's at least a dozen other people on that platform, any able-bodied person could have tried (assuming we actually knew how much time the victim had between the fall, and impact) to try and help him. So anyone who's going to cry, "Why didn't he help?," really needs to ask that of any of the other people there. Monday-morning QB-ing this is kind of pointless. The guy is dead. They're either all guilty of turning their back on this guy, or they're not. Can't lay blame on this guy alone.

As a photographer, your instinct is to act with your camera. However, this situation is a little more complicated, as it presents a slightly more immediate moral dilemma seeing as how (again, assuming you had the time and physical ability) there's a reasonable chance you, as a good Samaritan, could have helped. Whereas it's not like, say, a jumper, where you can't really do anything else except watch and take images. The bottom line is you act with whatever part of your brain kicks in first I guess. Interestingly, we don't ask this of any other photographer covering other atrocities and far more violent scenes that move over wires every day from the Middle East and elsewhere. We're never hearing the question: Why didn't such and such a photographer help? when we see it on A1 of The New York Times. New York isn't Libya, but the job is the same. We document the human drama. This is part of the human drama in New York City.

As far as what I would have done?  I have no idea. As far as Page 1 placement? It's dramatic. It's yours. Go for it.

"I hesitate to heap blame on the shooter."

He's just one person who had to make a snap decision under pressure. Far more deserving of fault I think are the tabloid vultures in the newsroom that negotiated, paid for, and published this photo; a photo that adds nothing to the conversation or the story except shock value. If that were my father or brother on the front page today I'd be livid. It's worth noting that no one is talking about the cover of the Daily News today. Decency doesn't merit much press coverage. Please also note that around 150 people per year are hit by trains, and around a third of them die. If not for this photo, this story would not have much traction, and probably wouldn't be worth the front page.

With the ubiquity of sophisticated cameras in every pocket, we are quickly becoming a society of gawkers, preferring a life lived through digital screens to one experienced in real time. This is only a symptom.

I think it went too far. It's hard to tell though from the photo how close or far the photographer was to the victim. It's clearly cropped and zoomed somewhat, so perhaps he couldn't help the man anyway? Additionally, the man was removed from the tracks alive, he died later of his injuries. The photographer could not have known that the man would die.

Obviously the photographer is not a professional. He sold his work to the paper, likely for a sizeable sum. If he had a photo of the man actually being pushed, it would be worth much more!

"People are very quick to see a photo of a tragedy and immediately blame the photographer for 'not helping.'"

Even in situations where there's already help within reach, you'd think that people expect the photographer to be the one to jump in and say "stand back ... I'VE got this!" The reality is that this was a likely a very fast-moving incident. It's not like a photographer was walking down the street, witnessed someone in the midst of being mangled by an industrial machine, paused, ignored the emergency shut-off switch, took a light meter reading, focused, tripped the shutter, reviewed the image, and went on his way. The photographer and the train are just about equidistant from the victim, and a train is going to move faster. At this point, any attempt to rescue the person is just going to result in a second injury or fatality, and your instincts would tell you that. So, what do you do? Watch? Turn away? The train is already in the station, so you're not going to be a hero, or even a martyr, just another victim. The difference with a photographer is that there's another instinct at play, and that is to shoot. Particularly in situations where there's nothing else you can do; I don't know if there's some deep psychological issue at play, where a person will do something–anything–to exert some control in a situation in which he's otherwise helpless. I've seen photographers use their cameras as weapons, of sorts, to "get back" at people hassling them. You push me? You yell at me? I bang off a bunch of pictures of you. Now, there's a very good chance that the picture could have some protective or evidentiary value in case the aggressor's actions become criminal, and in a situation like the subway incident, this picture is now a key piece of evidence in an investigation that would otherwise have not existed. When photojournalism is, at its root, meant to record news events, especially when there's either no chance of being able to help, combined with the photographer's instinct to shoot, pictures like this will be made.

I've covered breaking news for half my life. Once, I came upon a person who had been struck and dragged by a car. I was the first person there, so I stopped, called 911, and kept the victim awake and talking until help arrived. I didn't take a picture. If help were already on the scene, and I could have documented New Yorkers in the midst of an act of compassion, then it would be different. Had I been walking down the street when the incident actually happened, unable to physically stop it, then it would be different. If an incident happens, then for whatever reason, you take a picture. There can be many different factors in one situation. Likewise, in the subway case, had the photographer been alongside the victim when he was pushed, anyone's first instinct would be to render assistance. However, that was not the case, and the photographer was faced with the options of either being unable to help or, alternately, being unable to help but come away with a valuable piece of evidence that may save lives in the future by acting as a catalyst to change regulations or raise safety awareness.

We must also remember that our sudden perceived sense of indignation, sensitivity, and propensity to "shoot the messenger" is a relatively new concept, ever since the media and its agents have themselves become the story and the floodgates of reader comments were opened. A 1940s comic strip published by the Press Photographers Association of New York shows a dozing shutterbug with a thought bubble over is head in which he is standing on a fire escape, training his lens on a scene inside an apartment as a woman is dramatically gunned down, before being awakened by his editor to "go shoot the Mayor greeting some Boy Scouts." The heading on the cartoon reads "A Dreamer...Aren't We All?" While an extreme example, there was no moral outrage over the insinuation that a photojournalist would dare to document an incident in progress. The whole purpose of news photography is to show what really happened. Pictures like this, and even more graphic than this, have appeared in the tabloids for nearly a century, and today some of them get their own gallery exhibitions and $150 coffee table books. The difference is that the passage of time dulls the public's self-imposed standards of decency. There are some photographs that I have taken that I will never show until many years from now, for no other reason than that people of this generation, in which we're saturated with "reality" this and "extreme" that, can't seem to handle what was standard newspaper fare only a few short decades ago.

"I wish the cover was 'Freelance Photographer Throws Down Camera and Saves Man from Death By Subway Car.'"

But unfortunately, that probably wouldn't have been considered newsworthy, especially by the New York Post.

When I saw that photo, I immediately thought of Kevin Carter's early '90s photo of the starving Sudanese child crawling on the ground and the vulture behind him waiting to pounce. First published in The New York Times, it sparked outrage around the world: "Why didn't the photog drop the camera and help?"

It was the same question that came immediately to my mind when I saw this particular cover. I imagine the photographer is probably agonizing about this too. But he went with instinct. Like the instinct of that medical professional who sprang to action to try to revive the man after he was hit by the train, the gut instinct of the photographer was to reach for his camera and shoot, and the instinct of a dozen other people waiting was to stand frozen and watch from a distance as this tragedy unfolded.

Now it's too late. So the question becomes, for the editors, does this photo add anything to the story? Yes, it is the literal illustration of it.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.