In technical terms, photos capture a moment. That’s the motto, right? "Preserve your special moments."
But each moment is squashed between the past and the future, and both sides are wide webs that stretch out through reality. How much had to happen prior to the moment in order to lead to it? Personal, cultural, historical, all winding together by pure chance and arithmetic. And how much spirals away from the moment captured?
And how can a photograph with only one person visible in it comment on everyone else in the world? If a photo is defined by its empty space, by the lack of people crowded in the borders, what is it saying to us and about us?
There’s a photograph that’s out of New York City that has garnered grim attention and manages to offer little hope at all in the wider scope of the humanity. You might not have seen the photo -- you might have chosen to not look -- but you might be aware that the New York Post ran an image of Queens resident Ki-Suck Han moments after he had been pushed into the path of an oncoming subway train.
He is alone. No one is trying to help. It’s just him and the train.
I’m unclear that there was any chance for anyone, including photographer R. Umar Abbasi, to have saved the poor man on the rails. According to his account, no one bothered and he used his flash in an attempt to warn the driver. I’ve been in the New York subways millions of times. They are fast. Really fast. From what I see in the photo, there was no hope for Han. And it’s very easy to judge someone who was there when you weren’t.
Abbasi also stated that when Han’s body was pulled from the rails after being struck, the emergency responders were mobbed with bystanders taking video and photos with their cell phones. Abbasi claims to have tried to push the crowd back.
The situation has further been muddied by the perpetrator’s claim that Han attacked him, which has been corroborated by at least one witness who described Han getting agitated by his murderer. Han’s wife has said that Han left home, drunk, following an argument with her. So it was a heated incident, to be sure.
It’s a hard tightrope to walk. In terms of immediacy, being a news photographer in a huge urban area like New York City isn’t much different from being a war correspondent. Anything can happen at any moment in that arena, some of them ugly, and part of the mission of a photojournalist there is to capture the reality of living in that city. History is littered with instances of capturing horrible, grim moments in war that sometimes the photographers themselves are helpless to fix and sometimes they choose not to.
The New York Post running the photo is an entirely different issue from the photographer taking it, though.
Newspapers do run photos of disasters and accidents, of course, but I think sometimes the sensational nature of an event gets the adrenaline of an editor flowing past reason. I think back to the New York papers that ran photos of people diving out of the Twin Towers on 9-11 as a similar situation. Photos like these may have some public worth at some point, but I’m not quite sure they do the day after the incident.
But, if true, Abbasi’s testimony points to the terrible truth about humanity that his photo captures. It’s one that we’ve all seen in action and, if only to have it rubbed in our faces again until we do something to change it, there is unfortunately a good reason to have to look at poor Ki-Suck Han moments before his death and think about the people who waited to flock to him only after the spectacle.
John Seven is the Transcript’s arts and entertainment editor.