In 2012, Ki Suk Han had an argument with a vagabond on the platform of the Times Square subway station in New York: after a struggle the beggar pushed him, throwing him into the pit of the tracks, where he was desperately trying to get out when the train was entering the station, running over Ki Suk Han mortally.
Briefly described, these are the facts. The news was published by the New York Post headed with the headline “THIS MAN IS ABOUT TO DIE” and a photograph of the victim seconds before he was run over by a train. The photograph was taken by an amateur, R. Umar Abbasi, who subsequently sold it to the newspaper. In the station there is no one close to the deceased, who is in the moat in front of the train that is about to run him over. The publication of the image in the press caused a certain unease, criticizing not only the media for the lack of ethics and bad taste, but also condemned the attitude of the photographer who put photographic/economic opportunism before the moral obligation to help the poor unfortunate. The photographer’s justification was very weak, arguing that everything happened very quickly, that it was impossible for him to cross in time the distance that separated him from Ki Suk Ha and that there were also other people on the platform who could have acted.
The photographer’s attitude is symptomatic of urban societies, where each individual is an island and the bonds of empathy with others are very weak. Public spaces lose their sense as a place of encounter with the other, to become a neutral territory where anonymous individuals are crossed and avoided. In this space, iteration and contact between individuals is reduced to a minimum, and the other is perceived as a potential threat. Each subject represents his role and the street becomes a stage where he can be seen and see others. Street photography is consolidated as a predatory practice, the photographer as a hunter and the passers-by as victims of a visual hunt (see Martha Rosler’s essay on the Bowery). We do not know the motivations of this photographer, and it is even possible that his encounter with the scene was totally unexpected and fortuitous, but if everything happened as fast as Abbasi said, it is inexplicable that his reaction was to photograph the scene instead of urgently going to help the victim: the first seems to me conscious and the second instinctive. Later selling the photograph to a medium confirms the inexplicable.
The publication of the photograph in the New York Post and, above all, the headline at the top of the news show a lack of tact and ethics. The sensationalist headline, typical of the low-profile press that seeks to feed morbid curiosity and voyeurism, seems more interested in highlighting the spectacle than the dramatic circumstance. Some European codes of ethics include this type of consideration in their articles:
“It is particularly serious to resort to sensationalism and morbidity to describe catastrophes, accidents, family misfortunes or violent acts (c26, c28a). The right to information must be subordinated to the respect due to victims and mourners (c03, c38). Therefore, spectators will not be allowed to feel like voyeurs of the humiliation and misfortune of others (c42d/2).”
The controversy is not new and there are some examples in the field of photojournalism that have caused debate about the reporter’s attitude to the suffering of others (among the most outstanding, perhaps the photograph taken by Kevin Carter during the famine of 1993). And if the question in the professional sphere is beyond any doubt -they oblige not to intervene in events, both objectivity and informative rigor-, before the appearance of the phenomenon of the “citizen reporters” a new debate is opened. It would be possible to reformulate the same questions that the photographer Jose Navarro asked himself after watching a video of the massacre of a Denver cinema in 2012:
- Why is media X showing this video or photograph?
- What kind of message, information, do you want to convey to the viewer?
- Why do they show unverified material of very poor quality, obtained through a smartphone by an unverified source?
- Why, when I see this video or photograph, do I have this sense of voyeuristic complicity with whoever recorded it, insensitively?
- Why do we have to make a spectacle of everything?
- Specifically, why do we have to make a spectacle of the anguish of other human beings?
- Why didn’t the citizen who recorded it feel that his actions were objectionable?
- Why did he feel it was okay to point an electronic eye at an innocent victim bloody with a high-tech pocket-sized piece?
- Why, after being attracted to playing the video, do I feel deceived by an otherwise reputable media institution?