Shoot first. Ask questions later
A controversial picture on the front of the ‘New York Post’ this week raises a fundamental question for photographers: when to observe and when to step in and help
The New York Post had a controversial front page on Tuesday. It showed a terrified man trying to climb to safety from a railway line in a Manhattan subway station as a train approached. “Doomed,” ran the headline. “Pushed on the subway track, this man is about to die.” Moments later the train hit him.
Why didn’t the photographer who took the picture, R Umar Abbasi, try to pull the man, whose name was Ki Suk Han, out of danger?
“I had no idea what I was shooting,” Abbasi said afterwards. “I’m not even sure it was registering with me what was happening. I was just looking at that train coming . . . The victim was so far away from me, I was already too far away to reach him when I started running.” He also says he tried to alert the train driver with his camera flash.
The controversy shows no signs of abating. On one side of the fence, John Long of the National Press Photographers Association told Forbes: “If you have placed yourself in a situation where you can help, you are morally obligated.”
On the other side of the argument, Roy Gutterman, who teaches communications law at Syracuse University, said: “Once a reporter or photographer lends a hand to someone, that journalist ceases being a journalist and becomes part of the story. There’s no way to maintain the independence as a journalist and participate in a news event at the same time.”
It’s clear the incident raises fundamental questions about journalism. At what point should a photographer, or any reporter, stop observing and intervene? Should a concern for humanity override professional considerations?
Some photographers will tell you they hide behind their lens, particularly when they’re working in emotionally difficult situations. They have to decide about morality and ethics in the blink of an eye, and it may not always be clear until afterwards whether an image is appropriate.
Frank Miller, an Irish Times photographer and picture editor, has reported from the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide of the 1990s, among other challenging assignments. He says photographers have to remember they have a job to do. “Without being corny about it, you are there as the eyes of the rest of the world,” he says. “Your main job is to get the story across and not get involved at a micro level.”
Miller adds that spontaneous reaction is an essential tool of photojournalism. “When you witness something you can spend seconds thinking about whether to shoot or not. A good photographer will shoot first and ask questions later. If you don’t have that instinct then you are not a photojournalist.
“Afterwards, you can think about context and whether you should be showing the image, but that’s not the role of the photographer; it’s more the role of the editor.