| NEW YORK
NEW YORK Dec 5 If the photograph that R. Umar
Abbasi shot and the New York Post ran on its cover Tuesday of a
subway car bearing down on Ki-Suck Han doesn't make you shudder,
you're probably a little dead inside. And if, after looking at
the cover once or twice, you didn't return for another quick
glance, or replay the image in your mind's eye, you might be a
The subway photograph conveys a kind of terror that's
different from the terror produced by red-meat shots from the
battlefield, photos of monks self-immolating, or even
surveillance video of car bombs detonating and blasting people
over like bowling pins. The subway photo doesn't document human
destruction, it documents the anticipation of destruction, and
that rattles a separate part our psyche, explains media scholar
Barbie Zelizer in her 2010 book, About to Die: How News Images
Move the Public.
"About-to-die images tweak the landscape on which images and
public response work," Zelizer told me two years ago in an
interview. " mages of impending death play to the emotions,
the imagination, and the contingent and qualified aspects of
what they depict."
The cinema has been exploiting the power of about-to-die
images for more than a century, routinely placing characters in
death's path and extending the anticipatory moment to yank our
strings like puppet masters. Inside the cinematic moment, we
become the person in peril, especially when the character in
peril is an innocent victim, or young, or a "woman in peril."
When such moments as the Ki-Suck Han moment are photographed
in the real world and published in a prominent place like the
cover of the New York Post, the first instruction our instincts
give us is that his impending death could have been ours. Even
if we live hundreds of miles from the nearest subway, we think,
I could have been the one shoved into the path of the Q train!
The nightmare of being alive but seeing your death approach was
precisely the effect the New York Post's editors sought when
they unknowingly channeled Zelizer's thesis into their cover
headline: "DOOMED: Pushed on the subway track, this man is about
As horrific as photos of corpses, splatter shots, and images
of body parts may be, they don't have the psychological effect
on us that an about-to-die photograph has. Explicit images of
death tend to repel viewers, Zelizer says, and that distance
tends to tamp down the terror. But images of impending death
tend to attract curiosity and study. "They often draw viewers
in, fostering engagement, creating empathy and subjective
involvement, inviting debate," Zelizer told me.
The debate over the New York Post's publication of the
subway photograph has turned visceral, with experienced
journalists writing straight from the gut. In the New Republic,
Tom McGeveran of Capital New York calls the photograph
unpleasant and nasty, and its publication "tasteless,"
explaining with distaste that tastelessness and the trafficking
in "cruelty" of such human circumstance defines the New York
Post formula. In the New York Times, David Carr describes the
photo's appearance on the Post's cover "sickening to behold,"
asserting that "We are all implicated by this photo, not just
the man who took it."
About-to-die images inspire many of us to replay the tragedy
in a way that would have avoided the disaster. It's hard to look
at the subway picture and not mentally exhort Han to vault back
onto the platform even though you know he is cold dead. The
Washington Post's Jonathan Capehart was seduced by this urge,
obliquely wishing that Abbasi had discarded his camera and
How a photographer - who has trained his mind to block out
the rest of the world so he can capture disturbing images - has
a special responsibility to turn superhero, as Abbasi's critics
suggested he did, is beyond me. Had Han successful scrambled off
the track bed, Abbasi would be dusting his trophy case to make
room for a Pulitzer instead of making the less-than-plausible
excuses about how he hoped that his repeated camera flashes
would alert the train operator to stop for a man on the tracks.
In an email interview today, Zelizer recommends that we take
a breather and place the incident inside its historical context.
"The outrage is less about the photo, picture or the New
York Post than it is about us and how we are always changing the
uncomfortable boundaries of when it's appropriate to show
death," she writes. "In the 1940s, this picture would have been
celebrated as a professional triumph."
The subway-photo debate speaks legions about our increasing
squeamishness, Zelizer tells me, and the changes in our views
about morality, politics, and technology. "The debate about this
photographer becomes a useful punching bag for all our
unresolved sentiments about what to show in news pics."
The deadliest image, it turns out, is the one in which the
victim is still alive.