Sunday, December 9, 2012

Photojournalism or Failure to Act? ~ Subway death in NYC caught on Camera

My family and I just got back from spending our Holiday Vacation in New York City.  Early on Tuesday (12/4) morning, I took the subway down to Rockefeller Center to photograph the Christmas Tree before the sun came up.  I left our hotel room about 4:45 AM and took the subway downtown.  As I was walking the few avenues over to Rockefeller Center, I saw a news crew set up at the top of the 49th Street and 7th Avenue Subway.  It wasn't until later that I knew why....

Tomorrow marks one week since a NYC man was pushed to his death in front of a moving subway.  Initially this news did not shock me.  I'm not trying to sound morbid, but I know that this wasn't the first NYC subway death, nor will it be the last.  But what really caught my attention was the fact that the New York Post published a photo that was snapped seconds before the man was crushed to death by the oncoming subway train.  If you haven't seen the photo or read the article ~ please take a minute and read it here.  

 57th Street Subway
Instagram Photo
© Corrie M Avila

My first thought was who in the world took that photograph and why was that person not helping the man pull himself out?  I won't get too "social worker-y" on you, but that man in the subway was in shock.  Frozen in trauma and in fear looking at the oncoming train.  He CLEARLY needed help, even an outstretched hand would have been something... possibly saving his life.  But what does he have?  A photo of his imminent death.  A reminder to his family members of how horrible his last seconds were as he stared death in the face.

The photographer's name is R. Umar Abbasi and his story is that he saw the man on the subway tracks and chose to use his camera's flash to warn the subway driver that there was a problem on the tracks.  He also said that he was further down on the subway platform, too far to do anything.  According to the article and video in the above link by the NY Post, he also said he feared for himself because at one point the supposed perp was coming straight at him.  Abassi also redirects the questions to all the other people that were there closer to the victim.  Why didn't they help him?  

In an interview with Anderson Cooper and Dr. Drew, they discuss the possibility of the "Bystander Effect."  That the more people around, the less likely they are to help someone in need.  Abassi also speaks to the "armchair critics" saying we don't know what it was like because we weren't there.  

I don't know what lens he had on his camera, I don't know what his settings were.  He claims he didn't even know he had this shot until the police were looking at his photos trying to glean usable information in the to catch the perpetrator.  Lily O'Donnell writes an article supporting Abassi, stating that what he did was strictly photojournalism.  Read her article here.

70th Street and Broadway Subway
Taken one day after the Subway Death
ISO 1600 ~ 30mm ~ f/4.0 ~ 1/60sec
 © Corrie M Avila

What are your thoughts?  Is this photojournalism or neglect to help a human in crisis?  What would you do if in the same situation?

Deep in Thought....

Corrie <3

Here are some additional links:


  1. I would like to think I would help the person - and would hope to be strong enough to pull him to safety. I think I would have had to at least tried.

    Has anyone seen the story of the woman who pulled two men to safety?

    1. Thank you so much for the link ~ wow, to think she not only tried helping herself, but rallied the help of bystanders. I would like to think I would have tried too...

  2. Wow, Corrie - your blog and the news incident which preceded it, provoke strong feelings. I still have not seen the photo in question, as I have chosen not to. This is my second attempt to respond. You know the old adage that someone drowning cannot help another drowning victim? Being a native New Yorker, this is an issue I have thought about frequently in the past, so here goes: Having riden the subways infrequently as a child, and frequently as a grad student going to NYU, and finally, as a tourist revisiting the city when you were a college student, i am sure of one thing: I would not have reached down onto the tracks to help an adult person, unless i had anchorage to hold onto, less I be pulled down too. When I was young and spry, I probably would have jumped down to help a child, even if it was risking my own life. Now,unless i was the only help available, i would just stay out of the way of more able people.

    One other thing I am very sure of. If I did not have my camera in my hand, already opened, I would not have taken pictures - for if a train was emminent, I would have averted my eyes, and probably would never ride the subways anywhere, anyhow, ever again. Whether or not my camera was opened, if no train coming, I would have first made sure help was coming, before contemplating taking pictures - and even then . . .

    For example, as thankful as i am for the 9/11 news coverage of the 9/11 tragedy, for our entire nation needed to bare witness, less we forget, I am so glad that there was no way to photograph the facial images of those individuals who chose to jump. Just viewing those distant images caught on video, and the individuals' stressful choice was morose enough.

    Unfortunately, there will always be tabloids, and semi-tabloids (such as the NY Post & NY Daily News) which will publish tragic photos without care to the effect on family survivors and the community. Definately irresponsible and bad photo journalism. Period.

    As to good journalistic coverage, when our family lost a loved one in a car accident, the Sun Sentinel published a photo of the crunched cars, taking care not to include the victim whose life was claimed, whose remains was still in the vehicle. Definately responsible and good photo journalism.

    Thank you for a very thought provoking and excellent blog. I intend to forward it to my NY friends and ask them to respond as well.


    1. According to the article, he said he had the camera already out and on because he was on assignment from the New York Post to shoot in Times Square.

      Personally, every time I was in the subway, my camera was stowed away ~ I didn't want to chance being an easy target. But I was also unfamiliar with my surroundings.

      I guess the difference I see with the people who jumped/fell to their deaths from the WTC attack on 9-11, is that there was no chance of saving them. In this case, there was a chance of saving that man. Even if it were others being called to act.

      Supposedly there was a time lapse between when the man fell and when the train came. Enough time to question if there was something someone could have done.

      Thank you for your comments and your point of view.

    2. I guess I did not see "the whole" picture - but now I see better the question you posed - however, one never really knows how one would really react in such a situation until you are living that situation.
      I.e. was the train already pressing into the station when the photographer put his camera to his face??? If he was already on assignment (a fact that escaped me), then he was already in picture taking mindset. Was his compassionate humanity blurred by his role of observant objective news photographer? Did he see the shot as a claim to fame and riches? Whatever the answers are, that photographer has to live with himself and his decision that day.
      And sadly, the victim's loved ones have a permenent and grim record of his final moment, emotionally wrenching to view or to playback the memory of having seen it.
      Somehow, it defies my sensibility how anyone could seek to gain profit from another man's suffering. And, unfortunately, suffering humanity IS what makes the news . . .
      On a happier note, i just read your blog about "finding joy through grief" and am so glad you spent time slowing down and really being there for your family this past weekend . . .
      love, Mom

  3. I think the bystander effect was in full effect here. You see something and can't believe what you're seeing so you rely on the impressions of the people around you. When no one reacts, your brain decides that things are ok. It seems peculiar that he took the picture, but then again, if he really did have the camera to his face and was trying to capture the oncoming train, he very likely could have missed the man holding on for dear life at the bottom of the shot. - Leah,