In the wake of the New York Post subway photo row, Douglas Chalmers, senior lecturer in media ethics at Glasgow Caledonian University, shares his thoughts on when life through a lens isn't good enough.
Life for a press photographer can involve heartrending choices of whether to record a scene or act to prevent what’s happening in front of his or her lens.
Photographs from the past which have caused controversy but have gone on to win prizes include Malcolm Browne’s iconic picture of Saigon monk Thich Quang Duc immolating himself in protest against the dictatorial South Vietnamese government in 1963. Famously Browne said: “The idea of stopping the protest never occurred to me.” His reporter colleague Peter Arnett said that they could have potentially prevented the immolation, but that "as a human being I wanted to; as a reporter I couldn’t”. Browne later won the World Press Photo of the year for the picture, which most people today recognise as the iconic image on one of Rage Against the Machine’s album covers.
Another well-known but equally controversial shot was that of a young starving girl apparently being stalked by a vulture during the 1994 Sudan famine. Photographer Kevin Carter took the (Pulitzer Prize winning) photo of the infant, who was a kilometre from the nearest feeding station, and then left her to her own devices (although his editor later claimed that they believed, but couldn’t confirm, that she had made it to safety, and that the photographer had ‘shooed’ the vulture away). Carter subsequently committed suicide, one implication being that he had been traumatised by the scenes he had chosen to record.
Another photograph that may still come to mind for today’s reader is the young Vietnamese girl Kim Phuc running towards the camera after being burned by a US napalm attack during the Vietnamese war.
So when should a photographer choose to act, rather than record? This is not an easy question from an ethical point of view, but one which has come clearly into focus with – I would argue – the wrong decision by the New York Post this week to publish a photo of a man on the tracks in Times Square subway station, seconds before he is killed by an oncoming train.
I have chosen not to link to the photograph, as I think it is one without ethical merit, that I think the photographer will regret taking – and that the newspaper editor ought to regret having published.
Countries have differing codes about what it is legally acceptable to print, but what is at issue here is the ethics of taking a legal photograph when another action could have changed the outcome – in this case, possibly preventing the death of an individual.
Although I have seen the photo, I am not sure whether the photographer was close enough to save the man. He claims that he ran towards the train flashing his camera to alert the driver: “I just started running, running, hoping that the driver could see my flash…”
In any case, the outcome was tragic and only the photographer himself and those at the scene will know whether he could have prevented the death of 58-year-old Ki Suk Han, pushed onto the rails while trying to prevent an altercation on the platform.
No merit or positive outcome has been gained from taking or indeed publishing this photo. Arguably, in Vietnam in 1963, Malcolm Browne putting down his camera and intervening to save the life of the monk, who had chosen to die as a protest, would not have prevented any other protesters doing the same later. In the event, it is claimed the outcry over the photo may have altered US policy in Vietnam.
In the case of nine-year-old Kim Phuc burning from napalm in Vietnam, young photographer Nick Ut took the picture then drove the girl to hospital, saving her life by demanding medical treatment, using his press card for leverage.
Why did the New York Post publish the subway death photo? It seems the only benefit was to the proprietor’s turnover, and the editor’s fame, or perhaps notoriety – not an acceptable ethical standpoint for me, and I suspect, most of us.