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Was the New York Post right to publish that splash?

An extremely controversial cover image on the American title has created outrage. Our writer, no stranger to reporting from abroad, examines the ethical issues around it

The decision by the New York Post to print a photograph of a man moments before he was struck by a subway train has provoked a storm of debate among journalists, photographers and readers over what point news gatherers should intervene in the events they cover.

In my view the outrage that the photograph has generated says an awful lot about changing Western sensibilities and hypocrisies.

As a general rule reporters and photographers should not become active participants in a story. You know the signs you see outside national parks saying “Take nothing, leave only footprints”? You could apply that to reporting. Once you become involved in a story, you start to alter its outcome and that’s not something news reporters (as opposed to campaigning journalists and columnists) should do.

There are, of course, exceptions to this rule. Even the most orthodox reporters and photographers (the kind that don’t vote because they insist on being entirely apolitical) would probably argue that if someone’s life is at stake and they can be saved in the immediate moment, you should do what you can to help out.

To witness history

So the key test for New York Post photographer R Umar Abbasi will be whether he really was too far away to pull Ki-Suck Han up on to the platform. It will be interesting to see if CCTV images at the subway station will shed any light on whether Mr Abbasi’s insistence that he couldn’t have got to Mr Han in time is correct. The jury is out but whatever the eventual verdict, none of us really know how we’d react in the same situation.

But what I don’t think should be at debate is the question of whether the New York Post, as a paper that covers the city in which it resides, should have published the picture. For me there is no doubt that Umar’s shot is an eminently news worthy photograph that illustrates an important local story the Post ought to be covering. I do feel however that the headline the Post chose to use – “Doomed” with the phrase “This man is about to die” – is insensitive and overly sensationalist.

That’s not to say it’s a pleasant photograph. It’s heart breaking, tragic, compelling and nauseating all at once. But spot news is rarely aesthetic.

In fact, some of the most iconic photos – photos that have helped change the course of history – were taken by news gatherers who remained passive as events unfolded around them. Take Malcolm Browne’s seminal shot of Vietnamese monk Quang Duc setting light to himself in protest at the persecution of Buddhists by South Vietnam’s Catholic-led government.

At the time the monks had been phoning foreign reporters to tell them they were planning something spectacular, hinting that their protest would either be a self-immolation or disembowelment. Journalists were fully aware that they might witness someone’s death, a death they could perhaps stop. But there was never any question of doing so. They were in Vietnam to witness and report events, not influence them.

In an interview with Time Magazine in 2011, a year before he passed away, Browne spoke candidly about what was going through his mind as he watched Quang Duc burn.

“I was thinking only about the fact it was a self-illuminated subject that required an exposure of about, oh say, f10 or whatever it was, I don’t really remember,” he said, later adding: “The main thing on my mind was getting the pictures out.”

That may sound shockingly callous – and in many ways it is. But it’s also professional. His job was to witness, not intervene. And to do that, you often need to have a very thick skin.

A more recent photograph which comes to mind was taken in December 2011 by Afghan correspondent Massoud Hussaini for Agence France Presse showing the immediate aftermath of a suicide bombing in Kabul. Hussaini had been covering a religious celebration in the Afghan capital when a suicide bomber struck just a few metres away. Hussaini survived and immediately began taking a series of heart breaking shots. One in particular showed a terrified 12-year-old girl Tarana Akbari screaming in a green dress surrounded by her slaughtered family.

It won a World Press Photo award and was used by virtually every media outlet that covered the story because it perfectly summed up the merciless carnage that such bombings unleash on innocent people.

Most journalists who work in war zones or tricky places have half decent first aid and emergency trauma training. They know how to tie tourniquets, check for signs of life, make bandages etc. I don’t know whether Hussaini had that training, but even if he did, I couldn’t criticise him for choosing to document the aftermath of the suicide bombing.

Double Standard

The fact that Hussaini’s photo of Akbari won critical praise but Umar’s photo of Mr Han is being pretty roundly condemned says a lot about the western media and its readers. Showing pictures of dead Taliban fighters, traumatised Afghan girls surrounded by dead family members, or earthquake victims in some far flung corner of the world is fine. But don’t print an awful (but don’t forget non-gory) photograph of a New Yorker before he is struck by a train. In my view, there’s an unpleasant double standard going on there.

The fact is the western media routinely censor photos in a way we would never censor words. In many ways it’s understandable, no-one wants to see horrific pictures as they eat their cornflakes in the morning (interestingly many of the western papers that ran AFP’s shot of Akbari cropped in to avoid most of the dead bodies around her).

Early on in my career I worked in South India when the Asian Tsunami of 2004 struck. The Indian papers at the time often ran much more gratuitous pictures than their counterparts in the West. My initial reaction was shock, but the more I covered the story, the more I felt the pictures the Indian papers ran were somehow more honest. They showed what it was really like on the ground. And it annoyed me that western outlets were running with more sanitised photos but still publishing breathless reports of the carnage.  

There is something to be said in the idea that sparing readers from the worst when it comes to photos and videos has made us as an audience more squeamish. We send troops to war and read about their deaths. But the only photos we tend to publish of our dead soldiers are once they are in neat coffins, draped in a Union Jack. If politicians really saw what happens on a battlefield they might be less inclined to launch wars. Equally, we as an audience, might have more realistic expectations of what war involves once our troops are committed.

It would be interesting to know whether Browne’s picture of the monk on fire – or the famous picture of the naked Vietnamese girl burned by napalm – would even be printed by most western news outlets now.