Could You Have Helped The Subway Train Murder Victim?

December 6, 2012  |

From the Huffington Post:

“The photographer who captured the notorious image of a man about to be killed by an oncoming subway car defended himself in multiple interviews on Tuesday and Wednesday, saying that he had no chance to help the man out of the subway tracks where he had been pushed.

The New York Post sparked outrage by putting the horrifying picture of Ki Suk Han’s imminent death on its front page on Tuesday. The picture was taken by R. Umar Abbasi, a freelance photographer for the Post who happened to be in the subway station. He said he had started taking snaps so that the driver of the subway would see his camera’s flash and be alerted that something was wrong.

Abbasi’s photographs were hotly debated by photojournalists, with some saying Abbasi had a duty to help, not take pictures, and others defending his actions.”

Yesterday, the police took a suspect into custody, who was seen on another eyewitness video, arguing with  Han prior to his death. In a first-person piece, published yesterday in the New York Post, Abbasi said that he never meant to capture Han’s murder on camera but rather was hoping that the flash from his camera would notify the conductor, who could stop the train. Moreover, “from the time I heard the shouting until the time the train hit the man was about 22 seconds.”  This is in contrast to other published reports, which said that he had as much as 90 seconds to react.

Yet this hasn’t deterred criticism from some, who felt Abbasi had ample to time to do something more heroic than picture taking and that he and the New York Post are just exploiting a tragedy.  One such critic is London Shearer Allen, who wrote at post at iMedia Ethics contrasting Abbasi’s version of events by examining the composition of the photos used by the New York Post. Writes Allen:

“There are several “rules” or guidelines when it comes to composing a good photograph. They are taught in every basic photography class.  These rules can be followed accidentally, but trained and experienced photographers intuitively balance and frame their shots into strong compositions or know how to throw out the rules to create a good shot. I do not know how classically trained Abbasi was but one can judge the rest of his work on its own merits. Despite Abbasi’s claim that he “just wanted to warn the train — to try and save a life,” his photographs are extremely well composed.”

First off, let me just say that when I first saw the pictures, I was horrified. This is like my worse subway fear realized – and exactly why I never stand anywhere close to the end of the platform – not even to check to see if the train is coming. But according to Brian Palmer of Slate, the majority of us subway riders may not have much to fear considering that: “Most subway track fatalities are suicides in which the victim made no attempt to escape, and a large percentage of the remainder are accidents involving drugs or alcohol. While subway track murders garner the most media attention, only 3 percent of those who wind up on the tracks are pushed.”

It also means that most of us don’t ever have to come face to face with the decision to act heroic – at least not in that circumstance. Let’s face it: some people are heroes and other people are made to play witness to heroes. I would like to believe that put into a similar circumstance, I would rise to occasion and be the hero.  But I also know that I’m scared of getting hit by a train. And since I don’t know all the mechanics of subway operations, there is always a chance that helping him might run the risk of self-injury – or worse. The “fight or flight response” not only gives us the adrenaline rush needed to do something heroic like rushing into burning buildings to save the lives of complete strangers but it also imbues us with the common sense to know that since you don’t even know which rail actually constitutes the third rail, the one that can electrocute you, (are they counting from the inside or the outside?), you should probably not go near that situation.  I mean, if it is a close family member? Sure. But even the safety instructions on a plane tell you to put your air mask on before helping someone’s with theirs.

Then again, I would definitely not think to take pictures either. At the most I can see myself running to the ticket box and letting the cashier know what’s about to go down.  And at the least, I probably would close my eyes, hold my ears and turn away because no way am I about to watch somebody getting hit by a train. I’ve watched too many grotesque and gory horror films for that.

But in all fairness Abbasi is a professional photographer and you can’t fault him for doing what his profession requires for him to do. Abbasi just happened to be in the wrong place at the right time and got to capture, through film, the last heart-wrenching moments of a man’s life, which landed on the front page of the New York Post. We say nothing when the nightly world news regularly shows images of dead, dismembered bodies in war torn countries?   More than anything, I think what bothers certain people the most about these pictures is that it reminds us of how fleeting life can be even in the most mundane and familiar of enclaves (i.e. a frequently traveled subway station). That’s pretty spooky stuff right there.

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  • FromUR2UB

    If I felt that I could helped him without being pulled over myself, and had sufficient time before the train arrived, I would have tried. Ninety seconds isn’t a whole lot of time to hoist someone up with a train approaching, though. I doubt that train would have been able to stop anyway,even if the conductor saw the man on the track. Like 18-wheelers, I imagine they need a minimum distance to come to a complete stop. For security reasons, they may even be programmed not to stop before designated locations. There may not have been much anyone could have done.

  • Kaori

    More than likely I could help, but I would not have risked it.

    • Na Na

      Although my actions would have been different from yours I’m glad you were honest. Personally I have foolishly intervened in street fights and I often stop kids on the streets who are misbehaving but I don’t know that man situation, we don’t how we was raised or what his life is like or what was going through his mind at the moment to say how wrong he was for taking a picture. War journalist go to Syria and Africa everyday to film shot up kids and starving refugees just to take pics for our news papers and Yahoo sites without feeding the children or trying to bring them to safety, so why is this man any different.

  • MLS2698

    I’m sure that flashing a camera in the train operator’s face and almost blinding him would NOT alert him to danger. That photographer is a jerk who only looks for ” the one shot ” in life.

  • ANTMilf

    If the train was coming too fast, there is no way I can save him. But if the train wasn’t close and he was on the edge on the platform, me and somebody else would pull him up before the train comes. My fiance and I was talking about this last night and we say why didn’t the guy who took the pic did nothing to save the man instead of taking pics and then that newspaper had it on their cover!

  • Karen

    The photographer sold these pictures to media outlets. That’s simply greedy and unacceptable. End of story.

  • Karen

    The photographer sold these pictures to media outlets. That’s simply greedy and unacceptable. End of story.

  • kierah

    The man was on the edge of the platform. It seems people should have been able to take his arms and help. He might have dislocated his shoulder, but at least he would have lived. I wouldn’t be able to live with myself if I didn’t try to help.
    @Meyaka:disqus – he might not have been able to outrun the train. Depending on the speed of the train, he might have had to run several blocks to beat the train. Most platforms have a crawl space underneath them that you can hide under. If you can be wary of the 3rd rail, you wait between the tracks. And one guy even laid down on the tracks in the space between the ground and the train.

  • Meyaka

    I don’t know if I could have helped him physically,but I would have told him to run away from the train,the train was going to stop right? I don’t know what I could have done to help but stoping to take a picture would have not been my first reflex. People who stand around watching acts of violence and tapping or photographing it without providing assistance need to be held accountable as well as the aggressor .

  • Bree

    I do not understand how a camera flash is going to stop a train.He obviously had the time to snap a picture which was crystal clear. Instead, he could have shouted and flailed his arms at the conductor, and more importantly, he could have tried to help the man up.

    • FAMURattler85

      Right! Same thing I was going to say.

    • dee

      When workers are on the tracks they have flashlights that they use to signal to the conductor of a train entering into the station that they are there. I thought maybe he felt if he flashed his light on his camera that the conductor would recognize someone may be on the track.