Ethical questions raised by the subway tragedy photos

I was sitting in a  Rochester, Minnesota hotel restaurant having breakfast last Friday (and thus suitably insulated from the rest of the world) reading Laura Petrecca’s column in USA Today “Series of subway tragedy photos raises some questions.”  A journalist takes pictures of a man pushed in front of a train seconds before the man is hit and killed.  The ethical questions are profound.

  • Should the journalist, who claims he was too far away to help, have taken the pictures or rushed in vain to the man’s aid?
  • Should the NY Post have published these pictures and pandered to sensationalism?
  • Why are readers drawn to such macabre images?
  • Should spectators on the scene have taken endless IPhone and Android images and movies to post on the web? Was it, as Ms. Petrecca suggests, to feed the insatiable beast of the internet in an attempt to achieve a moment of notoriety?

Sincerely, I really don’t know the answers and am quite interested in what readers think.  In such matters I tend to fall back on what my mother taught me about right and wrong and, yes, good taste.

  • What the journalist could or could not do is in his own conscience.  If he was indeed helpless then, perhaps, the question becomes one of motivation.  Was he reflexively documenting or was he from the very first thinking of profiting from tragedy?
  • My mother taught me to never read the NY Post.
  • Voyeurism is widespread, if despicable.  Everyone rubber necks to some extent.  The important point is whether you are repulsed  and whether you feel guilty about being drawn in the first place.  You’ve got sadism  on the deplorable end of human emotion and empathy on the other end – again I never read the NY Post.  When I saw the images on the news.  My reaction was OMG that poor man.
  • As for the internet beast, there’s some of that.  I think significant too is the reality that taking camera to hand, or eye, is abstracting.  You cease to be a participant in events transforming instead into being a spectator, a documenter, a chronicler.  It is a defense mechanism.

Laura Petracca goes on to quote John Churman, who is a leader in the NY Society for Ethical Culture: “many photo takers have been ‘desensitized’ by watching traditional news media do ‘unseemly’ things, such as stick a microphone in the face of a distraught person to probe their feelings”…(it is) invasive and intrusive” and then they go on to mimic it.

My mind returns again to Eddie Adams’ “Brigadier General Nguyen Ngoc Loan Executing the Viet Cong Guerilla, Bay Lop, 1968.” What is it that makes Adams’ photograph acceptable photojournalism, and the image of the subway tragedy not?


This entry was posted in Reviews and Critiques.


  1. Paul Rubinstein December 12, 2012 at 1:59 am #

    People who take heroic action are often “ordinary” people who don’t see an alternative option and don’t consider themselves heroic. But we know that they are and it is hard for any of us to know how we would behave in such a stressful circumstance. But taking photographs for 20+ seconds instead of trying to pull him out of danger suggests a very warped ethical compass. Taking photographs is somewhere between unfeeling, uncaring and sadistic in my opinion. It is interesting that there are psychological studies which show that the more people who are involved (witness the murder of Kitty Genovese, in which 38 people had a chance to call the police or do something helpful but didn’t) the less likely any one person will take action. The NY Post should not have published any photos out of respect for the dead man and good taste. The boundaries of propriety have been warped by the press, internet and the general chaos of appropriate behavior as well as lack of guidance from those who know better.

  2. David December 12, 2012 at 1:32 pm #

    Which means that holding a camera in your hand is never a license to escape the moral responsibilities of being a caring human being and a member of society. Indeed, there should never be any question.

    As for the NY Post, in my opinion, it has long ceased to be a real newspaper. As discussed in relation to the Spanish American War, this is not a new situation. But I think that we are approaching new lows in journalism and a lot of what we call news is merely showmanship in quest of mammon. This worsens as more and more people seek their news elsewhere on the web.

    If you read the diatribe that follows most news stories in unexpurgated comment sections on news websites, one realizes that you are quite correct in saying that our society has achieved “a very warped ethical compass.”

    We have to refuse to succumb to the belief that we cannot do better. The NY Post will continue to do what it does. The fact that both we and Laura Petracca are discussing this, indeed, that it is being widely discussed, suggests that we can do better.