Yesterday’s controversial New York Post cover leaves me wondering: are we all doomed? Have we become a society that merely stands back because we’re more interested in taking a photo for a quick buck or for fear of getting involved and facing potential backlash?
Like many of you, I was initially shocked and outraged when I read about R. Umar Abbasi, the freelance photographer that pulled out his camera to take pictures instead of dropping it to help a man that was pushed onto the subway tracks at New York City’s Time Square station. I was less shocked (sadly) that those pictures made it on the cover of a news magazine. And even less shocked that Abbasi’s story — his decision to photograph, not to save Ki-Suck Han — is the bigger story, even overshadowing Han’s tragic death.
How much less shocked could I get?
This afternoon, when I brought up this story to my students, some of them had critical questions: Times Square is usually busy, where are the other people on the platform? How exactly did Abbasi intend that his camera’s flash would warn the train engineer in a city that probably gets millions of tourists taking pictures of incoming subway trains? Why was Han pushed onto the tracks in the first place? And what would we do in a traumatic and dangerous situation like this one?
One student shared that someone she knew helped a driver put out a car fire with a fire-extinguisher, only to be sued a few months later for damages to the car. Another student brought up neighbors in the middle of a domestic dispute who retaliate on the Samaritan neighbors for calling the police. I told the story of driving on a lonely highway in Delaware with a friend, and our witnessing a car as it ran off the road and into a ditch; when we pulled over and called 911, the drunk driver cursed at us for reporting the incident. And the stories kept pouring in.
We have become a nation of people who rubberneck, maybe for the thrill of seeing something awful, and then we keep trucking along. In Regarding the Pain of Others, Susan Sontag wrote, our “appetite for pictures showing bodies in pain is as keen, almost, as the desire for ones that show bodies naked.” Today, in an age where we can all be instant photographers, thanks to our cell phones, capturing images of bodies in pain is made more accessible, and such voyeurism frightens me. Our camera lenses seem to be separating our eyes and minds from our social realities and responsibilities. We are left as guilty bystanders, hardly ready or knowledgeable as to how to act in moments of crisis. The distancing effect of cameras may be dis-sensitizing that part in our brains that triggers our impulses for survival. Or is that distancing effect exactly what may be keeping us in our places (i.e. trauma that leads us to flee or freeze)?
The New York Post has been criticized for printing the photo, the photographer for taking it, and the editors for the all-caps headline: “DOOMED.” But as one of my students asked, who are they saying is doomed, the man who watched helplessly as a train barreled toward him, or the rest of us, who face the hard reality that if we are suddenly put in a life or death situation, we might not get the kind of help we need?
I don’t know if Abbasi really was trying to save Mr. Han with a click of his camera rather than the reach of his arm. But I can say that he was probably not the only one in that subway station at the time. I just hope that if I find myself in Han’s helpless position someone out there will do the right thing. And if I’m ever in Abbasi’s position, I hope I have the mental wherewithal to be someone who will do the right thing.
The other tragedy in this story is the mirror the New York Post has put before us that forces each of us to wonder about ourselves and our own reactions in an emergency. We may not be ready to accept whatever dark truth the photo(s) may someday reveal about our social consciousness/psyches. For now, I will keep hoping and expecting the best out of people and myself. And, for now, as naive as it may sound, my hope keeps me feeling a little less doomed.