Photog in NYC subway death responds to ethical criticisms

Freelance photographer R. Umar Abbasi responded Wednesday to the questions and controversy his photo of the man trapped on the subway tracks caused.

NEW YORK — A photograph of a man  taken just before he was struck and killed by a New York subway has set off an ethical debate after it appeared on the front page of the New York Post. Meanwhile, authorities said a suspect has implicated himself in the man's death.

A day after Ki-Suck Han was hit by an oncoming train, emotional questions arose over the photograph of the helpless man standing before an oncoming train at the Times Square station.

On Wednesday freelance photographer R. Umar Abbasi responded to the questions and controversy his photo caused in a piece in The New York Post, saying he was too far away to help Han. He said in the Post piece he was waiting for the train at the Midtown Manhattan station when he suddenly heard people gasping.

"The announcement had come over the loudspeaker that the train was coming — and out of the periphery of my eye, I saw a body flying through the air and onto the track.

"I just started running. I had my camera up — it wasn’t even set to the right settings — and I just kept shooting and flashing, hoping the train driver would see something and be able to stop.

"I had no idea what I was shooting. I’m not even sure it was registering with me what was happening. I was just looking at that train coming."

Video: NYPD video shows argument ahead of subway death

The moral issue among professional photojournalists in such situations is "to document or to assist," said Kenny Irby, an expert in the ethics of visual journalism at the Poynter Institute, a Florida-based nonprofit journalism school.

He said that's the choice professional photographers often face in the seconds before a fatality.

Irby spoke to The Associated Press on Tuesday, a day after the Post published the photo of Han desperately looking at the train, unable to climb off the tracks in time.

On Tuesday, the Internet and television airwaves were full of condemnation that Abbasi should have done more to try to save Han.

"I'm sorry. Somebody's on the tracks. That's not going to help," said Al Roker on NBC's "Today" show as the photo was displayed.

CNN's Soledad O'Brien tweeted: "I think it's terribly disturbing — imagine if that were your father or brother." Larry King reached out to followers on Twitter to ask: "Did the (at)nypost go too far?"

Commentary posted on social media and in news broadcasts came down to one unanswered question: Why didn't Abbasi help Han?

But Irby said it's not that simple.

"What was done was not necessarily unethical," Irby said. "It depends on the individual at the time of action."

It depends, he said, on whether the photographer was strong enough to lift the man, or close enough. Abbasi said he got the shot while running to the scene and firing off his camera in hopes the flash would attract the attention of the train conductor, the Post reported.

"So there was an attempt to help," said Irby, who blames Post editors "for the outcry" because they made the decision to publish the image.

Video: Mayor Bloomberg addresses the subway death tragedy

Another professional reluctant to reach conclusions was veteran photographer John Long of the National Press Photographers Association, where he is chairman of the ethics committee.

"I cannot judge the man," he said. "I don't know how far away he was; I don't know if he could've done anything."

However, both Long and Irby said that as a photographer, "you are morally obliged to help" — if possible, rather than take a picture.

Added Irby, "I would argue that you're a human being before you're a journalist."

The suspect was taken into custody on Tuesday after investigators recovered security video that showed a man fitting the description of the suspect working with street vendors near Rockefeller Center, said New York Police Department spokesman Paul Browne.

"The individual we talked to made statements implicating himself in the incident," Browne said.

Police did not release his name and no charges were immediately announced.

Witnesses told investigators they saw the suspect talking to himself Monday afternoon before he approached Ki-Suck Han at the station, got into an altercation with him and pushed him into the train's path.

Han, 58, of Queens, died shortly after being hit on the tracks. Police said he tried to climb a few feet to safety but got trapped between the train and the platform's edge.

Subway pushes are unusual. Among the more high-profile cases was the January 1999 death of Kendra Webdale. A former mental patient admitted he shoved her to her death.

After that, the state Legislature passed Kendra's Law, which lets mental health authorities supervise patients who live outside institutions to make sure they are taking their medications and aren't a threat to safety.

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