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Thursday, December 6, 2012

Controversial Photos Prompt Ethics Questions

Officer Larry DePrimo gives new boots to a barefoot man. (NYPD Facebook page)

There have been two powerful photographs in the news recently, both stirring up controversy and raising questions about the editorial and ethical decisions faced by editors and photo journalists.

Last week, a photo snapped by a passerby of a policeman giving boots to barefoot homeless man went viral online. It has since come out that the man is not homeless, though he does struggle with housing problems.

Then on Tuesday, the New York Post ran on its cover a photo of a man about to get struck by a subway train. (Caution: The photo is disturbing.) The victim, Ki Suk Han, 58, had been pushed onto the tracks moments before.

The bold, underlined letters printed over the photo read “Pushed on the subway track, this man is about to die,” and in larger all-capital letter below, “DOOMED.”

The freelance photographer who captured the controversial image, R. Umar Abbasi, defended his decision to photograph the man, instead of helping him, in a story in Wednesday’s New York Post.

Stanley Forman received a Pulitzer Prize for this photo of a child and her godmother falling from a broken fire escape.

John Kaplan, professor of photojournalism at the University of Florida and Pulitzer Prize winner for feature photography, told Gawker that “The blame in this controversy lies directly with the New York Post for publishing such a callous, crude and truly tasteless headline while at the same time wrongly splashing the tragedy on the front page.”

Kenny Irby, a professor of visual journalism at the Poynter Institute, told Here & Now that most papers have reduced the number of photo editors, so the emphasis on fact checking is not what it used to be.

The news story of the man pushed onto the tracks and killed should be reported on, Irby said, but other photos could have been chosen and the language could have been changed.

This is not the first time that a photojournalist has come under fire for not helping the subject of a photo.

Photographer Stanley Forman was criticized for his 1975 photo, published in The Boston Herald American, of a 2-year-old girl and her 19-year-old godmother falling from a broken fire escape.

Kevin Carter won the Pulitzer Prize for this photo of a starving child in Sudan. (Kevin Carter/CORBIS/Sygma)

The girl survived the fall, but the godmother died from her injuries. Forman won a Pulitzer Prize for the photo in 1976.

South African photojournalist Kevin Carter was blasted in 1993 for not helping the starving toddler he photographed being eyed by a vulture in Sudan.

Carter committed suicide in 1994, shortly after receiving a Pulitzer Prize for the photo.

Would you have printed these photos? What are your thoughts on how editors should weigh whether and how to use a photo? Let us know in the comments section below or on our Facebook page.


  • Kenny Irby, senior faculty for visual journalism at the Poynter Institute.

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  • Peter Lemieux

    I suggest you might also consider how photo editors make editorial statements through their choice of images.  A good example appears in today’s New York Times where the photograph accompanying Roger Cohen’s criticisms of Susan Rice show her seated at a long table with no one around her.  The implication seems to be that Rice is, or appears to be in the minds of the Times’s editorial staff, isolated or aloof or somehow removed from the diplomatic and political process. 

    See: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/05/opinion/roger-cohen-The-Rice-Question.html


  • sjw81

    truly disgusting. the onlookers, the photographer, the newspaper editor. lowest of the lows

  • Romaine

    The perspective of the photo is deceiving. The photogragher is not that near the gentleman to reach for him and help. The public is making a judgement without knowing all the facts. In my opinion the photo should not have been published but I bet that many of the people who hae the same feeling will still buy the paper, which is what the “Post” wants.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100003000884786 Navin R Johnson

    Humans cannot avert their gaze from the suffering of others.  But we
    also loudly condemn the photographer who captures it on film.  This hypocrisy
    exists within most of us.

    The cover of the New York Post is a very powerful photograph.  I think they were right to print it.

    I would recommend Errol Morris as a guest to discuss photographs.  He has printed some of the best blogs ever regarding the subjects and meanings of photographs.

    • Ken Cound

      A strong opening statement, followed by a dump on the average person. People are sadistic and spiteful. There said it better. Morris have any other gems on the matter?

      • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100003000884786 Navin R Johnson

        Thanks for the stream of consciousness ramble, but your interpretation of my remarks is off the mark. 

        You can find the writings of Errol Morris on the New York Times website under the Opinionater section. 

  • J__o__h__n

    How many people complaining about the photographer not helping would have risked their lives to help a stranger at such a risk to themselves?  I wouldn’t risk my life under the circumstances in question.  If not for the photo, we wouldn’t even be discussing the duty of bystanders.  Focus the anger on policies that let the dangerously mentally ill roam freely attacking people. 

  • Dave Scholnick

    Hand in hand with the questions asked in this report is whether these photos have real value to our society. Whether or not we find them disgusting, regardless of what the photographer did at the scene, are these images that we need to see? Do these images make us better citizens? Better human beings?

  • C-T

    Oh, we do love to judge, don’t we?

    Every discussion and blog I’ve read about the subway photo has resulted in a flood of high-minded sanctimonious drivel.  
    Words and phrases like “disgusting” “demeaning” “devalues human life” and an entire lexicon of condemnation serves only to satisfy some need for strained moralism that I find, well, disgusting demeaning and disingenuous. Count me as unimpressed by such.

    • Ken Cound

      Are readers to take it you find these out pourings disingenuous?

  • Marissa

    Since I am a photographer and have experienced a similar experience on a NYC subway station. I chose to help rather than photograph the tragedy. I find that human life is more important in a situation like this- the photographer had a choice. And he chose to profit off a tragedy and that is what bothers me more. It’s all about the morals of the person itself. I think it would have been different had he attempted to save the man- and the use of text with the image is another controversy which makes the photograph more shocking. Where Kevin Carter’s photograph of th famine child is in effort to show the world things we need to help change.

  • Julie

    Ten years ago my high school photography teacher showed us Larry Clark’s famous photo of a very pregnant woman shooting up heroin.  This sparked an intense discussion among our class about the role of the photographer in that type of conversation.  Some were angry that the photographer didn’t intervene.  Ultimately for me, even if I’m undecided about the ethical role of Larry Clark in that situation,  it meant that I have felt a very strong repulsion toward drug use in general for the rest of my life.  

  • Pete Meade

    It’s a powerful photo. It happened, the fact that a photo was taken doesn’t change that. I question the photographer’s story of using his camera to warn the driver of the train, but only he knows. The Post did it’s job. Yes, sometimes their judgement is questionable, but this photo tells a story better than words ever could. I’m more appalled by those crowding the scene and taking photos in the moments after this.

  • Grichardson44224

    We are human beings first, our careers are secondary.  If we are placed in a position to help in a life-or-death situation, I believe we are obligated to do what we can if we are not putting ourselves in harms way.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1586840974 Mary Mendoza

    SEveral thoughts: 
    1. I looked at the photograph, and noticed that this poor man was truly alone.  No one on the platform was in the frame, either trying to help him or even moving towards him.

    2. Perhaps this is more of a metaphor and criticism of those who live in New York.  Everyone likes to say that they would help him, but that picture shows something far different. That man is truly alone in his last moments on this earth.

    3. Here in Boston, the trains pull into stations slowly, almsot at a crawl, beeping their horns and flashing their lights, allowing anyone unlucky enough to fall onto the rails to be pulled out or for bystands to try to help. It also allows the trains time enough to  stop. Perhaps that is  a practice that New York could try to emmulate.

  • Ken Cound

    There was time to haul out his camera, take a pass on maybe getting a shot of the attacker, and adjust his angle – but not time to help. For those who may have missed ethics, help is the default behaviour of members of a just and fair society.

  • BHA_in_Vermont

    Why do the trains not have a “save the human” equivalent of “cow catchers” * on the front? I know it doesn’t happen often, but if the train is in front of a platform, I assume it isn’t traveling at high speed. Fit them with something that will scoop whatever is on the track into a “safety cage” on the front of the train.

    The other option is a lot more expensive. Rebuild the stations with cantilevered platforms so anyone who might end up on the tracks can get out of the way of the train by scooting under the platform.

    (*) Yes, I know cow catchers don’t actually catch the cattle but shove them off to the side so they are not hit square on by the train. That wouldn’t work in subway station.

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