News Column

Subway Tragedy Photos Raise Questions

Dec. 7, 2012

Laura Petrecca, USA TODAY

A photographer who snapped images of a man about to be killed by a subway train was far from the only person who filmed the startling events.

A subway rider recorded a heated altercation between Ki-Suck Han and Naeem Davis, the man accused of pushing him onto the tracks.

As Han's body was pulled to the platform and a doctor tried to revive him, people crowded in to take pictures, said New York Post freelance photographer R. Umar Abbasi, whose photo of Han seconds before he was hit ran on the newspaper's cover.

"They were pushing and shoving, trying to look at the man and taking videos," Abbasi wrote in the Post.

As more people pull out their smartphones and other devices to record violent, vulgar or otherwise traumatic events, it invites a question: Is it citizen journalism or simply incivility?

Such photos have exposed the wrongs of those in power and documented tragic events. New York and New Jersey residents used their phones to chronicle the destruction that came with Superstorm Sandy.

Media outlets, USA TODAY included, use photos from the public. CNN's iReport is fed by public contributions. The celebrity-focused TMZ website encourages people to submit photos or video of "a breaking story."

While amateur photographers capture events they see as informative or entertaining, their actions can also be seen as insensitive or worse.

In the case of subway victim Han, many people would be "morally offended" that others snapped pictures just after his death, says Daniel McFee, co-director of the Evelyn Lincoln Institute for Ethics and Society at Mercyhurst University in Erie, Pa.

"We think, 'What if that were someone in my family?'" he says.

People are inclined to gawk at an accident or other surprising event, but that is much different from taking a photograph, McFee says.

"There's a natural impulse for us to want to survey our landscape and see what is going on," he says, but there's usually a moment of deliberation before someone takes a picture.

"There's an intention there that you are trying to capture something for yourself or social media," he says. "There is a moral difference there."

Melanie Wells of New York City public relations firm DiGennaro Communications was shocked recently by what she saw after a bike messenger tumbled to the street: An onlooker in a cab at a red light didn't offer to help but leaned out to snap a photo.

"With smartphones, we're all witnesses, but does being behind the camera make us more removed?" she asks.

Her theory on why people snap and post unexpected photos: "The need to feed the social media beast," she says. Users try "to fill our Facebook pages and other outlets with material that shows we're interesting, out and about and on the scene."

McFee and Joseph Churman, a leader at the New York Society for Ethical Culture, agree.

Such sites have "encouraged a type of narcissism in American lives, as well as globally, where everyone has to parade their own dubious accomplishments in front of the world," Churman says.

He says many photo takers have been "desensitized" by watching the traditional news media do "unseemly" things, such as stick a microphone in the face of a distraught person to probe their feelings.

TV and Web news viewers regularly see content that is "invasive and intrusive," Churman says, and then they try to mimic it.

Source: Copyright USA TODAY 2012

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