Tuned In

We Are a Camera: Life, Death and the Urge to Shoot

At tragic and mundane moments now, we reach for our cameras. The New York City subway death makes me wonder what that's doing to us.

  • Share
  • Read Later
Mark Lennihan / AP

Uniformed and plainclothes police officers stand outside a New York subway station after a man was killed after falling into the path of a train, Dec. 3, 2012.

On Tuesday morning, the New York Post waved a man’s last moments of life in a city’s face. A man, Ki-Suk Han, was pushed on a subway track in an altercation Monday, and a Post freelance photographer was on hand to take pictures, just before Han was struck and killed by an oncoming train. The Post splashed the neo-snuff photo on its cover: “This man is about to die.” Wednesday, the Post published an explanation from the photographer, R. Umar Abbasi, who said he reacted instinctively, didn’t even look at the photos before turning the memory card over to the Post and the police. He barely had time to think, he says, much less reach and save the man.

It’s a reasonable defense. It’s also beside the point. Sure, maybe some “armchair critics” are casting the comfortable judgment that Abbasi should have, could have, saved the man’s life rather than taken photos, and that in the same situation they would have. If you want to make that charge–against him and everyone else on the platform, with a speeding train coming, a homicidal man still on the scene and the real possibility of being pulled down yourself–no one can stop you. Go ahead, take some time. You might as well; you and I have already had much, much longer than 22 seconds, roughly the amount of time the bystanders reportedly had to act.

But most of the criticism over the photos has been directed, rightly, not at Abbasi but the Post editors who had plenty of time to decide whether the photo needed to be on their cover, and ran it anyway. This wasn’t a gruesome war photo showing people a conflict they’d otherwise ignore; it didn’t shed light on any ongoing situation. Its only purpose was to say: this is what he looked like just before he died, and we have the picture. (At the Technosociology blog, Zeynep Tufekci makes a detailed case why this snapshot is different from war or disaster photography.) If the Post wants to give Abbasi a chance to tell his side, fine. But it’s the editors’ explanation we should really be hearing.

(READ: Suspect in Fatal NYC Subway Push Arrested)

What struck me most about Abbasi’s story, though, was his saying that he was not the only one pulling out a camera at the scene. As responders tried to revive the man. Abbasi told the Post, “a crowd came over with camera phones and they were pushing and shoving, trying to look at the man and taking videos.”

After the fact, of course, there was probably nothing further any bystanders could have done to save the man’s life. But that didn’t justify anyone’s intruding on the moments of his death. I can’t know their motives: prurience, shock, or even a guess that the footage might be worth something. Maybe they thought better soon and hit delete, maybe they didn’t. But it also seems to fit with a familiar mindset in our cameras-everywhere universe: that seeing something is the same as doing something.

A fatal accident happens now, and we reach for our cameras. We have a particularly good lunch, it goes on Facebook. Jay-Z gets on the subway and introduces himself to an old lady, and the phones come out. Hurricane Sandy wiped out neighborhoods, and along with the volunteers came people with their iPhones, Instagramming the tragedy. Muammar Qaddafi was chased, in his last moments, by a mob with both weapons and cameraphones. It’s more shocking these days when something horrible or controversial happens and there isn’t a photo or video record.

The ubiquity of at-hand cameras has given us all a kind of sixth sense that would have seemed magic a couple generations ago, an ability to make sure that nothing around us goes unseen. We have become Homo Documentis, man the recorder. Sometimes there’s genuine emotional or news value in what amateur photographers capture. They can affect history; the “47%” Mitt Romney fundraising video, caught on hidden camera anonymously, was one of the most important developments of the 2012 campaign. They can inspire, like the tourist who shot a viral picture of an NYC cop buying boots for a shoeless man on the street. That image–even if there was later a controversy as to whether the man was actually homeless–sent a message of compassion around the world.

(MORE: Man Shoved onto Tracks of NYC Subway; Suspect Apprehended, but Could Anyone Have Saved the Victim?)

But it’s still more important to be the person giving the shoes. Observing is not doing. And recording is not helping—not in itself, though when done and shared the right way, it can do a lot of good.

I realize this is a strange and maybe hypocritical thing for me to say as a journalist, someone whose job is entirely about writing about things that other people have done. Should I not expect other people to have the same impulse to record their world as I and my colleagues do? Am I arguing some kind of privileged status for professional photographers, like Abbasi–or war photographers, or any journalists whose defense is that capturing things people are uncomfortable knowing about is their job?

Maybe. Intellectually and morally I know that democratizing the ability to make media is for the better. If we are not all journalists now, we are at least all, potentially, recorders, and generally that’s a very good, empowering thing. Generally.

There are some necessary jobs that require an observer’s detachment—but you would not want to live in a society entirely made up of people thus detached. In some moments, as on that subway platform, it would be good to know that some of us are not cameramen, not documentarians, not observers, but simply people.


This might go long.  I apologize in advance.

This incident highlights so many things that are happening to our society.  We have for several years used our technology to withdraw further and further from actually participating in society and in others' lives.  I've been in and around "tech" since the early 90s.  First there were bulletin/message boards (the old "forums") that allowed you to interact with people you'd never met and allowed you to have whole conversations without leaving your computer. Then email and IM became ubiquitous and you didn't really have to talk to your co-workers or your friends.  You could just email people, rather than pick up the phone or walk next door.  And then we moved into the age of Facebook and Twitter.  Now you can have hundreds of virtual "friends," and prove how popular you are by having your friend count be in the hundreds (or more). Sure, ideally you do actually know some of these people in the "real" world, but how many of us are "friends" with people we haven't physically talked to in 20 years, if ever?  All of these things allow us to distance ourselves more and more from participating in the "real" world.  Camera phones are just another way to do that.  If we are recording the world around us, then we were there, we experienced it, we participated in it.  But what staying behind a camera also does is let us NOT be there -- we are just a detached observer.  It is sad when that means you spend more time photographing your dinner than actually enjoying it and the company you are with.  It is utterly horrible when it lets us passively watch a murder (if he was pushed it was certainly murder) or what Mo talks about with her car. 

The other thing this highlights is how we have become a society of both narcissists and voyeurs.  We have become so "trained" to think that people -- excuse me, our "friends" and our "followers" -- actually care about every single thing we see or do, or every single feeling we might have that we have become something that even Narcissus himself would be appalled by.  Those narcissistic tendencies make people pull out cameras and document things simply to prove that "they were there."  Whether it's dinner at a nice restaurant or being a the hottest concert or being on the scene of a horrible and gruesome death, we can instantly upload the photographic proof to Facebook and say to our "friends" hey, look at me!  I was there!  I'm special! Aren't you jealous? 

The Post publishing the picture is just the voyeuristic side coming to full fruition.  Modern Americans read about gladiator fights and public executions and they typically recoil with horror and they say things like how much more civilized we all are now and how barbarous people were "back then."  But then we rush out to YouTube to watch videos of what were surely fatal car crashes and accidents (and rush we do -- they are some of the most popular videos on YouTube).  We tune into TV shows that make a mockery of any notion of privacy for people - and we justify it by saying that the people on there voluntarily put themselves out there (more of that narcissism) and we say "it's like a train wreck..I couldn't not watch."  Really?  We "can't" just not watch something?  

We are responsible for the culture and society we create, and we -- all of us -- are watching some of the results of what have made.  A society where a major newspaper feels like it's "ok" to splash the final moments of a man's life across the front page.  A society where people think it's "ok" to pull out their cameras and photograph a man DYING IN FRONT OF THEIR EYES because "there was nothing I could do anyway."  A society where it more important to prove that you were there than it is to actually interact and participate in your surroundings.

I am not innocent of any of these things.  I have a Facebook account.  I post my thoughts on blog comment sites and assume that some stranger might give a damn about my opinion.  I have driven around disaster sites and photographed the wreckage of people's lives.  And I have certainly read stories about the more salacious aspects of people's lives that were none of my business.  But perhaps it is something like this tragedy that can make all of us, including me, question exactly what kind of society we are creating, what kind of people we are turning into, and how we might be able to change that.

moryan like.author.displayName 1 Like

Several years ago, my car caught fire while I was driving it. Smoke was pouring out of the inside dash and from under the hood, and I was in heavy traffic. I finally pulled over on a busy street as flames were coming out of the car. I got out, and after a few seconds of panic and trying to think of what to do (there were no retail establishments around that would have had water, and I wasn't even sure water would the fire out), I noticed a man nearby.

He was filming it -- both me and my distress. That was almost more disturbing than the fire itself (which totaled my car). I felt so ignored as a human being -- and so un-helped (I know that's not a word, but that was the feeling). Now, this was about 6-7 years ago, before camera phones were absolutely everywhere. I'd bet if it happened today, I would have seen many more cameras and many more unhelpful bystanders taking photos of the incident.

That's all far less serious than what happened on that subway platform, no doubt. But that memory and the thought that what would happen in a similar situation today would be even more demoralizing is not something that fills me with joy.


22 seconds is a lifetime, sit where you are and watch the clock go 22 seconds

vrcplou like.author.displayName 1 Like

I think that's the initial point; sitting where you are now and watching the clock, 22 seconds is a lifetime.  Standing on the subway platform, in a crowd, with a stranger that pushed someone in front of a train still at large and that train bearing down incredibly fast on that victim - with all that chaos that 22 second "lifetime" fast forwards into a nanosecond.  It's really not fair for us on the "lifetime" side of that 22 seconds to criticize those that were standing on the platform that day.  You never know what you will really do in that situation until you are presented with it. Saying otherwise is just wishful thinking.


@vrcplou sorry - if a person has the wherewithal to take out/activate a photo device, that is ten steps closer to that poor man that he could have taken.   Maybe I'm old school, but the last thing I think about when seeing something like that is my camera.  People are desensitized and selfish today.  How they can sleep at night, I'll never know.   People are justifying away, but it comes down to... did he even TRY to help?   That crap about the flash of the camera trying to stop the train?  please.  does he think we're imbeciles?


I'm not defending the man, or anyone else, taking pictures and video of this; that is horrible and awful.  But I can't demonize any of them for not helping.  I wasn't there; I don't know what I would have done if I was.  I can say with certainty that I wouldn't have pulled out my phone; that's just not an impulse I have.  I don't slow down and look at car accidents either.  But that is about the only thing I can say with certainty.  But the shock of seeing someone that you know is about to be hit by a train and not knowing where the crazy that shoved him there is?  Under those circumstances, I can understand completely the survival impulse to move away from that situation rather than towards it.  But I agree, I do not understand the impulse to film it.


Posting the photo with the caption, "This man is about to die", appeals only to our most base voyeurism and it is disgusting.  I wish I could un-see it.

ChristieLey like.author.displayName 1 Like

I'm sorry , but the idea of taking a picture of someone in such a situation, rather then lending a helping hand is just a cold and unfeeling act.


This comment is not related to the content. It is surprised to see a typo "ubquity" here.