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.

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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.