Project 11: Re-thinking photojournalism 1: the citizen journalist

Exercise 3.3

This exercise considers the role of the “citizen journalist”.  Specifically, the actions of a freelance photographer, who photographed a man just before he was hit by a subway train in the USA in 2012.

Evidently, the man was pushed onto the subway tracks, but was then unable to climb back up before the approaching train struck him.  He later died in hospital.   An image of the man struggling to climb back up on to the platform, whilst the train approached, was published on the cover of the New York Post the following day, with the headline “this man is about to die”.  Needless to say, the cover was very controversial, as addressed in this blog.  After reading the blog carefully, my thoughts on the event are as follows.

Both the photographer and the newspaper came in for a lot of criticism.  For the photographer, the issue was whether or not he should have taken the photograph, whilst for the newspaper, the issue was whether or not they should have published it.

The photographer claims that when he saw the man fall, he ran towards the train, firing his flash repeatedly, in an attempt to warn the driver to stop.  How true this is, is anyone’s guess.  Personally, I find it quite telling, that his image is both well composed and sharp, which would seem rather unlikely, if he had started running immediately towards the train as his story implied.  Having said that, was it wrong for him to take the photograph?  How far away was he?  Could he even have reached the man before the train struck?  And if he could, would he have been able to pull him to safety?  What would the personal risk have been to the photographer?  And who else was on the platform?  Why didn’t they act?  Obviously, the situation is not as simple as it may first appear.

Furthermore, I wonder how much the context of this situation, affects our opinions about the ethics?  Photojournalists, documenting a war zone for example, are expected to be dispassionate observers.  Yet here is a freelance photographer, arguably acting as a dispassionate observer, and being heavily criticised for it.  Does it make a difference that this event was domestic rather than foreign?  That because many ordinary Americans use the subway on a daily basis, they can relate to the injured man, in a way that they cannot relate to foreign war victims?  Would a similar event, photographed today in Syria or Afghanistan, provoke the same condemnation from the newspaper’s readers?  I suspect not.

Perhaps, more ethically dubious than the actions of the photographer, are the actions of the newspaper in printing the photograph.  The photographer made a (probably split-second) decision to capture the moment, which upon reflection he may or may not regret.  However, the newspaper, made a considered decision to print the photograph on the front page the very next day.  This is the point at which, somebody really should have stopped and asked, is this really the right decision.