Most of the headlines this week have been terrible, but I wonder how long we will be haunted by one image in particular: Poor Ki Suk Han on the cover of the New York Post, captured helpless on the train tracks just moments before he was struck and inevitably killed.
On its most basic level, the image is horrible because there is literally not a single subway ride I have taken anywhere, ever, where my mind hasn’t wandered into that dark realm. What if someone pushed me right now onto the tracks? Maybe everybody thinks this way, or maybe I am just neurotic; I have no idea. But I can’t help the sort of constant, low-grade discomfort I have if I’m anywhere near that yellow line on the edge, no matter how much my rational brain tries to tamp the absurd idea of subway vulnerability down. At least, I’ve always liked to think of it as an absurd idea.
I would also like to think that if I was pushed onto the tracks, anybody in the vicinity would help me get up. Even if it was a futile effort, just to be next to some good samaritan, to simply not feel so alone down there, I think, would be better than nothing. The solitude we see in this photo is part of the overall horror. And while it’s easy to blame the photographer who snapped away trying to alert the conductor with his flash rather than getting down and helping Ki Suk Han, I actually feel a little bad for him, too: right or wrong, what a thing to live with.
To many, though, the real horror rests in the publishing of said photo. As a journalist, I have argued more times than I can count in favor of going ahead and printing those hard pictures, advocating always for showing people what is happening in the world, printing the truth, even when it’s gruesome. Obviously, I’m not talking here about gratuitous shots at murder scenes or whathaveyou, but when we’re dealing with situations or a moment in life that is reflective of our larger culture? Absolutely. War means death; poverty means starving children. Editing such things to be less unpleasant or not showing them at all is dishonest, and a failure on the part of the press. Remember the heated outcry after 9/11 when the Times published the “falling man” photograph? I fell on the side of those who saw publishing that photo as highest form of respect to the victims, because that photo would be remembered forever for simply showing the truth. And sometimes the truth is supposed to hurt.
In this case, though, I would argue the widespread outcry against the Post is more than a reaction to a painful story, more than a reaction to the psychological discomfort of seeing someone in a situation that a lot of us fear, more than disgust over the idea one person allowed another to be alone, and scared, and about to die, while he took pictures. The outcry against the Post, I would argue, is in fact less about the image, and more about the words (a cartoonish “DOOMED” for a headline) and more about the splashy front-page treatment. I would argue that this is a moment in time worthy of capturing and printing, but it is not a major news story. It—and Ki Suk Han—warranted more respectful treatment, and the failure to give it to him is exactly why people don’t want these sorts of photos to run.
The upshot of the whole thing, though, is that the Post has turned a true story about Ki Suk Han into an irritating story about the Post. And we have let them. And that should haunt us.