News media has been awash with debate over the front-page photograph by R. Umar Abbasi in today’s New York Post. Abbasi’s photograph is of a man, Ki-Suck Han, 38, of Elmhurst, Queens, only moments before he was hit and killed by a subway train. There are a number of clues in his pictures that the story Abbasi has told about the photograph is not truthful.
To reiterate: The New York Post happened to have one of their freelance photographers on the platform at a Times Square area subway stop when a Queens man was shoved onto the tracks. As the victim scrambled to try to climb to safety, the photographer took pictures of the event and the New York Post chose to publish them on their front page. The photographer claims he was not taking pictures but warning the train with his flash, and the New York Post has decided to support his less than believable story.
A lucky shot or a callous photojournalist?
Abbasi claims in the Post article that accompanied his photographs that “I just started running, running, hoping that the driver could see my flash.” But which way was he running? When you examine the three published photographs in chronological order, it does not look as if Abbasi was getting closer to Kan. It doesn’t look as if he was moving at all. In the photographs (left and center) that show Han sitting on the tracks, Han is quite close to the bottom of the frame but in the next picture (right) when Han is attempting to climb from the tracks, he is more or less in the same position relative to the camera. The only difference is that the photographer appears to have stepped back away from the edge of the platform. The photographer doesn’t appear to have moved at all. He is not running but standing still taking pictures.
Also, look at the subway sign in the top left of each image. The signs stay relatively the same size. Also note that for a guy frantically flashing his camera just “trying to save a life,” Abbasi manages to get pretty consistent shots, almost as if he was looking through the viewfinder.
There are several “rules” or guidelines when it comes to composing a good photograph. They are taught in every basic photography class. These rules can be followed accidentally, but trained and experienced photographers intuitively balance and frame their shots into strong compositions or know how to throw out the rules to create a good shot. I do not know how classically trained Abbasi was but one can judge the rest of his work on its own merits. Despite Abbasi’s claim that he “just wanted to warn the train — to try and save a life,” his photographs are extremely well composed.
The rule of thirds: To create a pleasing image, it is suggested that you divide the image into 9 equal parts using four lines and that the main subjects should fall on these lines or where they intersect. Admittedly the photograph is most likely cropped.
Lead lines: Lines are important in a photograph as they direct the eye where to look. Strong photographs frequently have strong lines. In Abbasi’s photograph the lead lines start in the lower right and push you to look up to the left at the approaching train. The foreground being dominated by the platform surface also helps to push your eye to the main subject of the photograph, the train.
Un-cropped version: A third purportedly un-cropped version the photo has become available. As you can see the rule of thirds applies to the train, the main subject of the image and Han is almost perfectly centered in the frame. The lead lines created by edge of the platform start in the lower right third of the picture and push the eye diagonally to the upper left third where the train is entering the frame. Although the photograph is less balanced with so much negative space in the right third of the image, it arguably adheres to the rules of thirds much more so than the cropped version.
The NY Post writers used interesting language when describing how the images happened; “Abbasi, whose camera captured chilling shots of Suk’s tragic fight for his life” as if to imply that the camera through a will of its own preserved this event, presumably while Abbasi was trying to stop the train with his flash because he was too weak to help the man himself.
Should the New York Post have published these pictures at all?
There is an age-old adage in journalism that “if it bleeds it leads.” Blood and gore sell newspapers; so, for that matter, do fires. This has been going for a long time. Weegee, one of the most well-known photojournalists was mostly famous for pictures of his murder scenes. Graphic images of natural disasters are nothing new.
Editors have to struggle with what is appropriate to publish and what is not. There is a loss of dignity that occurs when someone’s dead body is published for all to see. Not to mention, the effect it has on the surviving family members is devastating. This photograph is different; in that Han is not yet dead in the photographs. They document the final terrifying seconds of his life. The moment of death is so intensely personal.
The front page headline is in some ways more disturbing than the photograph, DOOMED Pushed on the track, this man is about to die (the not so subtle subtext: “And we got a picture of it, woohoo!”).
This situation is reminiscent of the two young boys who were tragically swept away during the flooding caused by Hurricane Sandy. A mother, Glenda Moore, was fleeing the storm when she was caught up in the rising water. She pled for help from neighbors who allegedly turned her away. The neighbors were universally decried as cold-hearted for not assisting the mother. The New York Post was none too sympathetic and described the situation this way:
“Cops said Moore banged on the doors of nearby houses, desperately seeking help. But the people who answered turned her away. She had to ride out the storm outside and got no help until hours later, when rescuers found her clinging to a post on a porch.”
If the neighbors had photographed this poor woman as her two boys floated away, would the New York Post have paid them and used those pictures on the front page?
UPDATE: 12/4/2012 9:05 PM EST: iMediaEthics asked the New York Post for comment earlier today and will update with any response.
UPDATE: 12/6/2012 11:58 PM EST: We received several comments about using the cropped version of the New York Post’s front page photograph to analyze Abbasi’s composition and the truthfulness of his story. The cropped version was the only one available at the time this article was written so we decided to go back and take a look at the purportedly un-cropped version of the photograph. A paragraph and photo have been added above.
UPDATE: 12/7/2012 12:54 AM: This story continues in new post:
Measuring Subway Platform Discredits NY Post Abbasi Subway Photo Tale
CORRECTION - December 6, 2012 05:25 PM
News sites are reporting different spellings of Han’s name. We originally spelled Han’s name Ki-Suk Han, based on the spelling used in initial reports. iMediaEthics has since called the New York City Police Department (NYPD) to fact check and Police Officer Markowski from the Office of The Deputy Commissioner of Public Information confirmed today that Han’s name is spelled Ki-Suck Han. We regret the error.
That’s not a Grand Central Station stop. You fail at journalisim.
As this site is about media ethics, I find it rather ironic (at the very least) that all your commentary about careful composition and rule of thirds is based off an altered photo. If one looks at the original photo on the NY Post website at http://www.nypost.com/p/news/local/manhattan/nightmare_on_subway_tracks_GgvCtkeJj6cTeyxHns2VNP, it is apparent that Abbasi was also much farther away from the victim than appears in your photos.Any good photographer will unconsciously compose a photo well, even under such circumstances. Using his innate talent as “proof” of unethical behavior seems to be somewhat far-reaching. The motorman himself was quoted as saying that he saw Abbasi’s flashes and tried to stop the train. If the motorman couldn’t save him, and all the other people on the platform couldn’t save him, why are you singling out Abbasi for not saving him? Perhaps Abbasi’s photo will be the one thing that galvanizes New Yorkers to contribute to a fund for the victim’s family.
I posted this elsewhere and thought it deserved to be here:The huge problem with this analysis is that it assumes that the NY Post published the raw photos exactly as they were taken from the camera, when that’s almost never true even when photographs are taken under good circumstances. By straightening and cropping, it’s possible to completely change how the photos look — you could make it look like the photographer is running away, standing still, or running backwards. You can make a photo that doesn’t fit standard good composure guidelines, fit those guidelines (by simply changing the area that you crop). Usually these cameras have pretty high resolution, which gives you a lot of room to obtain a good photograph from what would otherwise be a very bad one.The photograph used as an example for the “rule of thirds” is the exact same photograph as the one used as an example of “lead lines” (guy in same position), yet their cropping is different.
i’d like to point out that taking 49 flash photos of an approaching train is not so much a warning to the conductor as it is a great way to blind him from being able to see that he’s about to hit the poor man.
Please note the following:The front page photo is in fact cropped. The full frame of it has been published now in many places.The camera he used has auto-focus; his flash was set to 1/64th power. It is a Nikon DSLR capable of shooting 5 or 6 frames a second or more.He would be able to shoot dozens of frames on instinct without looking very carefully, and most of those frames would be in focus.As for composition, a professional news photographer’s training and experience are to shoot quickly, getting it right or almost right without thinking.As for the distance, he says that he backed himself against the wall at one point because he thought the assailant was coming after him.Without looking at his entire take, it would be presumptuous to come to the conclusions that you have about him lying. He may well have been. But not for the reasons that you outline.Photographer’s statements are taken from: http://www.nypost.com/p/news/local/anguished_fotog_critics_are_unfair_s4bWwIXf
Dear Mr Chin,I have read Abbasiâ€™s new account of what happened on the platform that day. I assure you we are taking a very thorough look at all of his statements and will be publishing a follow up piece with our discoveries. It is apparent from the three photos published that Abbasi did not move much and certainly wasnâ€™t running. As I said to a previous comment, if Abbasi was using his professional training and experience to get a good shot, he was taking pictures not trying to signal the train to stop. You canâ€™t have it both ways. The point of my article is that his photographs demonstrate Abbasiâ€™s conscious act to take those pictures they didnâ€™t just happen magically as he flashed his camera.- London
Dear Mr Kardos,Very good point! I wonder how rescue workers would feel about this new â€œtechniqueâ€Thank you for commenting!London
Dear Travis-42,In the article I mention cropping as most likely being a factor. Although I take your point photographs can be altered in many way, cropping would not account for how the subject relates in size and distance to both the items around him and in turn how they all relate to the photographerâ€™s location. I do not agree that you could make photographer look like they are standing still when they are running simply by cropping a photograph. I will be discussing this in a follow up article. I would be more than happy to hear you thoughts after you read it. I used the two different photographs in lead line and rule of thirds because at the time this article was written that was the fullest frame picture available and the rule of thirds does depend on the frame. With lead lines the frame is less important.Thank you for commenting. And look for out a follow up article.
Dear Mr Fiedler,This new photo (that has recently been added to the NY Post story and after I published) further supports my suggestion that the photographer was not running toward the train as he claimed. Please examine this new photo carefully.Â The man is perfectly centered in frame, the lines are straight.Â Does this look like a photograph taken by a man who is running? You say I am using his “innate talent” against him; this brings up the main thrust of my argument.Â If in fact he used his talent to take this picture, he was then not running flashing his camera, he was taking pictures.Â If he was taking pictures then he was lying. You cannot have it both ways. I am not singling out Abassi.Â Abassi singled himself out.Â He chose to take the photographs.Â He chose to sell the photos. He chose to embellish his story to try and make himself a hero instead of just telling the truth. Thank you for taking the time to comment and I hope you continue to read iMediaEthics.
Dear Mr. Tiny Johnson,Thank you for your comment. There was an editing error. It has been corrected. Thank you bringing it to our attention.
Our commenting system is having some glitches. London's responses below were posted around 4:30 PM Dec. 5.
I'd be curious to know from the EXIF data at what mm the photos were shot at, it'd provide some insight into Abassi's distance from Han. Side note, this photo and story make me sick. Best wishes to the all involved.
I'm not sure the people running this site have any understanding of what is done with photos by photo editors. Sometimes even the best photographers have to shoot quickly w/o deliberating over composition — the really good ones can do this without looking through a viewfinder. But just as frequently, photos are not only cropped (as the writer of this piece belatedly acknowledged), but they are frequently straightened as well to maintain good composition…as if the photo were perfectly composed through a viewfinder. Also, you have no access to all the other photos on the card taken by the photographer, so the conclusions you're drawing about his ability to act or not act are presumptuous, to say the least. I have seen minor miracles performed on photos just with aggressive cropping and straightening (modern digital files can withstand a lot of cropping), and the evidence to indicate the focal length of the photo just isn't there without more information from the NY Post.
Dear MaxF, Cropping is mentioned in the article and can account for the rule of thirds. However when you look at the un-cropped version of the photograph published after the publication you can see that the picture is still framed squarely and the rule of thirds still applies. Well trained photographers can “shoot from the hip” and produce good images. Please keep in mind that Abbasi’s story is that he was blindly flashing his camera with no intention of taking pictures. To reiterate: Abbasi’s sole intention (as stated by him in multiple interviews) was to flash the camera to warn the driver NOT to take pictures. Therefore his ability is irrelevant. The thrust of my argument is that his photographs are too well composed, well focused and framed to fit his story.
I am updating the article with further examples and discussion about cropping. Also please see our follow up article that attempts to approximate Abbasi’s actual locations when he was shooting these pictures.
Thank you for taking the time to comment.