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December 5, 2012

Doom in America: What The NY Post Subway Death Photo Is Really About

In the foreground of the photo, in a setting that is quintessentially New York, we witness a man in a hole so deep, he cannot climb out of it while just beyond him, diagonally to his left, he faces the immediate threat of a fast approaching piece of the city’s machinery.

Is that a description of the NY Post photo of the man killed Monday on the subway tracks? …Or the photo from a week ago, of the encounter between a homeless man and a NYPD officer in Times Square, the officer — in a spontaneous act of kindness — presenting the man with a new pair of boots? The difference, of course, is that one photo was all about fairytales and “feel good,” while the other ended in doom.

Beyond the pitched cries of editorial impropriety, perhaps it’s not at all clear what the subway photo is really saying. When you think about it, for example, what the photo offers is not the story of what happened so much as its consequence. What’s missing in the photo is “the perp,” the push — the event which resulted in the horrible result we’re exposed to above. There is video of arguing, but the infamous photo itself is almost deafeningly solitary, as if Mr. Han got himself in this death trap alone. Thus, if there’s a deeper critique of the photo, it’s that the catalyst and real subject of concern is missing.

Who or what’s missing from this photo, however, is nothing more or less than what was missing in the presidential campaign, and what went missing in the photo coverage of the first day of Hurricane Sandy, and went missing, until too late, in the circumstances of Jared Lee Loughner, the schizophrenic who shot Gabby Giffords, of James Holmes, the psychotic Dark Knight shooter in Aurora, or Jovan Belcher, the seriously depressed pro football player in Kansas City who killed his girlfriend and then himself in front of his coach at the team’s training facility just last week. What was and is missing from all of these “pictures” is any serious focus on America’s down-and-out, the poor, the indigent, the homeless, as well as the (sometimes distinct, but most often overlapping circumstances of the) emotionally sick and the mentally ill.

If we really want to confront the photo taken by Mr. Abbasi in the subway on Monday, what we first have to absorb is that this incident goes beyond a random citizen having the fatal misfortune to mix it up with a crazy and agitated panhandler too close to the edge of the Q train platform. Instead, what needs confronting is the fact that this citizen’s demise (Mr. Han unemployed, reportedly drunk and having just left an argument with his wife) was the consequence of a chance encounter with an(other) American living that doom.

If you happened to read the follow-up to the boots story, by the way, that picture receiving fawning worldwide attention, you discover that the disturbed man in that photo, fearful the boots would be stolen, is on the street barefoot again, while offering up a pretty good rant about his image being used without his permission. Looking back at the Times Square photo and the warm glow that surrounded it, what’s most telling now is how the disturbed homeless vet served as little more than an object, a guilt-assuaging prop in a feel-good fantasy for media consumers everywhere. If yesterday’s photo might be seen as its cousin — one as far from a fantasy as the gap, for Mr. Han, between that platform and survival — the message in the subway photo is that there really are two Americas, and for all of those who have slipped away, help couldn’t come fast enough either.

(photo: R. Umar Abbasi/NY Post)

  • Janis Edwards

    Moreover, I am irritated and distressed that this photo has, once again, raised a howl of provocation at the *photographer* as if he aids, abets, and perpetrates by not saving the man when a. he is obviously too far away, and b. probably unable to physically do so alone. A Today show interview confirms others were closer and did not help, but still–a lack of question or comment about the perp, or about the (apparant) fact the victim had been drinking prior to the incident. Where do people who weren’t there get off on passing judgement. I would call tis anti-media, but this impulse to indict the photographer goes back decades, to when the media was respected. Something provocative in that.

    • Jenny

      Not being close enough is not an excuse. The photographer had the time to take out his phone and take a picture, but he didn’t have time to run up to the guy at the distance that this picture was taken? I call bullshit on that one. He could have ran up to the man and tried to pull him out. How do you know that he wasn’t able to save the man by himself? The point is that he could have TRIED. I am not saying that the photographer is the only one at fault. All the bystanders who just watched the victim wait for his doom were at fault. That man died knowing that nobody cared enough to try and save him.

  • Robert Gumpert

    Re the homeless man – not so crazy for hiding the $100 boots away for as he pointed out in interviews – he appreciated the gift but wearing them could get him killed. Not a comment of a crazy but a comment of a person understanding reality.

  • Scarabus

    Reminds me of another photo, one I used to show introductory Humanities students. Young Omyra Sanchez, who had been caught in a mudslide following a volcano eruption in 1985. I would first insist that students respond to the photo without knowing the back story, then I would explain back story and context and we would talk about how the extra info changed the way they responded. I’ll attach the photo. I’m also adding a link to a B&W video which one hears the child speak.

    • Michael Shaw

      Watching that was excruciating. Honestly, I think the differences are greater than the similarities, but to the extent both cases make people active and helpless witnesses in death, it’s one more arena (the biggest one, I guess) where Americans hate to lose.

  • Stan B.
  • Thomas

    Also, the layout makes it look like a meme, like a lolcats gag or something. Adds to the sense of editorial coarseness and insensitivity.

    • David

      Well, that’s the Post for you. Every front page looks like that.

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  • AAAA

    what’s really sick, is that the people who were near by took out their phones and took pictures…probably to post it on facebook, myspace, or instagram….disgusting.

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  • Anita Dale

    wow, you really are a cynic, mr. journalist. clearly you have never tried to do good, or you would know that it almost always turns out that way. Never mind, we are supposed to do good anyway. perhaps the lesson is that it is difficult, if not impossible, particuarly where another person’s will is involved, not that we should not try to do it. “No good deed goes unpunished,” is the rule. Will you ever have the opportunity to learn this lesson in humility when you have opted for the easy way out? Cynicism?
    In the pursuit of virtue it is only the garden of our own heart that we can and must tend, Your liberalism neatly absolves you from this task, but to your detriment.

  • Scarabus

    Oh, yes. I agree about the difference. One similarity, I think, is the sense of frustration (too weak a term) in seeing a person who is dying and knows it. And to be unable to do anything about it.

  • David

    You do yourself no credit by not bothering to read the news or the photographer’s account and instead making assumptions based on your ignorance. 1) The photographer didn’t take this picture with a phone but with an SLR and electronic flash (other bystanders took video and photos via phone); 2) The photographer was running toward the the man taking flash photos, hoping to alert the conductor with his flash as he knew he couldn’t cover the distance before the train hit the man, according to his account; 3) you are free to pass judgment on the anonymous bystanders, but you really should read the photographer’s account of events before making the claims you do.

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