For Images of Impending Death, Context Is Crucial

Our post Wednesday seeking your thoughts on the differences between two widely seen — and differently perceived — photographs of men moments away from death drew an outpouring of responses, both in the comments and on Twitter.

We asked why The New York Post was so widely criticized for running its photo of Ki-Suck Han about to be struck by a subway train last week, while few people objected to the surveillance-camera still released by the police and published here and elsewhere of Brandon Woodard and his killer. You answered the question in many ways. Here is a sampling of what you said. Some of the comments have been excerpted or lightly edited.

@andylocal huge difference. Serendipitous surveillance photo vs active choice to film a death scene (and not help)

Bridget Williams (@bridgetwi) 12 Dec 12


This is a photo of a man on his phone. We are not watching as the final thoughts of his life race through his head. He has no thoughts of his impending doom. He is just a man going about his life, which is about to abruptly end without his knowledge. (Also this got the image of the gunman out to the public).

The picture of the man in front of a train was one of a man in the throes of terror. To gaze upon it was to be a voyeur into the sensations that he must have experienced. It can be said to be akin to seeing images of torture. We know that he died, and that the suspect was not in the picture. The only things gained by looking at it are the absence of help, and the chance to witness someone reduced to helplessness in the face of their own mortality.
— Matt R., N.Y.C.

@andylocal Biggest thing: shooting victim doesn’t know what’s happening. Subway victim in terror. Hugely changes tone. Both creepy, though.

Robert Wright (@RKWinvisibleman) 12 Dec 12


Hm! I’m more horrified by the man *not* knowing. Perhaps because “no man knoweth the hour.”
— ACW, New Jersey


In a word, inevitability. It’s not that we can place ourselves in the shoes of the victim. Rather, it’s that in the shooting case, we can imagine a version of the scenario where we could have saved the victim. In the train situation, we are forced to grapple with the unavoidability (at that point) of the man’s death — and this makes us very uncomfortable.
— Rick, Chicago

@NYTMetro One was taken/released to help solve a crime. The other was taken/released to make money.

Cheryl Krugel-Lee (@compvla) 12 Dec 12


I would add that people are generally less sympathetic to the victim of an execution style slaying like this. Perhaps this has to do with the feeling that they are unlikely to be in a similar situation, whereas they could easily imagine being pushed by a crazy person in front of a train. But this is a form of “blaming the victim” that we probably should question.
— Jake, DUMBO

@andylocal we can relate to the subway pic, we’ve thought about falling in those tracks, but we don’t all associate with people with guns

Josh Polk (@ShirtlessJosh) 13 Dec 12

@andylocal @nytimes People are desensitized to people being shot (movies/media/etc). Being hit by train is far more shocking (realistic).

Matt James (@TheMJames) 12 Dec 12


I guess the question I would ask to level the field even more is if it would still be proper to run the photo if there was no way it could be used for identification purposes. I have trouble searching for a reason to say yes, it should still be run. As another person pointed out, maybe it is because Han knew he was about to die and it was a private moment of facing death, whereas Woodard did not. However, we all know at this point that they were both about to die, so not sure that justifies it.
— matt, LA, CA

Don’t see difference, surprised NYT printed 2nd one RT @NYTMetro Two Haunting Images, but Why Criticism for Only One? http://t.co/jyWVBZmO

Sheri Doyle (@pnwjourneys) 12 Dec 12


Both images are highly disturbing, and in both cases it is debatable whether any legitimate interest was served by making the unedited photos public. In the case of the Woodard slaying, there is certainly a valid reason to publicize the image of the killer, but why was it necessary to keep his victim in the frame as well?

However, the subway photo is infinitely more unsettling because of the moral and ethical questions it raises. The subway photographer may have been in a position to help the victim; instead, whether by choice or by instinct, he photographed the man’s impending death. Before making any glib judgments about this, by the way, consider other photos in which somebody is about to die — I keep thinking of Eddie Adams’ famous photo of a Viet Cong prisoner about to be shot point-blank in the street — and ask yourself whether the photographer should have tried to intervene instead of taking the picture. Is the answer always “yes”? Is it “yes, unless you would be placing your own life at risk”? Or is it something more troubling than either of these? (Adams himself approved of the execution he witnessed, which raises an additional set of questions…)
— Chris Baum, Kew Gardens, NY

@andylocal the train incident shows a clear view of the tragedy unfolding while the shooting will only be 2 men walking without the news

Ringo Paul (@AskRingo) 12 Dec 12


The photo of Brandon Woodard is the same sort of image Americans see ALL the time watching crime shows on TV. And the immediate conclusion was that it was a professional hit. I’d venture that most Americans do not fancy themselves eligible for such attention. Perhaps we could imagine that anyone eligible for a professional hit somehow “deserved it” by consorting with the wrong people.

The photo of Ki-Suck Han showed a human caught in the chaos of life in the City, and that chaos was about to kill him. All subway riders have imagined what happened to Mr. Ki-Suck happening to them. It was a nightmare come true, and nobody “deserves” such a fate.
— Francisco Herrero, Washington, DC

@andylocal subway pic is handheld, a question of morality: would we do the same? Midtown pic is a static camera: literally out of our hands.

Tarik O’Regan (@tarikoregan) 12 Dec 12

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