My Take on R. Umar Abbasi’s Photograph
[I know this is a photo blog but I really feel that I have to say something about this subject. I am sure this is not the popular thought process but it is important to say.]
It never ceases to amaze me when people feign righteous indignation. Today’s subject of such indignation is a known freelance photographer, R. Umar Abbasi. He has found himself in the spotlight trying to defend his actions of photographing a disaster unfolding before his very eyes in NY’s subway after a disturbed man pushed Ki Suk Han to his death in front of a train. Balderdash, I say. Had I been there I would have done exactly what Mr. Abbasi did and would not be making excuses about my flash…one of my purposes in life, as is Mr. Abassi’s, is to document history with my camera. After all, it is what we photographers do best.
Maybe you might not like this statement but it is, sadly, the truth. A fireman does best fighting fires as does a police officer does best fighting crime. Doctors do best saving lives by treating wounds and diseases. Photographers (and videographers also) do best capturing the sweep of history one frame at a time. Actually, keeping their cameras silent during a critical event may actually be tantamount to malpractice!
In my humble opinion, the only reason Mr. Abbasi is being targeted is that people do not know the names of the other people milling around the platform closer to the victim than the photographer was and his photograph was commercially sensationalized by some New York Post editor’s choice of words.
Photographers operate under a separate set of rules of engagement in times of crisis regardless of what most of the general public may think. Sometimes, the most important thing to do is to keep a camera to one’s eye and continue capturing the breaking history unravelling before their lens. Sure, there may be those who don’t understand this but let me present a few critical examples, some of which are case studies in photography ethics courses and then maybe you might understand the “why” of this statement.
Consider how the Warren Commission used photographs and film to assemble the events surrounding the assassination of John F. Kennedy in Dallas. Film footage by Abraham Zapruder, Bronson, Bell, Couch, Martin, Hughes, Towner, Paschall, Mentesana, Dorman, Nix, and other ordinary citizens was critical to the commission. Where would the understanding of this event be if they had shut down their equipment?
Decades before JFK’s assassination, the Hindenberg disaster was recorded by newsreel photographers and Sam Shere who did not stop their capture of footage and run into the fray. The resulting film has been extensively analyzed by commissions and scientists to attempt to answer the question of if it was sabotage or natural causes that led to the flaming conflagration.
Also, consider the photographer Bill Hudson who captured the brutal image of police dogs attacking a young black man in Birmingham Alabama on May 3, 1963 (see here). This image of young Walter Gadsen being held by a white police officer while being mauled by a police dog during the Children’s Crusade marches was one of the critical images that changed the direction of the country’s thoughts about segregation and the civil rights movement. What would have happened if he and other photographers dropped their cameras and refused to capture the brutality of the moment?
Another case can be made for the umpteen images of war crimes captured by photographer correspondents who documented such crimes in action. I remember distinctly Eddie Adams’ iconic image Murder of a Vietcong by Saigon Police Chief in which an out-and-out slaying of a Vietcong prisoner was captured on film. While (amazingly) the police chief was not prosecuted, had this gone to a war crimes tribunal, it would have been an open-and-shut case.
Video and still photos have proven to be critical in many cases around the world. Criminal acts, war crimes, and other investigations have been helped along by less-than-tasteful images. The camera’s eye serves to document the passage of history in a compelling and direct way. Would we Americans have a different understanding of the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon had everyone turned off their cameras as they witnessed the event (see here)?
So, let’s cut Mr. Abbasi some slack. He documented a murder in action which is certainly more than the umpteen other people on the platform were doing! I suspect that the image he captured will be the horrific last exhibit of the prosecution (see here) that will convince a jury to convict Naeem Davis if the case goes to trial and is not pleaded out first.