Photo of a Dying Man: All the Wrong Reasons

It’s true that real images of death and loss are required sometimes for us to take death seriously. Images of war and the death associated with it are important for this reason, and the images of 9/11 victims falling to their deaths strikes a powerful and disturbing chord of recognition, humanity, and real loss.

The snapshot of Ki-Suk Han prompts us to ask again what is the most appropriate way in our digital age to remember those who have died. Let me be clear that I am referring here only to the controversial image taken of Han before he died by New York Post photographer R. Umar Abbasi, not to the event itself—which was horrific and heartbreaking.

The media work performed by the image, though, is a clear attempt at meaning-making, a prime example of the power of media to impose order on chaotic events—or at least to try.

The image is a ritual event all by itself, a statement that time is linear, that death is certain. It invites deep inquiry into issues relating to moral responsibility, journalistic ethics, and media consumption. Despite our fascination with all things virtual, digital, ephemeral; despite the numerous modes of media engagement that urge us we have nothing but freedom and endless choices; death, we are reminded, is inescapable.

The abiding power of the image comes in its statement about our inability to alter fate—thus the disturbing Post headline: Pushed on the subway track, this man is about to die. Doomed.

The “end” of the ritual performance is death, Han’s and ours through identification with him. The “middle” is the image itself, capturing the moment of impending death. The “beginning” of the ritual “story” is where the publicly negotiated ritual meaning emerges: in the explosion of online debates about whether or not Abbasi could have helped; why other bystanders did not; what motivations the killer may have had; and—most importantly—what would we do in the same situation.

No Moral Payoff

For all this, though, I don’t think the image should have been posted. Nobody questions whether or not the image is powerful. And I don’t dispute the journalistic right to publish the image. But we are drawn to this image for the wrong reasons, and the harm such public ritual negotiation may cause for Han’s family should matter a lot more than it does.

Han’s death strikes a chord for us because we don’t know him, and because we can see ourselves in him through his anonymity. It is meaningful because it forces us to recognize in ourselves the secret dark urge that might cause us also to pull out our cell phones to record the event because nothing is “real” to us if not mediated.

But the image is also meaningful in a very different way for those who loved Han, and in the interests of compassion and humanity, we should get our ritual kicks some other way. If we are all connected via media into one community, it should matter that we respect all of the members of that community, particularly those for whom the image is so much more (and more painful) than an abstract exercise in catharsis and reflection.

Without the framing device of community, without any context in which to shape the interpretation of the events, such images become simply sensational, the prick of pain without the moral payoff.

Provocation for its own sake is not meaningful ritual work. For ritual to have real moral power, it requires context, community, compassion and purpose. So whereas I acknowledge the right of the Post to publish this photograph, I grieve the impulse that prompted its editors to do so, and I mourn the cultural context that would think this a proper thing to do.

[Read Jason Anthony’s opposing opinion—“The Journalist’s Job”—here.]


The author would like to thank her “Religion and Media” class at NYU for helping clarify her thoughts on this complex issue.