If you were the editor, would you run this photograph?
Would you do it?
Would you run this photo?
It’s the famous—or infamous, depending on your viewpoint—photograph published recently by the New York Post. In it, a man sees himself about to be crushed by a New York subway train. (He was pushed onto the tracks by a crazy guy, who was, fortunately, arrested.) Unfortunately, no one helped the man get off the tracks in time to avoid death—including the freelance photographer who took this photo. The Post made sure to drive a stake through the readers’ hearts by superimposing the word “DOOMED” in letters so big you could use them as signal flags.
The publication raised a stink with millions. They believe the newspaper should have had the sensitivity to not run a picture of a man about to die in such a horrid fashion, that it should have spared his family the public spectacle. They believe the photographer should have thrown down his camera and heaved the man onto the platform, saying that even newsmen are human first and news gatherers second.
The photographer, for his part, says he was too far away to rescue the poor guy. Instead, he ran his motor drive to set off his flash, in hopes of warning the subway driver. He says he didn’t know he’d captured such a gripping image—or any image at all, since he was running like a madman—and only afterwards realized he had a brilliant shot. (It is a brilliant photo, even if you despise the subject matter.)
As a freelancer, he survives on the sale of such photos, and the Post paid him a handsome amount and made his photo the entire front cover. Details: http://www.poynter.org/latest-news/mediawire/197176/ny-post-subway-photog-every-time-i-close-my-eyes-i-see-the-image-of-death/
So, what would you do?
My first instinct was to say I wouldn’t run it: profiting from this man’s death is obscene. If I were the editor in charge—and I was a newspaper editor for 25 years, before moving into crime fiction—I would have spiked that photo.
Then I thought some more.
How does this differ from the photographs we applaud, the photos we declare iconic, and in many cases award the Pulitzer Prize for photographic excellence?
Photos like these:
FALLING MAN: He jumped from the World Trade Center rather than burn to death after the September 11 attacks. Details: http://www.esquire.com/the-side/feature/the-falling-man-10-years-later-6406030
NAPALM GIRL: Her clothes were burned off by an American napalm strike during the Vietnam War, and her naked body was displayed worldwide. Details: http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/news/world/story/2012-06-02/napalm-girl-photo-vietnam/55347678/1
STARVING CHILD: She collapses crawling for a food pile during a famine in Sudan, the photographer does not help, and the vulture awaits his meal. Details: http://www.famouspictures.org/mag/index.php?title=Starving_Sudanese_girl
EXECUTION: And in perhaps the most famous photo of the Vietnam War, a South Korean police chief executes a Viet Cong guerrilla who’d killed a dozen people just before this photo was taken. Details: http://iconicphotos.wordpress.com/2009/04/22/the-execution-of-a-vietcong-guerilla/
Short answer: They don’t differ one bit. The subway photo is the Viet Cong execution brought to 2012.
There are scores of other photos in the “iconic” category, each as jarring and heartrending as the subway shot. Would I have published them? Would I have run the ones I just showed you? Yes. They are brilliant composed, tell an important story, and grab the heart, as all great journalism must.
So why wouldn’t I run the subway photo?
After long reflection, I realize I would. It is a shattering image, tells the story of a man about to die, and thus deserves to make the light of day in print.
This is not as easy a decision as you might think. I’ve run into these kinds of situations twice: once as a photographer, once as an editor.
The first was a house fire. I was on a midnight-shift ride-along with my policeman father when he got the call of a fire in progress. I had my camera, hoping for some action that night. (I was a college newspaper reporter at the time.) We arrived, and the home was fully engulfed. Huge flames, lots of drama. I shot a roll of fire photos. (Yes, kids, we used film back then, not digital imagery.)
Then came the heartbreak. The man who owned the home returned from wherever he’d been. He stared at his loss—and then broke down crying.
I raised my camera. Perfect shot: sobbing homeowner in foreground, furiously burning house in back. This kind of emotion is rare in local news photos, and it would draw editor interest like bees to nectar.
But I couldn’t push the shutter.
My heart had gone out to the man. I remember thinking, “He’s going to have to live with his face in the papers. I won’t.” So I didn’t take the photo, and only turned in the lapping flames, which, happily, the local paper bought and gave me a front-page clip for my collection.
I was in college then. I had the luxury of making that ethical choice. Working photographers depending on the sale of pictures to pay their rent might not.
The second incident came at my first newspaper job out of college. I was editor of the front page, and selected the photographs that would appear. That morning, a car had crashed, killing four area teenagers. It was a huge story, and our photographer had captured a stunner: wreck in the background, white-sheeted body in the foreground—and the hand of one of the dead teens sticking out of the sheet in the ultra foreground, fingers curled in death, but not the least bit bloody or burnt. It was a perfect, chilling, make-you-weep photograph.
I chose to run it.
My boss, the managing editor, vetoed my decision.
When I squawked and demanded to know why, he said, This tragedy greatly affects the community that reads our newspaper. I’m not going to destroy these families by running this kind of photo of their dead children. So he cut off the hand and the sheeted body and ran just the photo of the wrecked car. Neutering it completely.
A decision that, being 23, I thought sucked.
But now, at 56, understand, and perhaps even agree with. A wise editor knows his or her audience.
Which the Post does, in spades, and with that knowledge, chose to run the subway photo.
As would I.
How about you?
About Shane Gericke
Bestselling author Shane Gericke has been held at knifepoint, hit by lightning, and shaken the cold sweaty hand of Liberace. He was born to write thriller novels! His latest, Torn Apart, was a finalist for the Thriller Award for Best Novel and a Book of the Year selection by Suspense Magazine. A national bestseller in print and No. 1 bestseller in Kindle, Shane, whose last name is improbably pronounced YER-kee, spent twenty-five years as a newspaper editor, most prominently at the Chicago Sun-Times, before jumping into fiction. An original member of International Thriller Writers, he was chairman of the ThrillerFest literary festival in New York and founding director of its agent-author matching program, AgentFest. He also belongs to Mystery Writers of America and the Society of Midland Authors. His novels—available in print and e-books—are in translation worldwide, and RT Book Reviews chose his debut, Blown Away, as the nation’s best first mystery in 2006. He lives in the Chicago suburb of Naperville, the home of world-famous detective Dick Tracy, with whom Shane shares no resemblance except steely jaw and manly visage. Check him out at http://www.shanegericke.com, and on Facebook and Twitter.