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Was the December 4 New York Post subway photo too much for the front page?
Collage by Julie Seyler


On December 4, 2012, the New York Post ran on its cover a dramatic photo of a man about to meet his death from a subway train. According to the December 6 issue of the Post, the killer claimed the victim “attacked” him, “grabbed” him, was “drunk,” and “threatened to kill him.” The killer threw the victim onto the subway tracks and into the path of an incoming train, which was unable to stop, and crushed him to death between the train and the platform as he vainly struggled to pull himself to safety.  The event was tragic and, the Post’s publication of the photo has rightly been universally denounced as barbaric, gruesomely voyeuristic, and cruel.

This is nothing new for the Post, which regularly prints (and illustrates, with graphic photos, if possible) the most fantastic and grotesque stories, following the old newspaper adage that, “If it bleeds, it leads.”  And I’m sure the Post believes that the current controversy also falls squarely under the rubric that no publicity is bad publicity.  We have come to expect this level of amorality from the Post.

I hesitate to discuss the photo, its meaning, or the motives of those behind it for fear of dignifying the Post’s conduct.  In fact, using any form of the word “dignity” in reference to the New York Post seems wrong.  But still the incident bears scrutiny.

Why does this photo affect us so strongly?  It has a visceral impact, much like those blurry black and white Civil War-era pictures of inert bodies dangling from group gallows, or the horrific images of gaunt Holocaust victims dumped unceremoniously in mass graves.

But it’s more than just a portrait of death after the fact; it’s doubly horrific because it captures the moment just before death occurred – an instant in time when the crowd watching on the subway platform, the hapless victim, and perhaps his attacker as well – would like to have back, to reenact for the chance to act otherwise.

As it turns out, there’s a chance the man might have survived had he stood to the side, in the space between the local and express tracks, or had lain flat in the track bed between the rails, but he had no way of knowing that, and he was likely too dazed and/or panicked to have taken those actions anyway.  And what about the other subway riders on the platform?  The picture depicts a scene of urban solitude; of a human being totally alone while surrounded by a crowd of people, reminiscent of the 1964 Kitty Genovese incident and the “bystander effect.” Were the others too far away, too shocked, or simply too afraid to go to his aid?  We’ll probably never know, as the event becomes blurred in the memory of those who were there, and revisionist retelling takes over.

The photographer tried to justify his actions by claiming that he was trying to alert the train engineer to stop by repeatedly discharging his camera flash in that direction. For the sake of his conscience, I hope that’s true. But isn’t it odd that he happened to get such a well-composed series of photos at the same time, culminating in the controversial final shot in which the victim’s arms are on the platform as he stares at the speeding train that’s about to take his life? Regardless of the outcome, the photo would have been much more dramatic had it shown people clustered around the man, frantically trying to pull him to safety. (Does one exist?) It would have also given us some assurance that we can still count on our fellow citizens to demonstrate compassion and courage when things get tough.

After all the explanations and justifications, the photo remains.  Its immediacy flows from the drama so graphically portrayed – we see a man mere seconds from death, yet fully alive and entirely conscious of his imminent demise.  He is frozen in time, staring into the relentless oncoming headlights with his arms on top of the platform, unable to pull himself up. In that moment and the few that follow, what are his thoughts?  Panic? Certainly fear. Perhaps a hint of hope that he might somehow survive?  Maybe resignation; maybe regret.  We’ll never know.

Its effect is amplified, I suspect, by the fact that I’m now in my late 50s. But the true impact of the photo comes not just from its depiction of the man’s hopeless predicament, or from the guilty vicarious chill we get as we stand in his shoes and feel, without consequences, those horrible feelings for ourselves. The image resonates because of its metaphorical quality, because for every moment of our lives, whether we realize it or not, each of us is the man on the tracks. The only questions: How far off is the train? And will we see it coming?