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We can be sure that we are dealing with something of this genre because people are responding to it with the same anxiety, contempt and criticism that so often greets these kinds of pictures. Indeed, as Barbie Zelizer, author of About to Die: How News Images Move the Public, explained to Slate last year, images of almost-death are particularly adept at worming their way into our imaginations. Pictures of people about to die, less graphic than pictures of corpses and body parts, also play on different parts of a viewer's psyche. This is why, as photography critic Susie Linfield points out in her book on the ethics of looking at violence, The Cruel Radiance, we have such a fraught relationship with photojournalists.
Contemporary critics dismiss problematic images as pornographic and launch ad hominem attacks against photojournalists. Linfield is, to be clear, writing about photos of Holocaust-level atrocity, but her analysis still applies here. The image it carries of Ki-Suck Han* scrambling to escape from the subway tracks just seconds before being crushed by an oncoming train literally stuns: it paralyses, astonishes, shocks, at least momentarily, into quiet attention.


It forces us into an almost unbearable exchange of gazes—between the doomed man, the helpless train driver, the onlookers further up the platform, and finally, the photographer, with whom we are implicated in choosing to look. Where images of dead bodies often push viewers away, creating a sense of distance and objectification, images of impending death do the opposite: They often draw viewers in, fostering engagement, creating empathy and subjective involvement, inviting debate. For New York subway riders in particular, this image manifests a collective nightmare, the reality that something like this could easily happen to any one of us on our morning commutes.
Not only has the decision to publish the photos been questioned, but Abbasi’s personal character has also been impugned.
He writes and edits for Outward, Slatea€™s LGBTQ section, and for the culture section. Of course, we demand images like this with our news, yet we also clearly feel a great deal of guilt in consuming them. Indeed, why does any photographer of a tragedy stay behind the lens when he could be assisting the victims in front of him?


Instead, images of impending death play to the emotions, the imagination, and the contingent and qualified aspects of what they depict.
But more than this, our dumping of a whole mess of anxieties on this photographer and this picture shows that in an increasingly visual culture, while we desperately want to see, we really can’t bear to look. We imagine, naturally, that we would respond with heroism in such a situation (despite the fact that all kinds of variables are in play restricting what that would even mean), thus giving rise to the question of why the callous photographer did not act as we surely would have done.



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