Over at Christ and Pop Culture, Jason Morehead made a thoughtful, provocative, and humble response to the recent controversy over the New York Post’s decision to put a photo on its December 4th front page of a man about to be crushed by a subway. The photographer who took the pictures did not help the man, instead clicking away with his camera while the subway cars bore down on him. The incident has generated some imperative discussion about journalistic ethics, but I particularly appreciate that Morehead ended by reflecting upon this question:
I hope and pray that if I’m ever in such a situation, I wouldn’t hesitate for a moment before doing the right thing, regardless of the cost. But right now, sitting in my comfortable chair and pecking away at my keyboard, I realize that the simple, sad, disturbing fact is that I don’t know what I would do. I might run to the platform’s edge. I might freeze in shock and confusion. I might hover over my family to spare my children a gruesome sight. I might call the police. I might scream, wave, and jump up and down to get the engineer’s attention. Or, God have mercy, I might turn a blind eye and run away.
How can we know what we’re capable of before our time of testing?
A few days ago, I was involved in a car accident. Black ice, or a patch of something similarly insidious: the car spiraled 180 degrees on a freeway entrance ramp. Nobody else was hurt, thank God, and neither was I. What has lingered with me, absorbing my focus and disquieting my mind when I’m alone, is how I responded. As soon as my car spun out of control, I did the only physical thing I could do, which was slam the brakes. Instead of a rush of adrenaline or flashes of my life before my eyes or a rapid-fire assessment of all my options (followed by the myriad of possibilities that might ensue), I instead experienced a feeling of calm, as if I had been dipped into a warm pond, displacing no ripples. The world turned, headlights blared into my eyes, and I just sat there thinking, “So this is what utter helplessness feels like. Huh.”
I’ve never experienced that feeling as an adult. Instead of panic, serene curiosity settled in; it wasn’t even exhilarating. I just soaked in everything that happened. Well, as best I could. The entire thing was over in about three seconds. Three seconds that should have been the most terrifying of my life, yet, strangely, were not. I have experienced far more panic at the thought of losing my creative writing journal at work than I did in those three seconds when — if not for the grace of God and the alertness of the other drivers — I might have been killed. A kind of paralysis simply sank its numb weight into my skull and held my attention rapt until the car struck the curb with a concussive whump.
Most of my life, I’ve been blessed not to have been in any genuine emergencies. I’ve often wondered, as Morehead does, how I’d react. I now have an inkling. The knowledge of how I responded has terrified me more than the actual accident did. Would things be different if other people — but not myself — were in immediate danger? If my family were in danger? In those crucial seconds, what would I do? I’d like to say I would unconsciously spring into action, but the truth is that I might, in all probability, stand there dispassionately documenting the experience on a fragment of black film tucked away in a detached psychic recess, just as the photographer’s camera did.
Did the photographer really make a conscious decision to take pictures because he hoped his camera’s flash would warn the engineer? Possibly. It’s also quite possible that he did not make any conscious decision at all. Perhaps instinct told him to click-click-click the shutter in words that had no sound or form, yet were interpreted by his body as the mere movement of a finger on a button. Debating the ethics of printing those photographs is necessary and vital. But a part of the judgment levied against the editors of the Post inevitably seems to spill over onto the photographer himself. Perhaps his actions were wrong, all wrong. Inexcusable, even. I can’t blame him. I don’t know precisely what went through his head at the time; I can only hope that others forgive him as I hope that God would forgive me. I’m not a photojournalist. God has never presented me with the choice between snapping a picture or saving a life. But I’ve been the camera. You can never see the ice, and December can be so very cold. ☕