Our use of technology has fundamentally changed not just our awareness in public spaces but our sense of duty to others. Engaged with the glowing screens in front of us rather than with the people around us, we often honestly don’t notice what is going on. Adding to the problem is the ease with which we can record and send images, which encourages those of us who are paying attention to document emergencies rather than deal with them. The fascination with capturing images of violence is nothing new, as anyone who has perused Weegee’s photographs of bloody crime scenes from the early 20th century can attest. But the ubiquity of camera-enabled cellphones has shifted the boundaries of acceptable behavior in these situations. We are all Weegee now.
But if everyone is filming an emergency, who is responsible for intervening in it? Consider an event from December 2012, when a man was pushed onto the subway tracks in New York City. Struggling unsuccessfully to heave himself onto the platform, he turned, in his final seconds, to see the train barreling down on him. We know this because a freelance photographer who happened to be on the platform took a picture of the awful episode and sold it to the New York Post, which ran it on the front page the next day, prompting public outrage about profiting from a man’s death. The photographer noted that others on the platform closer to the man made no effort to rescue him and quickly pulled out their phones to capture images of his dead body.