On the Unintended Power of David Eun’s Asiana Crash Photo


In her seminal essay On Photography, Susan Sontag writes that “Photographed images do not seem to be statements about the world so much as pieces of it, miniatures of reality that anyone can make or acquire.”

This has never been truer than now as the ubiquity of camera phones has turned everyone into a photographer.

Comedian Louis C.K. bemoans the behavior of parents who attend their children’s recitals only to block their faces with iPhones and iPads to capture poor quality images while the ultimate HD version is happening before them. But the capture of a photo provides evidence of an experience and the process of capture helps to reinforce the event into memory (perhaps Zooey Deschanel should reconsider her concert camera ban).

BagNews’ Michael Shaw wrote a thoughtful essay on an image that emerged from the crash of Asiana Flight 214 at SFO. Passenger David Eun posted the image to his Path account moments after he evacuated the plane.


Shaw writes of the power of the image that stems from a lack of awareness or intention of “creating a piece of media or an artifact of cultural significance.” The image isn’t a statement about the world, it’s simply a miniature of reality – an almost banal observation of a shocked passenger who has just experienced one of the most horrific nightmares as reality.

The photo is amazing because of 1) the timing of the photo relative to the event, 2) the lack of self-consciousness and intent of the author, and 3) the rapidity with which is was published through social media.

Similarly, on the Conscientious Redux blog, Joerg Colberg writes, “The act of photography might have turned into […] something you do, something that might or might not have beauty, a communicative act just as much as an affirmative act: I was there, and me being there means I had to photograph it.”

This image stands in stark contrast to the forensic images captured by the NTSB. The quality and composition of the images are arguably better than Eun’s, but they lack the power and emotion because of the temporal proximity and intent. These images are observations of reality, but they also have a clear purpose to document the scene and provide visual evidence for the crash investigation.



Eun could have likely sold the image for thousands of dollars, but his decision to publish the image on Path eliminated the monetary value, while unintentionally increasing its cultural significance. It was the first image out. It had an almost naïve caption. It is a curious case of citizen journalism deflating the value of the image while providing an almost socialist benefit. Everyone was able to share the experience of a crash survivor for free (and ad free).

In a world constantly searching for authenticity, there is no more important a photo from this tragedy than Eun’s.

About the author: Allen Murabayashi is the Chairman and Co-founder of PhotoShelter. Allen is a graduate of Yale University, and flosses daily. This article originally appeared here.

Image credits: Asiana crash photo by David Eun, Aftermath photos by the NTSB

  • Carey

    “But the capture of a photo provides evidence of an experience and the process of capture helps to reinforce the event into memory (perhaps Zooey Deschanel should reconsider her concert camera ban).”

    I take a bit of issue with this – this is true, perhaps to the extent of people snapping off one or two images during their favorite songs, but when I photograph a show, I’m so obsessed over catching the right moments at the right angle with the right lights that I tune out almost all the music. For every concert I’ve photographed, I couldn’t tell you more than a couple of the songs the band played over the course of their whole set.

  • Robert Johnson

    But what if these people get more enjoyment out of capturing the moment than just experiencing it.

  • Matt

    That is you, someone who is trying to make the best photos of an event. People with their cell phones are not trying to make the best photo and don’t put a whole lot of thought into it. It may even give them a better point of view for a few seconds.

  • Ian

    The article didn’t match what I expected when I read the headline, but those are interesting observations. I thought it was going to be about the power it had in shaping perceptions of the crash – i.e. that it wasn’t very serious and few people were injured (particularly with the selfish idiots carting their luggage off a burning plane!), but alas, I guess that was my interpretation.

  • David

    It’s sick that he have time to post pictures of the crashed instead of helping people out. What is the world coming to when the first thing that comes to mind when a disaster happen Is to pull a phone out and take pictures so that they could post it and tell the world at the moment when his fellow human being needs attention. Yes really fantastic pictures I’m sure but come on people… Really? People have no sense awareness of anything now because we just want to be the first to post s**t on Facebook or anything online.

  • junyo

    But I think this is the exact point of the article.

    For you, the photograph is the desired destination. The music, the band, the sly smile of the cute girl in the crowd three rows in front of you, the smell of spilled beer – are incidental to the act of capturing reflected light in an aesthetically pleasing manner. The photo is the object.

    For a fan of the band, capturing reflected light in an aesthetically pleasing manner is a memento of the experience of the music, the band, the sly smile of the cute girl in the crowd three rows in front of you, and the smell of spilled beer. The photo is merely documentation of a moment.

    These are really two separate disciplines, that just happen to share tools.

  • Chayse

    Over thought.

  • junyo

    So the 3 seconds it took to post a picture telling the world he survived a crash alive and unhurt, possible saving his family and friends hours of anguish wondering whether their loved one was alive or dead, and creating an immediate record of the event for posterity or investigation; BEFORE going to help (because the actions aren’t mutually exclusive) is sick?

  • Renato Murakami

    I think we’re oversimplifying things here.
    See, I don’t think what Louis C.K. was talking about had any relation with the linked David Eun photo. First of all, completely different scenarios.
    Louis C.K. was talking about people who mindlessly blocks themselves from enjoying an experience that’s happening right in front of them to spend an entire period or so fumbling with a camera/smartphone that not only could potentially ruin it for people around them, but will most probably produce bad results that no one will even want to see.
    And for these people, it doesn’t even matter if professionals are covering the event, which will certainly produce better content.
    I don’t think it’s exactly the problem of taking pics in shows or whatever, but becoming a mindless drone that keeps his/her phone up almost to the extent of the whole thing.
    The question is: you either paid to see your favorite band here, or it’s your kids there in the field. You really want to spend the whole time seeing it through your smartphone screen? Instead of, you know, cheering for your kid, or listening and looking directly to your idol or whatever?
    Taking a pic every now and then is fine.
    Photojournalism, practiced by citizens or not, taking pics of unique moments from their point of view, which can have relevance to lots of people, is another beast.
    This is like criticizing the argument of a comedian on people who goes on vacation and brings 20 rolls of film with them by saying that the argument could be invalid because someone else captured a hurricane using the same tech…. very disconected.

  • Mantis

    People just love to find a reason to piss & moan don’t they?

    On YouTube, who’s comment section is the sewer of the internet, some moron was bitching about the guy who happened to shoot video of the crash didn’t go to help…even though he was at least a mile away on the other side of water.

    People are stupid.