Chicago’s Real-Life 'Nightcrawler'
While Jake Gyllenhall’s character in Nightcrawler rides the line between reporting and crime, a Chicago photographer takes his work to the next level, sometimes angering friends and family of the victims he finds. Chicago’s foremost crime reporter is a ghost. A nameless, faceless entity known to his followers as Spot News, the handle of his Twitter and Instagram accounts. At crime scenes in Chicago over a busy Fourth of July weekend, several people asked if I was him. “I’m a big fan,” one woman told me.
Chicago provides crime reporters and amateur scanner-chasers with more grit and brutality than they can handle combined. And in the summer months, when shootings soar, the city can be a ghoulish playground for those interested in the macabre. That’s when Spot News shines, though not everyone sees it that way.
“Take this down you FREAK,” reads one of more than 300 comments in a thread under a photo of Andre B. Johnson Jr., killed in early November in West Englewood, one of the roughest neighborhoods in the city.
In the photo, Johnson’s lifeless eyes look skyward as a crime-scene technician hovers above. His white T-shirt is covered in blood.
“I’m wondering when someone kill you its [sic] cool we post you on IG?” reads a threat.
He tends to ignore those comments, continuing on his way to the next scene with its accompanying photos and story—all part of the larger tale of violence that overwhelmingly affects poor minorities.
“Most of the people are only aware of the violence when they turn on the evening news, and it’s only for the first few minutes,” Spot News told The Daily Beast. (A resident of the city’s South Side, Spot News declined to give his name, saying it was unique enough to threaten his anonymity.) “But the people who have Instagram and Twitter, they get their news from a totally different medium.”
Spot News, a 40-year-old man who moved to Chicago in 1989 from the East Coast, is a photographer who sells his photos to several media outlets in the city. He has been going to crime scenes since 1991, and began chronicling Chicago street mayhem on Twitter about four years ago. He boasts more than 6,000 followers there, in addition to the 17,000 who follow him on Instagram. His posts on the photography app number only 30—a fraction of his 35,000 tweets—but they provide a more visceral picture of the aftermath of violence Spot News has been witnessing for the better part of two decades.
“How do you tell the story of death without a body?” he asked rhetorically, noting that most media outlets don’t run corpses, choosing instead his “less gruesome” photos.
“Often times, these bodies at crime scenes are left out there for hours while the scene is being processed. If you live there, you see the body—the family, neighbors, they all see the body.”
Beyond brutal truth, Spot News is motivated by the constant championing of crime stats by the Chicago Police Department and its leader, Garry McCarthy. The hashtag #CrimeIsDown is used facetiously by Spot News and others to combat what they believe are misleading statistics.
“Every day I’m standing somewhere in a neighborhood near a crime scene where someone has been shot or killed,” he said. “Yes, [police] have statistics and flow charts and PowerPoint presentations that say crime is down over the past 10 or 20 years, but that doesn’t help the people who have lost a loved one today.”
While that may be true, there is no debating some of the numbers. In 1988, the year before Spot News moved to Chicago, the city had what looks like a body count suited for war time. There were 905 homicides and 953 attempted murders, according to Alex Kotlowitz’s 1991 book There Are No Children Here. With less than two months left in 2014, the city has officially seen 345 murders.
Still, Spot News keeps going. While 2014’s count of 345 murders is nothing compared to numbers from the late ’80s and early ’90s, it’s still far from zero. Life on the city’s south and west sides remains incredibly dangerous for residents, including Spot News, who makes his home there. He tries, through his work, to expose what life is like for those living in the city’s most dangerous neighborhoods, even as he is sometimes threatened for doing his job.
Often times, people mistake him for a cop, a charge he has to repeatedly deny.
“I hear people say ‘He got to be the police because he so close to these crime scenes,’” he said. “I do not have a relationship with the police, I do not have sources in the department, I do not have a relationship with anyone in [CPD] News Affairs.”
The reason Spot News gets to scenes before anyone else—including police and paramedics, sometimes—comes from the five scanners that provided background noise for our conversation. He lives with his scanners constantly by his side. They put him to sleep at night. And his South Side home, far from the downtown towers of the Chicago Sun-Times and Tribune, put him in prime position for being the first reporter on scene.
“My scanner dictates to me where I’m going and how fast I should move,” he said. “Since this is basically all that I’m doing, it’s a little bit easier for me.”
As the year draws to a close, so does Spot News’ busy season. Winter is coming, and with it the annual dramatic drop in violent crime. But that doesn’t mean the scanners get turned off, or the cameras go uncharged. Crime in Chicago is a year-round business, and Spot News is one of its oldest customers.
“A long time ago I used to shoot celebrities, sports figures, and I really, really got bored with it. It was no longer exciting to shoot Michael Jordan. It’s fun, but it was boring. I guess that’s where the scanner comes in, because it’s always live,” he said, noting that his photos provide equal parts truth, grief, anger, and braggadocio.
“I’m probably followed by the person who killed Andre Johnson, and maybe they go to my page and screenshot that picture and they say ‘Hey, I got him.’ But I don’t go to crime scenes to make them gangbangers feel like they’ve accomplished something. I just try to tell the truth and present it as I see it.”