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Freeway Crash
Freeway crashPhotography by Alexander Gitman

What it's really like to be a nightcrawler

‘If it bleeds, it leads’ – LA photographer Alexander Gitman on documenting over 100 crime scenes

Nightcrawler, a film starring and produced by Jake Gyllenhaal, exposes the seedy underbelly of a lesser-known profession: the 'stringers' that take full advantage of the twilight hours. Together, they film and photograph horrifying crime scenes for the next morning's news. Jake's character is a greasy, gaunt entrepreneur with vision. "If it bleeds, it leads!" he soon learns and adopts as his mantra, sticking his Best Buy camcorder closer and closer to the action. It's visually jarring – you've never seen Los Angeles portrayed like this – and unsettling in a way that leaves you mulling over larger questions of ethics and entertainment, and how fine the line that exists between the two. The other day, an article was penned about how far networks will go to gather eyeballs for reality TV programmes (are those involved 'victims'?) Most write off 'reality' TV as scripted drivel, but what about the news? We love to stay up to date, right?

The truth about how this news is gathered – how we stay 'informed' – might be different than you first thought. These crime chasers often respond to police scanners before the first-response teams have a chance to flick on a siren, sometimes even arriving first on the scene to snap a few pics or film some TV-ready segments. As with any job, a certain professionalism is maintained, but whichever way you spin it, it's a fascinating look into a world not fully explored.

One such photographer is Alexander Gitman. "A lot of my passion for this stuff comes from a profound love of the city of Los Angeles," he says. "I've always been obsessed with how it is portrayed visually in films and photographs." Since 2010, he's been on over 100 ride-alongs and witnessed countless deaths, getting into it through a friend he met in high school. "I started coming along with him because it was a thrilling thing to witness and then I started bringing my camera along."

In the film Jake's character falls into documenting crime scenes because he finds out he can make money from it. Is that realistic? 

Alexander Gitman: It's very competitive. There are guys who are very close to the way (Jake Gyllenhaal) acts in this film. It's about getting to places quickly and working hard at it. If you're really quick and devote a lot of your time to it then you'll be very successful at it. Even if someone is that sort of crazy personality type who's in it for questionable reasons – if they're spending a lot of time on it, they're probably going to do well for themselves. 

Can you tell me about the weird people?

Alexander Gitman: It's like any sort of job, as weird as that sounds. Some guys will be really rude and obnoxious toward the civil services and they'll suffer the consequences; they'll get less access. Everyone's unifiying thing is that they want to make money – if one guy is selling a lot of footage and making a lot money the other guys will suffer for it because news stations or websites don’t need more than one guys' footage. 

Can you tell me any stories about anyone who has been really pushy? 

Alexander Gitman: There are certain boundaries – such as when the cops set up crime scene tape – that you don’t cross when law enforcement is involved. A lot of the guys will ignore that and drive right into a crime scene just to position themselves to get great footage. There are people who drive way too fast to get to these incidents – just as fast or faster than the cops.

There's a scene in the film in which he crosses the yellow tape and goes right into the house where there has just been a shooting. Once inside, he positions this family photo on the fridge next to some bullet holes to get a more dramatic shot. 

Alexander Gitman: It's not far-fetched doing something like at all.

What is the relationship like with the cops when you arrive at the crime scene?

Alexander Gitman: There are cops who relish the attention. They love that they're being filmed. It definitely boosts their ego. I don’t mean that negatively – it's like an appreciation of their work. Then there are others who immediately have a poor attitude. They don't want you anywhere near it. Some of them don’t like to be taped. Fire fighters seem to be the most pleasant about this sort of thing. They love the attention. It's easy to get really in the moment and get knocked down by these guys because they're doing their job.

What is the most off-putting thing you've seen?

Alexander Gitman: After a year or two you’ve seen everything that could happen short of a war zone. There are fires where people don’t make it out, drunk drivers who get into horrible accidents and pedestrians getting hit by cars… The fires and the car accidents are extra gruesome. 

Have you seen a lot people die?

Alexander Gitman: Oh, yeah. Tonnes. For me it was always when you take photos of something like that you feel pretty far removed from it. You're focused on what you're capturing rather than soaking it in. It's almost like the camera is this protective shield or blanket between you and the real emotions of what's happening. I look back and I know it's not normal (laughs). It's beyond – you're desensitized. It's just the way you feel. If you don't have the stomach for that kind of stuff, you can't be around it.

“I look back and I know it's not normal (laughs). It's beyond – you're desensitized. It's just the way you feel” – Alexander Gitman

Does guilt factor in it at all?

Alexander Gitman: Maybe for the people who tamper with something to give themselves a better shot or situation. There’s guilt there and there're moments where people don’t want their face in a photo or a video but in a public space, it’s not really up to them. The people I’ve worked with are really respectful of that; they’ll take that into account most of the time.

What kind of feeling do you have when you ride along and see all this stuff?

Alexander Gitman: It gets to a point where you’re always seeking the better visual or the better story than the last time. You get adrenaline immunity where you’re excited all the time. It’s the excitement of not knowing what you’re gonna get or what the situation is gonna call for. There’s no setting something up; the scene will be the way it is when you get there.

Would you say it's addictive?

Alexander Gitman: If you’re an adrenaline junkie in that sense, it’s very addictive. For me it’s more addictive in the sense of ‘I’ve captured really interesting imagery through this, I wanna capture more.' There’s definitely a hunger there. There are weeks that go by where nothing happens. There are things that are deemed worthy of filming or photographing that you can sell and there’s stuff that no one really cares about. There’s stuff you won't bother going to. I sat around two, three weeks and there was nothing newsworthy. Suddenly something does happen. How can you blame someone for getting tremendously excited about a horrific event, considering that it ultimately gets them paid?

“How can you blame someone for getting tremendously excited about a horrific event, considering that it ultimately gets them paid?” – Alexander Gitman

How true is the statement: "if it bleeds, it leads"?

Alexander Gitman: It’s one statement that’s true. It’s a matter of what sells and that kind of story would sell. 

The morning newswoman Jake's character sells this footage to judges stories by whether the victims are richer and whether or not it happened in white, affluent neighborhoods. There is less interest for stories about people who are in less affluent neighborhoods and of different ethnicities. Is that true? 

Alexander Gitman: Absolutely. If a shooting happens in a bad neighborhood, a more urban area where very few white people live – especially if it's like a black on black crime – then something like that is definitely ignored much more in terms of what sells. If it's not even something you can try to sell, they know, 'This isn’t gonna sell'. But a robbery in a white neighborhood where someone was burglarised while at home – that’s a great story, that will sell. 

What you think about that?

Alexander Gitman: The news calls the shots; they really set the scene. It's not up to the guys who do this. As far as reasoning, I guess they somehow feel these are more relatable stories to people or maybe they have a demographic figured out of who watches this and who's gonna care – a mixture of that. It’s tough for me to say, ‘This is wrong.’ Most of these guys don’t watch the news. They don’t even care about that (laughs). It’s sold, it's done. It's all about the next day, getting sleep (laughs). You’d be really surprised.

Have you seen any crimes at celebrity homes? 

Alexander Gitman: Yeah, I’ve heard of it. Like the Lindsay Lohan thing, when she got robbed… I wasn’t there, so hard for me to comment. I know some people showed up to that. The whole paparazzi realm and these guys, they are surprisingly separate, but there is a thin divide. A lot of these guys do not like to be associated with paparazzi at all because they put a lot more effort into their work and get less of a return in the grand scheme of things than a paparazzi guy does.

What do you think is the appeal for these people shooting these crime scenes over popping a quick pic of LiLo and getting way more money for it? 

Alexander Gitman: It’s more exciting; the thrill of seeing tremendously more interesting stuff – that outweighs the money they could get for much less work or time put in. People put in hard work to do this stuff and it's those people that find that more fulfilling. You're also trying to get your footage out to a news station much faster than the other guy. They’ll do deals where they’ll have an extra story – ‘You know what? I’ll throw this one in also if you buy all my stories’. Then the other guy gets screwed. 

I think you might find this film interesting. 

Alexander Gitman: I’m sure. I think a lot of the guys involved in the industry are like, ‘Nah, were not gonna see it. It's going to portray us in a weird way.’ They are all secretly gonna go see it (laughs).

Check out more on Gitman's site. Nightcrawler is out in cinemas today