A new-media project, GunCrisis.org, uses old-school journalism tactics to study Philly's homicides.
MacMillan envisions GunCrisis filling in the gap between rising homicides and shrinking watchdog coverage. Between teaching gigs and researching the project, MacMillan posts several GunCrisis website updates, Facebook updates and regular tweets on @GunCrisisNews. On nights out with Kaz or on day-trips to rallies and memorials, he posts original observations and photos, along with headlines, analyses of anti-gun programs in other cities and data-driven graphics. While he’s at it, he re-tweets messages from residents. “I’m almost certain I would carry a gun if I lived in Philadelphia,” writes one. “Besides the murder rates, I’m proud to be from Philadelphia!” writes another.
Yet despite the project’s progressive perspective, multimedia production and social-media distribution model, the actual reporting process—getting out and looking at the problem up close—is decidedly old school.
These days, Kaczmarek, a freelancer, is the first reporter to the scene when gunfire explodes in the middle of the night. In the morning, he becomes a businessman, making phone calls and sending out emails to sell his bounty. He notes that no one seems to be competing with him. Kaz, who has never been employed by a newspaper, has won a slew of awards such as Distinguished Visual Journalist from the Pennsylvania Newspaper Association. His work has appeared in The New York Times and the Washington Post, among others—not to mention hanging on the walls of the Philadelphia police headquarters.
“Who have I seen come along that tried to give a crap about the streets? So many kids tell me they want to be in my field, and I tell them, ‘Just show up,’” he says, throwing his hands in the air.
Kaz, 44, has been called ‘Philadelphia’s Weegee’—a reference to the famous 1930s New York City crime-scene photographer Arthur Fellig, nicknamed for the supposed sixth sense (“Weegee” is a phonetic take on Ouija) that helped him beat cops to a scene.
“What makes Kaz different is that almost everybody washes out,” says MacMillan. “I think some people see it as sort of glamorous or fun at first glance, running around like cowboy, but you know what? That doesn’t last very long at all. What stays with you in the long run on a superficial level is sunburn and frozen toes and not getting to a restroom when you need to … on a more serious level, the traumatic experiences stay with you as well.”
Eleven years ago, Kaz was an amateur photographer and police dispatcher who wanted to be a cop. A hard-boiled kind of guy, he’d drive around listening to the scanner just to get to know the city better. One day, after getting laid off from his dispatcher job, Kaz was standing on Delaware Avenue chowing on a hot dog when a huge fire broke out near the warehouse painted with a giant American flag mural commemorating 9/11. He grabbed his camera out of his car, got the shot, then walked into the Daily News office and sold the roll.
“The editor said, ‘Here’s more film, go and do it again,’” he says. “And my aspiration of becoming a member of law enforcement went out the window. I was hooked on photojournalism and I haven’t looked back since.”
He’s been doing it almost every night ever since, the hardest-working unemployed full-time crime reporter in the city.
It’s one of the first warm spring nights of the year and the streets are bustling with people enjoying the weather. In Philadelphia, summer arrives edged in a sense of dread.
“There’s bad mojo in the air,” says Kaz, who just picked MacMillan up in Center City to head out for the night. He heads north.
They banter like the buddies they are, busting each other’s chops about who knows the most obscure alleyways, creative shortcuts that will get them there the fastest and other tools and tricks of the urban crime beat.
“The way you arrive is what matters,” says MacMillan. “You don’t burst on the scene and disrupt it, and you don’t act like you’re hiding anything. In my language, you act like you’re walking up to mail a letter.”
“Walk the last 20 feet,” agrees Kaczmarek. “[Mayor] Nutter could be hanging from a burning building, but you walk the last 20 feet.”
They come up on the Jin House Chinese, a corner store and Chinese restaurant at Tulip Street and Longshore Avenue in Tacony. Flowers, candles and half-deflated balloons drape against the wall. A banner across the top of the storefront reads: “Remember Xiang Huang.” They pull over. Haung, 27, and his wife Jin and their daughters moved from China to Philadelphia just last year. In late January, two masked men entered the store and shot him point-blank in the chest as Jin watched from a few feet away, clutching their infant daughter Anna to her body. Huang’s other two daughters were upstairs.
MacMillan says this scene reminds him of another one.
“A man was killed in a market in West Philly in the afternoon and I was there when [his] wife got there and was notified,” he says. “I can still hear her voice.”
After so many years out in the streets, Kaz can click off grim scene after scene like a mental zoetrope, and he does. But he didn’t even witness the scene that bothers him most. In 2008, his mother spotted a couple arguing as she exited an Acme food store in the Northeast. She watched as a man pulled out a gun and shot the woman in the face.
“Guy blew her away,” says Kaczmarek. “And my mom continued from Acme back down to our house in a catatonic state.” Kaz rushed home from a police officer’s funeral to comfort her.
They’re interrupted by a burst of static and the dispatcher’s voice blaring through the scanner: Nine shots were just fired on a residential street.