John Taggart has made a career out of covering crime and chaos. The veteran news photographer, who has worked for The Wall Street Journal, the News York Daily News and Time Magazine, knows a thing or two about things going wrong, and has the shots to prove it. Weeping mothers, dead bodies, cops with guns drawn: All business as usual for the 37-year old Philadelphia native, who has lived and worked in New York since 2006. Last month, Narratively sat down with Taggart to discuss how he goes about getting these kinds of shots and what he sees in the thick of reporting.
Interview by Vinnie Rotondaro. All photos by John Taggart.
You’ve worked your fair share of crime scenes. What’s it like inside of one?
It’s a weird vibe, especially if you do it a lot. You know how to maneuver around the situation. You know that things are going to get awkward, especially with the police.
How do you carry yourself?
You respect the police. They have a job to do. And, you know, you don’t need to get info from them. You don’t need to kiss up to them. Just show them respect. “Officer, could you please put on your hat before I take your photo.” Little things like that. Because they know that if they don’t wear their hat the captain’s going to give them shit.
How’d you learn the ropes?
Back when I first started, there were more people doing this, and they all wanted to have you adapt really quickly. If you’re running around hitting the wrong buttons with people you quickly created a bad name for yourself. Now there are less people covering crime. Anyone can come in and shoot. But back then it was different. You had people who really did not want you screwing up their territory. They didn’t exactly show you the ropes—you were the competition. But they showed you the basics, mainly so that you stayed out of their way and didn’t make it difficult for them with the police.
Do you still enjoy the work?
I do, but I think I’m moving on from it. I’ve grown tired of doing it every day and seeing less and less of it make it into the paper. The media has been changing, and these kinds of things are being reported less and less.
Even with a shot like this?
That was a wild fucking day. I was in Bay Ridge and I was working this story—some dude got stabbed and pushed off a building. So I’m just sitting there, I’m sending some photos in to my editors, and then I hear this guy saying that there’s a jumper on the Brooklyn Bridge. So I’m driving up the Belt Parkway, get on the BQE, get off at Cadman plaza. I jump out of my car, and there’s the guy – right there. Now, below him is the grass. It wasn’t much of a fall, but he would have definitely died. Who knows what the guy’s issue was, but this is one of the photos I’m talking about. I got it and the paper was just like, “Eh, whatever.”
They used to run that stuff all the time. They were picture papers.
That’s lame. I love this shot, by the way.
See how careful they all are? All chained up.
How does that work?
They slowly chain themselves up. They act very nice and quiet. One of the guys tries talking to the person. Obviously, if the guy decides to leap before they get into position it’s over. They work very quickly. They’re professionals.
Who are they exactly?
Emergency Service Units, part of Special Operations Division. SOD. If you’ve ever seen those big NYPD trucks that look like ambulances, and it says ESU on the side, that’s who those guys are. There are maybe three or four ESU trucks per precinct. They don’t run around arresting people. They are the can-do people. They are the heroes.
Met many of them?
Yeah, they’re the best. I’ve given them many, many photos. They love it. They send the photos to their mothers.
The NYPD has a bad rap with a lot of people. What’s your take on the police?
It’s like this: It may sound funny, but for every good cop there’s a bad cop. You’re not going to meet a good cop on every job. So when you do meet a bad cop, just don’t say anything. Go somewhere else and meet the good cop on the other side. You know, I’ve had an issue or two. There was one time when I got arrested and they took my camera and deleted my memory card.
Arrested for being in the wrong place? Too close?
No, I was on the sidewalk. I was taking photos and they just came after me. They roughed me up and threw me up against the van and deleted my memory card and all that shit. I won a lawsuit.
Speaking of cops, here’s a photo I wanted to talk to you about. Were you using a zoom lens for this, or were you right there?
I was right there. That was Boston, after the bombing.
Me and a buddy of mine—James Keivom, he’s a photographer at the Daily News—, we were rooming together in Boston. We were getting some Vietnamese food after the FBI presser, and I told James, I said, “It’s gonna go down.”
Now nobody knew where these guys were. The FBI had just released the photos. But I had a feeling. So we’re staying at the downtown Hilton, which is right across the bridge from MIT. We’ve got the scanner on, and we hear there’s a shooting at MIT. A shooting at MIT? The day they release photos of the perps? So we get in the car and we’re flying. We’re behind a Boston ESU truck. We get to MIT. We get all these pictures. Then it starts to quiet down. James had the radio on. I had a radio on. Next thing you know we heard there was a shootout at a gas station in Watertown. This was before anyone knew about Watertown. So there we were again, chasing an ESU a half-hour out to Watertown.
And we get to the back of this house. We’re walking down the street. There are all these cops, with all these guns, and we’re like, “Okay, this is real.” And the cops just look at us. They see that we’re, you know, aware. And they’re like, “just hide behind the fucking poles. Just get down.”
That’s how it works?
Yeah. It’s like, ‘You’re here now, what are you gonna’ do?’
Right. They’re not going to stop what they’re doing and shoo you away.
Yeah. And there was someone behind that house, but they go away. That was one of the first frames, one of the first moments that started the whole Watertown lockdown.
What were you thinking in that moment?
I’m thinking I need more light. I needed as much light as is possible, because it was dark as hell out there.
Tell me about this photo here:
There was a shootout, a drive-by shooting in Bushwick that I was on my way to. And I heard on my radio that they had a description of the vehicle getting onto the BQE from Grand Avenue, going towards the Midtown Tunnel. So I started racing towards Greenpoint, and I cross over the bridge. They stopped the minivan at the beginning of the Midtown Tunnel going into Manhattan. So they got the driver, they arrested him, and there was this guy in the passenger’s seat. I was on top of the bridge for maybe ten minutes before I got kicked off. I’m just shooting down at this guy in the car, with blood.
What’s that like? Is that weird?
Yeah. Seeing dead people.
It’s a beautiful shot in its own right, the blood streak on the white strip. Is it strange sometimes to see something almost artistic in such a chaotic or tragic scene? Does it get to you, seeing this kind of stuff? For example, this shot of the woman bawling:
Not really. You just have to record it. This was a big story. It was up in the Catskills. This mother from Bensonhurst, her two sons and I think one of their friends got in a boating accident. It was in October and it was cold. The boat flipped over and filled up with water. They drowned, all of them. So the mother shows up the next morning just as they’re pulling her kids out of the water.
But see, that’s a breaking news moment.
You were camped out there?
Yeah, we were up there for two or three days.
Did the family see you?
I was far away. I used a long lens for that picture. I mean,there were other photographers and media there, but I got to the scene so early. I was the only one that got that shot, and at that moment when she showed up, I was like, shit, it’s just me. So I backed off and put on the long lens before she even got out of the car. And I didn’t know she was going to do that. I immediately put on the long lens before she got out of the car. wasn’t going to get in her face. I remember they ran that photo big, one whole page in the Daily News.
What’s the value of this kind of photography?
Well, I would say…don’t go to the Catskills in October and flip over your boat.
Right. So that’s how you view it?
Yeah, the warning effect. It’s important to show that side of things.
It has an archetypal quality. The grief is just so absolute.
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John Taggart is an award-winning, freelance photographer and photojournalist based in New York City. His works have appeared in The Wall Street Journal, the New York Daily News, Time Magazine, Newsweek, Polaris Images, Reuters, DNAinfo, Edible Brooklyn, Edible Manhattan and Gothamist.
Vinnie Rotondaro is Narratively’s Editor at Large. He lives
and writes in Brooklyn.