Sydney

Meet Sydney’s Real-Life ‘Nightcrawler’

We spent a night riding shotgun with Gordon McComiskie, taking photos of fights and car accidents.

by Naeun Kim
21 September 2018, 2:10am

Photos by Sean Foster

Gordon McComiskie is a night photographer who covers Sydney's most foul and bloody stories for the Daily Telegraph. From 10pm to 6am, all weekend, the city is his playground. And yes, he’s seen Nightcrawler. And yes he says it’s like that, but “not to the same extent.”

Every time there’s a drunken street fight, an accident, a house fire, or some kind of salacious crime, Gordon is there with his camera. And he says it’s hard and occasionally traumatising work, but somehow it became the thing he’s good at.

“It was an obscure start,” he says. “I never aimed for this job.”

Gordon spent the first 17 years of his adult life in the navy but always wanted to work in special effects for TV. Then his wife (through an ex-boyfriend) suggested a freelance gig shooting for channels Nine and Ten. He taught himself how to shoot photos on the job and started sending his favourites to the Tele, whose picture editor eventually offered him a job.

“When I first started, the media was a dog-eat-dog world. You had to be careful because the next bloke would screw you over. But in the navy, you worked for a common cause. That’s what I found the most difficult.”

We’re out driving but there are no jobs yet, so we stop for coffee. We’re in Double Bay where Burberry-clad couples dig into desserts and glance at their Mercedes parked nearby. In a lowered voice, Gordon tells me we’re headed to Sam Burgess’ house—you know, that Rabbitohs star embroiled in that sexting scandal who also happens to be playing a sudden-death NRL game the next day.

“I hate doing pap jobs. It’s not really news.”

But the Tele broke the story and want him to check for any movements at the house. It’s nearly midnight when we’re halfway there and a cop car whizzes past. Change of plans.

We end up at Maroubra Seals where some sort of fight has broken out upstairs. A drunken man is arcing up to cops and security. He’s then brought outside for a search, and continues swearing at the cops. It’s at this moment Gordon jumps.

“The money shot!”

The man’s supporters whip out their phones as their friend is escorted into a paddy wagon. It’s now time to socialise with the cops.

“I’ve been waiting to meet you,” one of them says to Gordon.

He knows Gordon from his Instagram, which has something of a cult following among emergency workers. There’s an exchange of numbers and then another ruckus. The arrested man’s posse is taunting us and the cops.

“Ah, it’s the gift that keeps on giving,” Gordon remarks.

They swear at us from a distance and then the fights tapers off. The cops pack up and leave, but the mob sees us packing nothing but cameras, which is our signal to leave. “Once the cops leave, it’s best you do too," explains Gordon as we get back into the car.

“At each scene I do a risk assessment—how many cops, how many people, and how aggressive can they get? You have to have your wits about because things can turn really quick.”

Gordon tells me he’s has been assaulted and threatened on the job. More than once he’s feared for his life.

He tells me about a night back in 2015. A boxer had just been knocked out in a fight at Ingleburn RSL and Gordon raced over to find a hostile crowd in a carpark. They cornered him, forcing him back into his car. He narrowly escaped and the police warned him to keep away from the hospital, where the boxer ended up dying.

Back in 2018, we head to Sam Burgess’ to stake the place out. We’re in full detective mode, talking, parked a little bit down the street with the lights turned off. Thirty minutes pass and nothing happens.

Not surprisingly, the most common question Gordon gets he’s asked is what’s the worst thing he’s seen and how he dealt with it.

“You have to mentally block it in your head," he says. "To me it’s not real, I look through the viewfinder and try to concentrate on the technical side."

But the most confronting stuff isn’t what he sees. He was once at a carjacking, where the offender took off with a taxi and ran a red light, smashing into an innocent driver. The victim’s relatives came to the scene.

“It was just a howling sound. It’s the screaming that haunts you.”

Gordon stops mid-thought and listens intently to the scanners in his car that have become background noise to me. He can hear the comms for ambos and firies—the police one is illegal. Police scanners are encrypted in NSW and you can’t buy them. That’s why maintaining a good relationship with cops on the ground is so important because he relies heavily on verbal tip-offs. He also wears a radio scanner on his body with an earpiece in case he’s shooting something and needs to divert.

This photo by Naeun Kim

A car’s gone into a shop at Castle Hill. A good 40 minutes away. There’s nothing else going on, so Gordon makes the call to head over. A group of teens are milling about—one of them’s the driver and believe it or not, all are completely sober.

The rest of the night is surprisingly quiet. Gordon says the lockout laws have made the city quieter. Back in the day, a good night would consist of eight to 10 jobs. These days, one or two and you’re cheering. To put that into perspective, tonight’s jobs don’t even get their own articles on the site. With less demand, there’s less jobs and there’s less news.

“We’re not producing nowhere near the amount of news we used to. Hard copy papers are dying."

News agencies are all cutting costs, which means most of the time they only dedicate their resources on stories that are guaranteed clicks, like tonight’s footy star in the shits story. Some nights, Gordon will go it alone without a journo which means he’ll do all the interviews and get as much info from emergency services himself.

When he started there were around five other competitors. But today it’s just him and a single other video company that all major channels pool to hire for overnight jobs.

But to Gordon, a shrinking industry isn't the problem. For him, a back-breaking incident was what changed the way he saw his job. He was covering a story with his journo in Balmain after a drugged-up guy fell down some stairs. Then his equally drugged-up mates started to get violent as Gordon took photos.

“There was no bargaining with these guys. I knew I had to get back to the car but my journo had the keys and was still trying to talk some sense into them. You just know when you’re not going to get anything from certain people—especially these ones.”

“I ran back to the car and told my journo to unlock it but by the time I got there these guys pushed me and dragged me by my camera neck strap and I fell to the ground. We eventually got in the car but they were kicking the doors and windows until we left.”

“It opened my eyes a bit more about the job. Before I was a lot more gung ho but now it’s just, get the job done but don’t put yourself in danger sort of mentality.”

It put him off work for three months.

“I don’t see myself doing this forever,” he says. “I’d like to get out of news eventually, but still do something with photography, eventually.”

Follow Naeun on Twitter. Photos by Sean Foster