What It’s Like to Be a Real-life Nightcrawler in Toronto
Brutal accidents, long hours, and little sleep. Very few photojournalists want to do what Victor Biro does on most nights.
Heavy rainfall spatters down on the windshield of Victor Biro's mid-2000s minivan as we sit in a parking lot near Toronto's Yonge-Dundas Square. The LED billboards flashing in the distance paint the water running down his windshield different colours as his EMS and fire radio scanner poke holes in our conversation.
"Arrived at the scene and there's one female," a paramedic blurts over the radio. "She's VSA."
"VSA means 'Vital Signs Absent,'" Biro says after strapping himself in and flipping the ignition on. "Could be something, could be nothing. You never know."
Biro is what many people call a "nightcrawler"—a photojournalist who cruises the city after dark while listening to the radio chatter of first responders, all in effort to get to the scene of crime and accidents as fast as possible and snap a picture that he can sell to a news outlet. He has told me the nickname, which was popularized by the Jake Gyllenhaal film of the same title, doesn't represent what he does at all.
"I'm not a sociopath. It's not about some sense of vanity or sensationalism," he tells me, tossing a cigarette out the window. "These are issues that affect social policy and public perception. There are guys that do this just for the rush, but there are a lot of people that don't."
Daily VICE, November 21
From the Toronto Star to Metro, National Post to the Sun, Biro's shots of car accidents, crime scenes and nighttime disturbances have been plastered on the front pages of Toronto's newspapers and media websites for over five years. Some of his shots feature the mangled remains of vehicles after fatal accidents, others just show caution tape illuminated by the red and blue glow of police cars at the scene of a shooting.
Up until 2008, Biro was working in the telecom industry. Despite having a love for cameras ever since he was a kid, Biro put his passion for photography on the back burner after he got into the lucrative world of telecom sales. At his peak in the telecom industry, Biro made good money—upwards of six figures, he tells me—but the job just wasn't doing it for him.
"It was not what I wanted to do," he said. "I wasn't contributing anything I felt was meaningful to society and I wasn't enjoying what I was doing. Of course the money was good, but I wasn't being true to myself."
For years, Biro had dabbled in the use of radio scanners as part of his work in the telecommunications sector. When he heard about photojournalists trying to keep up with first responders at night by using the very tools he was so familiar with, he said that he felt compelled to give it a try. After a few months of showing up to random scenes with his camera—which he found listed on a bulletin board at his office—he began to connect with journalists on the ground level and learn the ropes of chasing spot news. Things like knowing how to judge the severity of a call based on the sound of urgency in an operator's voice, or not staying at dead-end scenes for too long to avoid spinning one's wheels, are just a few of the things he picked up from working around the pros. In 2010, he decided it was time to go full-on.
Now 50, Biro fully acknowledges and accepts trading his high-paying white collar job for the brutal art of freelancing as a nighttime photojournalist, sacrificing the life of a big house and a fancy car for long hours and little money. On average, Biro makes about $50-$200 a photo, depending on what publication purchases it, how many publications purchase it, and if it makes it to print or stays online. However, there are some nights—many nights—where nothing happens and no photos are purchased.
"With the gas, all the time spent and the money it costs for the gear, you basically break even every night unless you pull in something really big," he said. "But nobody gets in this for the money. You'd have to be stupid to."
Biro picked me up around 10 PM, he usually doesn't end his night until around 3 or 4 AM, depending on how busy the scanners are. His job sees him sitting in zones of the city he describes as high-access—places that are either close to where action tends to happen or are near urban arteries such as highways and service roads—while waiting for his scanner to flare up with something that piques his interest.
Sometimes, it's a habit that can see him sitting for hours with nothing to do but sip on coffee, smoke cigarettes, and watch his phone for Toronto police tweets. Other times, it can see him responding to two, three, even four calls in a single night, racing from one scene to the next with around a half-dozen competing journalists and camera crews.
By the time we're a quarter way to the VSA incident, Biro tells me we're dropping the call. He says that, due to lack of chatter or further details given about the call, it was most likely nothing more than a back injury or heart attack. With a quick shoulder check and crank of the wheel, Biro's Ford whips into a U-turn as we head back towards the downtown core.
This has happened before and it will happen again: false alarms, non-fatal accidents, and anything that won't make the news is a pointless pursuit to Biro. As much as he'd like to photograph everything, he notes that there's a story to tell at the end of the day.
"You have to think about the larger picture, about the narrative you're trying to tell. I may not be writing the story, but these pictures need to accompany something, and if there's nothing to go along with it, [news organizations] won't buy it."
One of the main challenges for Biro over the last year has been the silencing of police scanners. Since 2014, Toronto Police and its surrounding municipal partners have been switching their radio-based frequencies for encrypted, digital communications. The police's reason for going digital is two-part. One, they don't want criminals listening in on their communications and anticipating their moves, and two, they don't think journalists have a right to know as much as the cops do. This is according to Mark Pugash, director of communications for the Toronto Police Service, with whom I spoke earlier this year for a Canadaland story.
"There is information [on the scanners] about arrests, there is information on warrants that are going to be executed, there is personal information on there, and we think it's important that information remains confidential," he said to me during a phone interview. "Our major concern is safety of information. We've seen situations where media arrive to scene ahead of police and that interferes with officer safety, as well as the safety of a variety of people."
When I first rode with Biro back in July of this year, he relied entirely on fire and EMS radio chatter to aide him hunting the news. The mechanism that was supposed to bridge the gap between police and journalists—a Twitter account for Toronto Police Service's Operations (TPSO)—was infrequently used and often failed to provide updates to police operations in a timely manner.
In the five months since then, things have changed significantly. Now, the TPSO tweets more regularly—a large improvement from their old habits which would sometimes leave journalists in the dark for six to seven hours at a time—but other impediments have risen up in its place. One example is how fire is now less active on the radio than it was before due to the implementation of mobile data terminals, which allow fire services to communicate specific details over a proprietary system, only using the radio when they need to contact EMS. This has made the job even more difficult for Biro.
Without having reliable contacts in emergency services—most of whom stay tight-lipped in order to keep their jobs—Biro has to string together information from vague Toronto Police tweets that often give major intersections rather than exact addresses, broken radio chatter from the remaining fire and EMS communications, and what he hears from other reporters on the night grind. All in all, Biro ends up getting to less scenes and getting to them a lot slower than he used to.
When Biro does end up gathering enough information to narrow down a location and get to the scene, there's no guarantee it's going to be hot enough of a take for a publication to pick up. In the case of shootings involving the police—such as that of Andrew Loku earlier this year—the Special Investigative Unit (SIU) has the prerogative to invoke a mandate that prevents the police from giving details about a crime. This not only stops tweets about incidents from going out until it's far too late, but it also prevents Biro from getting worthwhile photos for publications. Ultimately, Biro tells me it's a gruelling practice that takes a lot of patience, time, and, most importantly, luck.
There was a time this summer when Biro and I arrived at a small collision in Etobicoke. A cameraman for a national TV channel, who Biro had spoken with earlier to coordinate where exactly the accident was, had beat us to the scene and was already filming. With a bulky camera in hand and a second DSLR dangling off his shoulder, Biro circled the scene and took photos with precision. A picture of the police, of the firetruck and the car, another one to capture the whole scene.
When we got back to the car, he imported the photos onto his laptop and opened them with editing software. He tweaked the lighting to make things a little more visible, but didn't touch much more than that. Then, he threw it all in the trash. When I asked him why, he told me that this wasn't going to make print, but that he was optimistic we'd hear something else.
Sometimes, that optimism pays off. When Biro heard calls coming in on the radio about a driver headed the wrong way on Highway 427 back in August, he had reservations about whether it was actually a serious incident or not, noting that it's pretty common for people to pull onto the wrong ramp at night, only to realize they're going the wrong direction and reverse their decision. This time was different, however. The calls didn't stop.
"In this case, there was multiple callers, and they were all at different intersections," Biro told me. "That's when we knew it was a real guy and this was really happening."
The driver ended up hitting a vehicle head-on that was merging onto the Hwy 427 from the QEW, totalling a van that was carrying a mother and father, as well as their 16-year-old daughter. While the mother and driver of the oncoming car suffered severe injuries and were rushed to a local hospital, the father and daughter died from the impact.
Biro and a few other journalists showed up to the scene while the father and daughter were being extracted from the crumpled remains of the car by emergency personnel. He snapped photos of their bodies being excavated, of the area around the impact, of the reconstructionists arriving on scene. It's an experience that he says he's had quite often, but not one that he ever gets used to.
"I was really, really sad," he said. "You knew this was not going to turn out well, just because the damage was so severe. It was really ugly... I have cried doing this job."
Biro also tells me there's many times he's missed the mark. Just a day prior to the head-on accident, the infamous shooting at Toronto's Muzik nightclub happened. Biro, after picking up nothing on the scanners for hours, had just called it a night. He was far away from the scene when it happened, and it ate at him for days afterward.
When asked if he is going to keep doing this—with all the irregular sleep, poor pay, and gruesome accidents—Biro tells me that as much as he would love to, it's become a hard idea to justify.
"I don't think it's going to be a thing much longer, for anybody, not just me. There's too much restriction, too little information, too little of a market for what's being done. It's important work and I wish it didn't have to be this way."
"As long as the calls are coming in, I'll be there as much as I can. How much longer that will last, I'm not quite sure."
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