“Nightcrawler” and Ethical Photojournalism at the Capitol Riots

Featured Illustration: Reza Bassiri

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I still remember exactly what I was doing when the Trump-supporting domestic terrorists stormed America’s Capitol. I was watching the neo-noir psychological thriller Nightcrawler on a Zoom call with my friends and the third act of the film had just started. We were so engrossed in the film that we hadn’t checked our phones or notifications for the last hour or so. I’d chosen the film because I was interested in its take on the ethics of photojournalism. Nightcrawler follows the Los Angeles denizen Louis ‘Lou’ Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) who scrounges the streets of the city at night, surviving by scavenging and petty theft. He eventually stumbles into a new career as a stringer, who records violent events late at night and sells the footage to a local television news station. We follow Lou as his morality grows increasingly corrupt, and as his taste for crime photojournalism grows closer, hungrier, and more sociopathic.

What happened at the Capitol was nothing short of treason. It was a seditious, insurrectionist act that was incited by Trump himself, hours before the storming happened. The MAGA supporters stormed the Capitol with the belief that they were in the right, that they — with their Confederate and Nazi flags — were somehow bringing justice to overturn the rightfully democratic election results. They stormed the Capitol — the supposed pinnacle of the very democracy that America claims to be — in the name of their very own Corleone, their very own führer, Mr. Donald Trump.

An hour before the insurrectionists stormed the Capitol, we’d watched a good hour of Nightcrawler, up until the point where Lou rears his ugliest head. He starts moving bodies at the crime scenes to get more impressive shots to sell to his news station. He starts breaking into locations before the police even arrive to capture scenes before anyone else can get to them first. We were so engrossed at this point that it was only until one of my friends’ siblings led us to pause the film — that was when we heard the news of the insurrectionists storming the Capitol and jumping over walls and smashing windows.

It goes without saying that for the rest of that evening, we didn’t finish Nightcrawler, but instead, like everyone else, kept a horrified eye on the news. It felt simultaneously surreal and entirely terrifying at the moment that the Capitol was being breached, all while the Senate and Congress worked to certify Joe Biden’s victory. Most news outlets only showed photos of the events while they were happening, and the live broadcasts were mostly outside of the building, taken at a distance. I decided to hop onto Twitter and see if there were any immediate updates on what was happening internally. What I saw sickened me.

There was a video of one Black police officer against an entire crowd. He was armed with only a large baton, and the crowd was pushing him back; they eventually breached through, and he backtracked up the stairs as the mob pursued him. The video was strangely well shot. It wasn’t shaky — it felt as if it was filmed on a journalist’s camera, one held over the shoulder, just like Lou’s crime scene cameras.

I felt a strange sense of dread. At the moment, of course, I was focused more on the Capitol riots themselves than analyzing the antics of the journalists covering the events, but it was nonetheless extremely disturbing. I went further down Twitter. There were videos of the Congress and Senate fleeing, and the mob bursting in. There were videos of the insurrectionists walking around the Capitol and looking at paintings. There were videos of a police officer holding hands with insurrectionists as they went down the stairs.

It was a day later that more articles developed and I saw more videos. Even as I am writing this — nearly two weeks after the riots — more footage has come out, including The New Yorker’s coverage on this reporter’s twelve-minute video detailing the rioters inside the Capitol siege. One, in particular, however, made me sick to the core. Ashli Babbitt, the woman who was killed at the Capitol, embraced Trump and QAnon and was one of the frontline insurrectionists who smashed the glass on the door leading to the Speaker’s Lobby. I saw a video from The Washington Post — it was right when she was shot. The footage was shaky, but whoever captured that video was in the crowd, amongst all those rioters. Whoever was taking the video kept filming when she hit the ground. There were five other journalists there, too, who surrounded Babbitt.

I want to preface this by saying that I personally do not feel much sympathy towards the insurrectionists. It is my belief that they brought violence upon themselves and subsequently suffered the consequences. But the thought of being shot, and hitting the ground, and people filming your very death feels entirely dystopian and disgusting. It feels like Lou in Nightcrawler, hungry for the best shot, for the best footage, to develop his camerawork, and to sell it to whichever news station will accommodate him in the best way. It’s downright nasty.

It’s not to say that frontline photojournalists aren’t brave and have their own set morals, however. They’re very important in our society, and help cover breaking events like these as they happen. I read a New York Times article where journalists shared their first-hand accounts in their Capitol coverage. One journalist was tackled to the ground, as the police thought she was an insurrectionist. She said that she was “terrified for her own life and wasn’t sure that she would make it out alive.” It was only until some of her colleagues passed by and stopped them, certifying her profession.

I myself do not know the complexities of photojournalism and the depth of training that the field entails. But I do know my reaction to the steadily-shot video of the sole Black officer fending off the insurrectionists, the five journalists filming a person’s death, and even more videos that I’m sure are out there. I know that it is a journalist’s job to capture events and not to be a medic or a hero, but it feels completely wrong that such horrible events are captured on digital with a person behind them, like an invisible ghost, as if the camera is a machine and there is no human behind it. It feels a lot like the film I watched just an hour before the insurrectionists broke in and the completely messed-up, dystopian, and sociopathic methodology that Lou used to get the best footage for his news stations.

Nightcrawler tells us that journalism is a zero-sum game, in which rules are violated and ethics are lost, and that the hungry mouth, daring hand, and perverted mind is awarded as the winner.

And this doesn’t even have to be limited to the Capitol riots — all this is not only journalistic malfeasance, but a massive violation of citizens’ rights. It completely saddens me that in this age to get such footage of events requires this trespassing of moral boundaries and all for the forsaken saying that the insurrectionists also believe themselves to be righteous: that everything, in the end, is “for the people” in the name of upholding our slowly crumbling democracy.