BY JONATHAN VALANIA As a kid, Joe Kaczmarek started scheming to get on the other side of the yellow police crime scene tape the way party people scheme to get on the other side of the velvet rope. He was born into it. His ‘nana’ listened to the police scanner like people listen to the radio. Soon he had his own police scanner and every night he went to sleep with the hiss, crackle and pop of police dispatchers calling all cars ringing in his ears. To Kaczmarek it was beautiful music. When he grew up he wanted to be a cop, but there were no empty seats at the table so he settled for police dispatcher. It was the next best thing to being ‘in the shit,’ where all the action was. Cops and robbers. Murder and mayhem. Fire and casualty. Damsels in distress. Kittens up trees. Trembling old ladies calling 911 to report things going bump in the night. Never a dull moment. It sure beat working for a living. When budget cuts pulled the plug on his dispatcher career, he picked up a camera and taught himself how to point and shoot. Armed with a police scanner, he made it his business to be at the right place at the right time. Soon the newspapers were buying his pictures and the cops were inviting him to cross the yellow crime scene tape and do his thing. That was 12 years ago and he hasn’t looked back since. In addition to the Daily News and Inquirer, his work has been published in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Time magazine, USA Today, and magazines and websites the world over. He usually sleeps through the day and works at night, when Killadelphia comes alive. Like famed New York City crime scene chronicler Weegee — to whom he is often compared — murder is his business and these days business is good. A little too good. Still, it sure beats working for a living.
PHAWKER: So let’s start at the beginning. How do you get into doing what you’re doing?
JOE KACZMAREK: I was a recently laid off police dispatcher for a suburban municipality sitting on Delaware Avenue listening to a police scanner and eating a chili dog. These men were painting a giant American flag mural on the side of the cold storage building near Spring Garden street and all of a sudden their scaffolding collapsed and they were all dangling from their safety harnesses. And their paint and everything fell to the ground, they were literally hanging from the side of the building and I just had to roll up the block about a hundred yards and I started taking pictures and then fire trucks arrived. Long story short they got everyone down safely and I took my photos over to the Philadelphia Daily News not knowing why, just I figured in the wake of 9/11, firemen and the photo editor looked at the film and he was impressed with what he saw. He said he was going to use some of my photos and then he handed me a box of film and he said ‘go do it again, kid.’ And I never looked back since.
My first photo that ran in the paper was of the mural arts flag scaffolding collapse and they ran it nearly a whole page in color. My mother was so proud of what I did and it was like a drug in my system ever since. I decided I am never messing around with anything else; this is going to be my career. And I proceeded to absorb every single bit of knowledge and information I could get from all the existing news photographers in town. At that time there was still a lot of the absolute best this city has ever seen still working for the dailies. And a lot of these guys took me under their wing. George Widman, Rusty Kennedy, George Reynolds, Jim MacMillan, of course, Pete Kane, a television photographer who spent like 30 years on the streets of Philadelphia — they all saw something in me and like I said, I never looked back. I honesty consider it a blessing. I finally figured out what I was meant to do in this life.
PHAWKER: Why were you listening to the police scanner? Old habits die hard?
JOE KACZMAREK: Listening to the police scanner was a habit that my nana instilled in me. Nana always listened to the police radio so when I was little I just took to it and so instead of wanting to watch TV at night before bed I wanted to listen to the police scanner. And the camera was a gift my dad gave to my mom back in the late 70s that she never really took an interest to and I kind of did and taught myself how to use it.
PHAWKER: What’s the make of the camera?
JOE KACZMAREK: The camera was a Ricoh 35 millimeter film body. It was a nice little camera. But in a day when everyone was learning to play with digital I was still a film guy running around with film. Then quickly I had to get serious and decide well if you want to do this you need the right tools to do it and like basically took a leap of faith and took a whole bunch of savings and invested it in this expensive camera equipment and it been a good investment and it’s never let me down. My mother always said when you want to go west you have to feed the horse. There are certain expenses that just come along in life that you got to cover if you want to do something.
PHAWKER: That’s pretty good, I like that.
JOE KACZMAREK: She was very encouraging through all of this. A classic mom, just knew I had the talent before anyone else did and always encouraged me and never let me sell myself short and I really do consider this a blessing. I had jobs before where I made money but I had no personal gratification and I was miserable and I always dreamed of having a job where I felt like I was contributing something positive to this world as opposed to just worrying about making ends meet. Before this, I was in check cashing and pawn shops and stuff like that so. So it was me being fed up with cash check stores and pawn shops and was like ‘you know there has to be something more satisfying to do with myself” and that is where I started to check out law enforcement, see if I can get a job somewhere. Took a test here and there. Doors weren’t opening up at the right time and I took that police dispatching job just to get into the field and get a little experience from it. It’s kind of funny, all the steps, they added up along the way to what I am now. It’s funny when you look back on it.
PHAWKER: Are you from Philadelphia?
JOE KACZMAREK: Yes, originally. My grandmother owned a bar in Kensington for fortysomething years called Mary’s Tavern. And my dad grew up in Kensington and my mom was a Mayfair girl. I spent all my years here and I adore the place.
PHAWKER: So what is a typical day in the life of Joe Kazmarek? Or more accurately, a night in the life?
JOE KACZMAREK: There are two reasons I gravitate towards the night. Number one, I kind of own the city at night. There is no one else out there. The nighttime I think adds a bit of mojo to the photographs, makes them just a little bit different.
PHAWKER: That’s when most of the murder and mayhem happen, isn’t it?
JOE KACZMAREK: Yes, yes. It’s a different atmosphere out there at night. In the night time it seems like that crime is the only thing that’s happening in certain neighborhoods, literally. In the day time you can have the same type of scene, step away from the police tape and everything in life continues on as normal. I think that adds to difference a little bit at night. I like the night. I really do. And I equally hate the morning. I don’t know if it’s my love of the night or dread of the morning that keeps me out at night.
PHAWKER: What’s the worst thing you’ve seen or photographed?
JOE KACZMAREK: I’m at these scenes and people who are there, that’s the worst moments of their lives and every single time I am at one of these things I have to watch the effect of this violence on the dead’s family and loved ones. It’s just as bad as it gets. Every time we have to stand out there and listen to the screams, the crying, to the pleading with God. Then on top of that sometimes throw some [dead] kids into the mix and that’s a haunting day for me.
PHAWKER: So how do you deal with that? Are you able to leave that somewhere at the end of the day and go home?
JOE KACZMAREK: Yeah. My colleagues that share the task are always great to sit down and decompress with, have a beer. Just to talk about it and I think just talking about it is key to that process of getting it off your chest. It always stays with you. I mean my photographs, I can look at a photograph from 2002 and remember the entire incident and it’s like looking at a family member. It doesn’t go away but friends and family helps you decompress and file it in the appropriate place.
PHAWKER: How many murder scenes do you think you’ve photographed?
JOE KACZMAREK: If the city had 400 murders on the course of a year, I think it’s fair to say I’m there 40% of the time and I been doing this since 2001 so for 11 years. So it’s a hell of a lot of violence
PHAWKER: That’s more than 2000 murders scenes you’ve photographed. What do you think is the root cause of all this violence?
JOE KACZMAREK: It’s all disagreements stemming from coping with life whether it’s over a girlfriend or money or drugs. People trying to cope with everyday life and for some reason killing somebody seems to be the damn answer to their problems. I don’t think it’s fair to narrow it down to any one issue because it can be so random. One day I’ll be covering a domestic murder suicide, the next day it is clear that maybe one of the corner guys got gunned down as a result of illegal activities. Other times it’s just like a robbery. A robbery goes bad, someone gets scared, pulls the trigger and nothing was taken except for a life.
PHAWKER: Since you’ve seen so many of these murder scenes, surely you have some opinion on what if anything can be done to stem this violence.
JOE KACZMAREK: To be honest with you, I just kind of stand their looking at it like the apes [staring at the mysterious black obelisk] in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Just ‘What the hell? What the hell can you do with this?’ Any type of disruption or interruption [in the violence] could be considered positive.
PHAWKER: And when you are standing around the murder scene, the victim’s cell phone rings constantly?
JOE KACZMAREK: Yeah. So you have this horrible scene and then some silly ring tone, like ‘Shake Your Moneymaker,’ is going off over and over. It’s bizarre to be standing there in such a grim environment and listening to a silly ringtone go off over and over again. The other thing is that at absolutely every homicide scene I been to there’s stray cats walking around. It’s something I see every time, every murder scene there is a stray cat walking through. Always. Always.
PHAWKER: You don’t think these cats are somehow involved?
JOE KACZMAREK: No. It’s just…this is the stuff I just hate.
PHAWKER: Tell me when you started shooting was that the first time you saw a murder victim’s body laying on the ground?
JOE KACZMAREK: Well I try not to encounter the disturbing or upsetting stuff too much. I feel like we’ve got this glass you can fill up with only so much negative stuff so I am very careful about what spills into the glass and fills it up. I don’t need to see upsetting things unnecessarily.
PHAWKER: What were the realities of it that you weren’t prepared for?
JOE KACZMAREK: One thing that happens that the victim’s family and friends and even just bystanders always complain about is why the body has to just lay there for so long. In the beginning even I was like ‘gosh why does it have to be like this’ but unfortunately as a part of the investigating process, the deceased has to be out there in the street for an extended period of time.
PHAWKER: So how long are we talking about? An hour? Two hours?
JOE KACZMAREK: It could five or six [hours] depending on circumstances.
PHAWKER: How about the other side of things? Do you have any heartwarming or inspiring tales of things that you encountered, people doing good deeds, etc.?
JOE KACZMAREK: Oh my God yes. The people of Philadelphia are good people. I cannot stress that enough. So many times you go into a place you haven’t been at and it’s a rough community and you’re on guard and you’re alert and all of a sudden you meet some really warm, fuzzy, great people. It’s such a pleasure to be on guard for negative and experience the positive. I’ll give you a great example. I’m at a scene about two or three months ago in Olney where somebody was killed during the filming of a rap video. The first reports were someone was shot in the head while someone was filming a rap video. Well later in the investigation it determined that there were guns fired but the person wasn’t shot, they were actually struck by a vehicle trying to get away from the gunfire. But in the confusion it took some time to figure this out. I was working a job with Morgan Zalot of the Daily news and I go to take a picture of a group of onlookers on the corner and this kid that is about eight years old holds his hands up like a celebrity and say ‘Don’t take my picture, man’ and then he runs over to Morgan and he throws his arms around her — he barely comes up to her waist — as tight as can be and screams ‘Unless it’s with her!’ And it just kills me and I am like absolutely I will not discourage this young man from talking to a pretty girl. I mean it’s something I can still not do in my 40s, OK? So stuff like that is just absolutely amazing. True blue Philadelphians through and through and I love them, I absolutely love them.
PHAWKER: So what about this notion of you being Philadelphia’s Weegee?
JOE KACZMAREK: I am very humbled by the compliment, but I will leave it to other people to decide. I am humbled because he is the first and the original. Probably the only thing I got in common with Weegee is the police radio and chasing crime scenes. Other than that, he was an innovator. It’s just like being a baseball player you know, whenever someone becomes ‘the next Babe Ruth.’ It’s like ‘Really? Like what am I supposed to say to that?’ It’s a great compliment, though.
PHAWKER: There’s a great Weegee exhibit right now at the International Center of Photography in New York city and in addition to all those great photographs they recreated his one room apartment — basically a bed and a police scanner and his camera.
JOE KACZMAREK: From what you’re describing is sounds like not much has changed since Weegee’s days. It sounds like my life is just as compact and grim as his sometimes.