I don’t know much about the guy who smokes cigarettes. All I know is that in the middle of Capitol Hill on January 6, as the loyal Trump crowd raged around him, he stood to the side for a cigarette break. I approached him. I quickly identified myself as a journalist and asked to have his picture taken. “Hell,” he replied, and posed for me, pulling up his jacket to reveal a shiny MAGA red shirt emblazoned with “Trump is my president”.
I took her photo between images of rioters smashing doors and windows, threatening reporters and ending up clashing with the police. I did not find it particularly remarkable. It was one of the few photos I posted as part of a written account of what I saw that day.
I hadn’t seen the image again until someone recently sent me a link to the FBI’s most searched website. There, marked Photo # 390, I was a little surprised to find the guy smoking a cigarette, in the smiling pose he took for me that day. I had no idea how my photo got there.
After writing my original story on January 6 and posting more photos and videos that week, hundreds of responses poured in on Twitter and elsewhere. Some made fun of the people I documented. Others threatened me. But by far the most common response was that I should turn over all of my material from that day to the authorities immediately. Requests came in by dozens, from anonymous accounts and celebrities. “Please donate all photos to @FBIWFO”, actress Patricia Arquette implored me.
All of this made me uncomfortable. I have over 1,000 unpublished photos and videos that I shot during the Capitol Riot, archived on a backup hard drive. They collect dust in a closet at home, and I often wonder if I could use them better. Camera misfires and awkward shots between frames seemed too sacred to remove given the importance of what happened, but I don’t know what else to do with them.
The FBI can read my work like anyone else – and I’ll find out later that it does – but I was very reluctant to hand over my unpublished data to the government. Frankly, a lot of my work to this day and beyond has been devoted to how law enforcement failed to prevent what happened, even though the rioters marauded. around the Capitol and destroyed much of it. I was in Washington as a reporter to show what these systemic failures, and many before them, had caused. I was certainly not there to help the agencies that had failed in the first place.
I have over 1,000 unpublished photos and videos that I shot during the Capitol Riot, archived on a backup drive drive.
In the months that followed, however, a lot of people did just that. Ronan Farrow and other journalists used their platforms to direct readers to the FBI’s advice line. There are the “sedition hunters”Made up of unemployed actors and business consultants and stay-at-home moms combing through hours of videos and photos trying to track down and name individual rioters. From my own treasure, I think it’s highly likely that the internet will find a clue that I missed. I only noticed the guy with Nancy Pelosi’s nameplate in the corner of one of my frames after sorting through photos dozens of times. Fighters have made progress: Air Force veteran unmasked by a crowdsourcing effort on Twitter after being photographed on Senate floor wearing tactical gear and wearing zip ties. He was among the first to be arrested and charged in connection with the riot. But it can also be perilous. These self-proclaimed detectives mistakenly identified rioters on Capitol Hill, as a retired firefighter who was 700 miles away.
I know my published work has been used in similar online identification expeditions, and I accepted this even though it wasn’t what I wanted. And I felt confident in my position that it was not my role to do more. Then I saw my picture on the FBI Most Wanted site, and I wasn’t sure what to do. So I called the FBI and asked where they got my photo.
I contacted the FBI through a public channel. After I spoke unofficially first, an FBI employee told me I could relate the basics of our conversation.
“We’re told this came from an online tip, on our digital advice line,” the employee told me of my photo. I had posted it and others on the internet so it’s likely someone saw it and submitted it themselves.
I asked if the FBI was continuing the work of journalists to help them with their Jan. 6 investigations. The answer here was wiser, and I was asked not to quote it directly. The employee said if officers saw an image or video and wanted to learn more, a rigorous approval process was required before they could make initial contact with a reporter like me. They might ask me if I was ready to talk to them about it. And if I wasn’t, they might consider subpoenaing the news agency. I was reassured, it is highly improbable, but I know very well that this story can end very differently.
“It’s a bit tense, isn’t it?” Because you have your job and we have ours.”
– FBI agent
The employee asked me if I wanted the photo to be deleted. At the time, I refused. I didn’t put it there, but it made its way to the agency from my published work, so I decided to let it go.
Then, weeks later, I was contacted by someone else at the FBI. “Good afternoon Mr. Ismail,” the new email read. “I am contacting you regarding your video footage which it appears you took during the Capitol Riot.” He included a link to a video I posted on Twitter months ago of a far-right paramilitary group violently accosting a film crew on the Capitol grounds. “I am interested in several of the people shown in your images,” he wrote.
I agreed to discuss it further. But over the phone, the FBI agent, who asked not to be named, felt my unease talking to him.
“It’s a bit tense, isn’t it?” Because you have your job and we have ours, ”he said. “We want to be very careful when talking to journalists like you and respect your ability to gather information. I just want to let you know. Because of this relationship, we are limited on what we can and cannot ask of you. So if it seems like I’m a little weird just know that I have my own limitations and can’t ask you questions that I would otherwise without getting some meaningful additional approval.
He assured me that I had no obligation to cooperate. “We are not the ones who demand or order anything. That is not what this call is. This is a request for you as a person who has pictures in this matter, ”he said.
The conversation turned to me. “You were there physically, weren’t you?” ” He asked. I’ve conceded it in my reporting before, but I don’t care to say the same to an FBI agent over the phone. I asked if he had read my account of what I saw during the riot and published in Slate. “I did it,” he said. “I’m going to stop myself from saying more. I’m not trying to put you on anything. Do not worry.”
We didn’t talk much more than that. I was not under any legal pressure. But it was clear that the offer was on the table to share what I had.
As I mulled over what to do, I spoke to Mickey Osterreicher, a longtime photojournalist and now general counsel for the National Press Photographers Association. He told me that my dilemma reminded him of a case last year in Seattle: In a 90-minute window as George Floyd’s protests turned violent there, rioters set police cars on fire and stole several weapons. The accessible security footage was too blurry to help the Seattle Police Department, so it summoned several media outlets who were reporting nearby for their raw media.
“They fought tooth and nail not to turn these images around,” Osterreicher told me. “They had the same dilemma, like, ‘If we don’t cooperate, maybe something bad is going to happen with these people and the guns.’ But there is a more important principle that is involved here. It is not the job of journalists to do the job of the police. Because if we give them pictures that haven’t been released, what about when they come in and say, “Hey, we know you wrote this story; we want your notes. “
News organizations had argued that they were protected by “protection laws” which protect some journalists from summons from law enforcement. But the case dissipated after Seattle police arrested a suspect without reporters’ unprecedented work.
Osterreicher said the answer in these cases is often what I have already done.
“The solution is quite elegant. And it’s very simple: the story is about these images and videos. So just use them with the story and say, “Here they are. They are published. KO yourself, ”he said. “That’s why you were there. You were there to photograph, record, collect and disseminate news, information and images to the public. If you’re doing a public service by posting them, then I think you’d be comfortable doing that and then pointing the FBI or whoever at those footage. If you’re not, then don’t, ”he said.
In his experience, this is usually sufficient for law enforcement anyway. “They seem to have gotten what they need from the posted images, simply because most of the time the strongest images have been posted. This is pretty much the best way to approach it.
In my case, the FBI clearly wanted more than I published. I have more pictures of the cigarette guy, but I have no interest in helping chase him or other faces in the crowd; that, to me, is just not the value of my journalism as of this day.
But then there was the video of the paramilitary group violently beating a team of journalists. Another member of that same gang threatened to record it that day, demanding that I remove the clip or face the consequences. (I came out unscathed.) I am aware of this group’s long history of violence, some of which is truly horrific hate crimes. I weighed him for several days, and still don’t know if I did the right thing, but contacted the agent and sent the full video of the attack.