Maggie Ybarra is a dedicated — and unpaid — chronicler of Baltimore’s crime and fire scenes.
When photographer Maggie Ybarra goes to a crime scene, she likes to get low. Stomach on the ground, arms stretched on the pavement. She was at a scene on the east side recently — on the ground, camera in hand. A woman passing by saw her and screamed, thinking her small body was a corpse.
That reaction was understandable. Ybarra, 39, isn’t someone you’d expect to be on the ground, taking pictures at crime scenes. Originally from Texas, she’s not a professional reporter – though she’s worked as one in the past. She’s not a detective. She doesn’t consider herself an activist. She just does it.
On nights and weekends — when she’s not at her day job as an editor for a foreign policy magazine in D.C., she takes the bus to crime and fire scenes around the city, taking pictures which she shares on Twitter (her handle is @MolotovFlicker) and on her website, briefingroomart.com. She forgets to eat.
She thinks her presence helps hold the police and news organizations accountable – to pay closer attention to crimes that are otherwise so commonplace as to be forgettable. “Maybe I’m wrong, but I think it generates momentum,” she said. “I do feel bad when I don’t show up.”
In the past, she sold prints of her work online, but she stopped, struggling with the ethics of it. She doesn’t want to look like she’s profiting from people’s suffering. “I can just imagine all the people who would hate me if they thought I did do that,” she wrote in an email.
She listens to the scanner on her phone when she’s out — at home, via a radio purchased a year ago. She sometimes falls asleep next to it. It stays on during an interview at her apartment, background chatter.
“Hold on a sec – that’s a fire,” she said. The scanner crackles. Fire at 300 South Charles. Not too far. Interesting.
The chatter continues: in the parking garage.
“Oh, no, I can’t access that,” she said. She returns to the conversation.
Heading to a recent shooting in Federal Hill, she texts a friend to let him know she won’t make it to hang out tonight. Crime is happening. She rarely accepts dates on the weekends — those are scanner days.
When she gets to a scene at Fort Avenue and Hanover Street, she stashes her backpack behind the wheel of a parked car. She’s dressed in a tank top, her hair curled, her face hidden by a baseball cap. It was a shooting, but she’s not looking for the body.
“I look at the ground and where the light is bouncing off,” she said.
The police don’t seem bothered– or even to take much notice of her — as long as she stays behind the yellow crime scene tape. A man with FORENSICS emblazoned on his chest chatted with her as he walked the perimeter, making notes in a clipboard. She offered to send him any good photos later on.
She has a handwritten note taped on her phone. The same note is taped on her door, above her peephole. It’s the last thing she sees before she leaves each day. “Take more risks,” it says.
Ybarra’s willingness to take risks — and to go to far-flung parts of the city, late at night, make her a second set of eyes and ears on the city for area reporters, who follow her updates from Twitter.
“Maggie provides a vital window into the crime scenes playing out across the city, often at hours when no one else is able or willing to venture out,” wrote Justin Fenton, a reporter for The Baltimore Sun. “Especially with police switching from as-it-happens updates to briefings done at intervals, her Twitter account is the first I check on the weekends to find out what’s going on.”
Her other followers include Steve O’Dell, chief of forensics for the Baltimore Police Department, who blogs on Twitter through the handle @CrimeLabBoss. He frequently shares photos she’s posted that include members of his staff. “They are well composed, artistic, and capture a reality to the job,” he said in a message. He’s even heard stories from crime scene workers posing when she asks — he said usually they don’t mind.
But it hasn’t always been pleasant. Ybarra said she’s been confronted by women on the street; one found her on Twitter and began cyber bullying. “There’s just no point in arguing with someone on Twitter,” she wrote. “I just wish them well and block them.”