One of the responsibilities of Reuters picture coverage in Washington, besides the White House, Capitol Hill and the State Department, is the Pentagon. As the top-level cabinet secretaries travel overseas, Reuters, along with other agencies The Associated Press, Agence France Press and Getty Images cover these trips on a rotational basis.
In the 4- ½ years serving as Secretary of Defense under two Presidents, Robert Gates’ made his 12th and final trip to Afghanistan this week, primarily to thank the troops for their service one last time. Fortunately for me, it was Reuters’ turn to embark on this historic journey. As we circled the earth clockwise via Hawaii and Singapore and eventually onto Brussels for a NATO Summit, Gates touched down in Kabul on June 4th and began three days of extensive travel around Afghanistan, via Blackhawk helicopter, C-17s and Osprey aircraft over the scorching desert in the south and mountainous east of the country.
The call came at 10pm on a Sunday night at home. “How soon can you get to the White House”? Reuters had got the urgent call that President Barack Obama was due to make a statement within 30 minutes. It had to be something big to bring the press back so late on a weekend night. Even if I dropped everything now and raced down there, would I be too late?
I was there in 14 minutes – a new personal best, from my home three miles away. Running through White House security gates with my shoe laces still untied, I was thinking that I hadn’t made it in time for whatever the big news was. The scene outside the famous 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue address was familiarly quiet, with a couple uniformed Secret Service officers and their squad car.
The White House East Room has been, through the decades, the site for countless ceremonies, speeches and historic moments. I have lost count of the number of times I have covered events in there, but on Tuesday, the most historically important moment in the young presidency of Barack Obama unfolded in the most packed working conditions I have ever seen in that grand room. Hundreds of invited Congressmen and women, who each had a hand in bringing about the health care reform bill, sat shoulder-to-shoulder and right up against the stage. Along with dozens of photographers, journalists and television crews, there wasn’t room to breathe and this presented a rare challenge for those that regularly cover the White House – the chance that you may not even see the event taking place!
With the front row of the audience about 3 feet (one meter) from the signing desk, it was almost impossible to see the Presidential Seal and that important document that President Obama was about to sign. Even on step ladders, which normally elevate us sufficiently above the audience, it was touch-and-go, and that’s before camera phones, the new nemesis for any working photographer shooting over a crowd, would inevitably start popping up. Not to mention the audience members standing up themselves to see over the rows in front. I even had to negotiate a compromise with one Congresswoman from New York that if she would refrain from pulling out her cell phone and blocking us behind her, I would ensure that she would receive a copy of one of my pictures as a trade off. She thankfully obliged and I emailed her a jpeg file later in the day for her private collection, for which she was grateful. Other congressmen in the audience were not as considerate, and anticipating this (hey, even elected officials can’t resist pulling out their cameras too), I set in place an “insurance policy”, because news photographer’s never get a second chance at capturing history.
What does a typical day at the White House look like?I set out to capture a sense of everyday life at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave, armed with basic knowledge from a course in video editing at the Kalish workshop. Starting with a couple of early experiments of the Marine Guards at the West Wing and a daily press briefing, I was hooked on time-lapse sequences that came to life when they were played at high speed.I began taking along extra cameras, tripods, clamps and pocket wizard radio remote triggers. This involved slightly more work as I had to start thinking of the best place for a time lapse sequence that may not make a good still image itself, but rather as part of a larger project.From the East Room, where most official functions are held, to the Rose Garden, the South Lawn and the West Wing, I set the cameras up to fire one picture every 5 to 10 seconds before, during and after the events. Thousands of pictures were shot over the course of those weeks, and I slowly began to put together a narrative that follows what we typically photograph on any given day at the White House.Shooting “a day in the life” would have been nice, but it was impossible to have cameras in all the locations on one particular day.All of what you see in this project was made with just two cameras on the time lapse and one hand-held camera — it’s a very basic set up. Shooting handheld, I had to shoot major burst sequences with long lenses, all the while ensuring that I didn’t move the camera around too much. Even slight movements can render an entire sequence unusable. Tripods are too cumbersome to use at the White House and you have to stay mobile to make pictures, so I would innovate by propping myself against a ladder and holding my breath or putting the handheld cameras on the ground — whatever it takes to shoot a short burst without moving the camera at all.This worked well for the walkout of the Oval Office in the segment where President Obama walks towards us. That’s a 70-200mm lens on the ground, prefocussed and composed with live view switched on, as I hold the camera perfectly still as he walks in and out of the frame.Making it all come together in one coherent package is done in the edit. The most challenging aspects: Being a newcomer to video editing, seeing a project in terms of a narrative, not just in single moments, and getting my head around the 8,000 images that sat in a folder called “Multimedia” as the weeks wore on. I tried to edit for the project as I went along, so that when it came to putting together the sequence, there would be chunks of loosely finished product ready to drop into the appropriate part of the story.