It all started out with a phone call from Reuters News Pictures Washington Editor In Charge Jim Bourg on Thursday night informing me there was a secret Presidential trip leaving on Saturday to an undisclosed destination which Reuters would like me to travel with the president on. I was told that this was very secretive and that I was not to mention it to anyone and that no details were available yet. I had been with President Obama on his secret trip to Baghdad last year, so it was pretty easy to figure out that the destination this time might be Afghanistan, a trip which had been highly anticipated since Obama became president 15 months ago. I was to expect to be contacted directly by the White House for a meeting to discuss the details. But I was to “open” the White House as the first Reuters photographer arriving there on Friday morning at 7am, my scheduled shift, and to go about my day as planned acting as if everything was normal. Nothing could be further from the truth.
That afternoon I was called in to meet with Press Secretary Robert Gibbs in his office at 4pm, along with some of the other members of the 14 person media travel pool who would be going on the secret trip aboard Air Force One.
We were given a schedule of events and were sworn to secrecy. I headed home to pack and test out the BGAN satellite phone I had been provided by Reuters for the trip.
On Saturday night, I met up with the 2 other wire service photographers who were in the travel pool at a gate at Andrews Air Force Base at 7pm, an hour before our call time. But after sitting in the cars for an hour outside the Air Force base gate, and when no one else showed up, we figured that we better make a protective phone call to the White House staff. It seemed we were a half-mile from the correct entry point to the base. Whoops! The details we had been given were a little too secretive even for us!
Our names were checked off a list at the gate and we drove into a parking lot. We unloaded all of our gear and it was all turned over to the U.S. Secret Service. All electronics, cameras, and blackberries were to be loaded on to the plane by them and we would get not them back until we were in flight.
The full media pool then waited on a bus for about an hour until we were driven inside the aircraft hanger where Air Force One was parked. Normally we board Air Force One in broad daylight in the middle of an open air force base tarmac and climb up the rear stairs of the aircraft. But in this case, we were asked to board the plane after dark, inside a hangar, entering the plane from the front where the president does, which we never do, and we got to see a lot of the plane that I had never seen before.
We were led through the length of the plane to the press cabin, and with all the shades drawn, we awaited the President’s arrival. We did not see him board the plane but at 10pm, the plane started to move out of the hanger and out towards the runway. At 10:09pm we were airborne and began our 13 hour flight to Kabul. About 90 minutes into the flight we were allowed to claim all our equipment that had been stowed in the belly of the plane.
With 2 hours remaining in the flight, there was a briefing in the conference room for the pool on the trip. As we approached Bagram Air Base, all the shades were drawn and all the cabin lights were turned out. The only light came from the in-cabin monitors showing the route to our destination.
As the plane taxis, we are first told we would not be able to see Obama stepping off the plane and we were to board the waiting helicopters right away. Then the plan suddenly changed, we were told that we could cover his arrival, but without any light or flash. Unfortunately at that point it was 2 hours past sunset and there was nothing but moonlight on a very dark tarmac. As we step off the plane, we are finally given the ok to cover the president’s arrival with flashes on our cameras. President Obama stepped off the plane, we shot a very few fast frames of him and the race was on to the waiting helicopters. But the trip still remained secret and unreportable and embargoed until we were given the all clear from the White House staff when we landed at the Presidential Palace in Kabul.
The helicopters were all in darkness as well. On our laptops in the darkened bumpy choppers we process, crop and caption our pictures that we had shot of the arrival but we are still not allowed to file them to the world. We are also not allowed to take any pictures on the helicopter. It’s a 20 minute flight to the palace and we all spend it hunched over our laptops choosing, cropping and captioning pictures so they will be ready to go when we are told we can reveal the president’s surprise trip to the world.
We land at the Palace and are quickly “swept” as guards once again comb our possessions despite where we have just arrived from in the tight security “bubble” and who we have arrived with. There is a welcome ceremony and we have to run across the palace grounds to be ahead of the President.
We are put into a press “pen,”and see that there are only a couple of small lights shining for the parade grounds. Waiting there to greet me is my colleague and Reuters Afghanistan staff photographer Ahmad Masood, who I had met on 2 other trips to Kabul. He has been invited to the palace by the Afghan government, not knowing what visitor was about to arrive.
As Obama arrives for the ceremony, the embargo is lifted and I make a call to our Global Pictures desk in Singapore to let them know what is happening and to expect my pictures to start arriving in their picture desk soon. I also sent out an email to some of the staff that should be informed about our trip, since to this point we have had to keep the trip secret from all of my other colleagues and editors in Reuters.
As Obama arrived for the welcoming ceremony, you could see his suit jacket was covered in dust, apparently from the criss-crossed seat belt straps he wore from the ride on the helicopter.
We were ushered into the Palace to a room that would hold a press conference. We had about 20 minutes before the start so we started to edit the pictures from the arrival. I had brought three international aircards, but no one could get a signal to get out our pictures. We were told there is a file room at the Palace, but all we could do was edit and queue the pictures once we could get to the file center. I had brought a BGAN satphone too, but there would be no time to go outside and set it up.
The news conference was canceled and instead we were told to pack up all our equipment and go into another room for their bilateral meeting.
After brief remarks, we were taken to a “file room” to send our pictures and stories, where seven ethernet lines had been set up for 14 journalists. We could connect to the internet immediately but the FTP (File Transfer Protocol) that all of the wire service photographers use to transmit their pictures would not work. A local technician was called in to help. Meanwhile, I connected to an instant messenger application that does not use FTP to transfer files and used it to send my first two pictures to the desk in Singapore. The desk confirmed that the first two pictures had landed by IM. The technician then arrived and had to enter a static IP address so we could file via FTP. The clock was ticking with our departure minutes away and the lines were incredibly slow, but we could finally get our pictures out.
After about 30 minutes we were told to pack up and head back to the helicopters. An incoming helicopter kicked up a sandstorm and pelted us with a field’s worth of dirt and rocks.
We were very quickly headed back to Bagram. We were taken into a hanger where Obama would address the troops. There was so much energy as he was introduced and the crowd of about 2,000 went wild when he stepped through the curtain and began to greet the troops. He would speak for 20 minutes, and then we would have 30 minutes to file before boarding the plane back to the U.S.
Thankfully the internet that they set up for us at the file center at Bagram was very fast and we could get all of our pictures out to the world. But our file time was suddenly cut short with the announcement that the president would walk over to a nearby mess hall and meet some more troops gathered there.
We covered him glad-handing the troops, and then we were on the run again, jumping into the presidential motorcade to the tarmac where AF1 was waiting. The White House staff had arranged for Obama to wait on the plane for 10 minutes while we ran back to the filing center and put out the last pictures from the mess hall. The pressure was on to get out the last remaining pictures of the trip out in ten minutes before we were locked in Air Force One for 13 hours on the long flight back home.
We then headed quickly back to Air Force One and after only 6 hours on the ground, we were heading home. After 14,000 miles and thirty five hours, we were back at Andrews Air Force base. It had been a very long and exciting day.
The life of a White House photographer is unpredictable and fluid. It is a fast-paced and exciting life. That is part of what makes it fun and challenging in one of the most historic presidencies. The key is to always be prepared for the unexpected, after all, what we do always changes and no two days are alike.