Ready to record history

May 2, 2011

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.

Inside the press briefing room, wire and newspaper photographers started filtering in, showing varying states of preparedness but all wondering the same question. Why are we here?

In the U.S. TV network booths, a closed circuit live shot from the East Room of the White House showed lighting technicians, cameramen and producers readying the Presidential lectern for remarks. They were scrambling faster than I had seen, and these guys are always pretty slick.

After 20 minutes, a tight group of five photographers were led through the quiet night by staff up to the state floor of the White House, waiting for President Obama to deliver a statement. It was there that I glimpsed the words flashing on the teleprompter that I won’t forget any time soon. President Obama was about to declare Osama bin Laden had been killed.

Eerily, the muted sounds of cheering were heard from outside the White House. It seemed the news had just hit the streets but weren’t there just a couple of police out there a minute ago? We knew Obama’s speech was just seconds away. He emerged from the Blue Room and strode past us to the lectern and as Obama began to read the statement to the nation and the first TV frame-grabs were being taken back in our office, I was able to run the camera’s memory disk to Jonathan Ernst, another photographer here for Reuters who was ready to transmit those early pictures.

As President Obama continued his nine-minute address in front of just one main network camera, the photographers were held outside the room by staff and asked to remain completely silent. Once Obama was off the air, we were escorted in front of that teleprompter and the President then re-enacted the walk-out and first 30 seconds of the statement for us.

After running back to send our pictures – tight crops, loose crops, walking towards us and away from us, side angles and such, as many versions of 30 seconds of picture-taking as I could think of, it was time to see what was going on outside.

It was now midnight and those two police and their car were now engulfed by thousands of chanting, flag-waving revelers. It sounded like a sports stadium. The noise was deafening and it was a sight I had never seen before in this normally quiet and reserved political town.

Thousands of college students pouring out of bars, tourists and residents scrambled to the White House to take in this historic moment. People were hanging from trees, guys were dressed in Spiderman and Captain America Costumes and strains of the Star Spangled Banner were spontaneously being sung. It was like a carnival.

I can only guess that, like the recent uprisings on the streets of Cairo, social networking sites like facebook and twitter must have contributed to a massive gathering of random people in one place. Cars loaded with flag-waving revelers were honking their horns into the wee hours of the morning in celebratory scenes also echoed in Times Square that night.

By the time I got home at 3am I couldn’t go to sleep. The last few hours had been one large blur, punctuated with surreal moments not normally seen in Washington with the exception of Presidential inaugurations and large organized rallies.

Tonight reminded me that big news can happen in the blink of an eye and as a news photographer it always pays to have your equipment ready to record history.

Further clarification in response to some of the comments below:
Every nationally-televised Presidential statement of historical significance and of this nature, going back decades, is made specifically for television. The concept of accommodating still photographers immediately after these events is a courtesy extended to us by each administration so that a still record of the event is made by the independent press that work at the White House. To reproduce the same angle that viewers had just seen on TV, the still photographer must step right in front of the teleprompter and block the TV camera. This is the only way to do it, so stills cannot be in that position during the event. In addition, the noise made by the still cameras and the movement by the photographers themselves would be an unnecessary distraction for the President if pictures were take during the live address.

The fact that still photographers even get this picture is a result of negotiations made between the press and each successive presidential staff, for the benefit of the printed press whose needs we try to meet every day. Our photo captions explain full disclosure that the pictures are taken following the actual address to make clear the circumstances under which the picture was taken.

11 comments

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You’re my hero :)

Posted by MrsC | Report as abusive

Thats an amazing insight into how events unfoled for you, well done. the post’s amazing.

Posted by rachorch | Report as abusive

At the risk of regurgitating what others have and will say, let me note that the last image is a great shot.

You managed to capture the gravity of the job in many aspects, especially in the context with the series. It wouldn’t work so well standing alone, but the shot is still great and as such portrays you as a real photographer as opposed to just an image-taker.

Posted by sonopard | Report as abusive

JReed, man thanks a lot i felt as if I was there. Sept 11 I was working late days and I decided to write about it.
Great photos and I could only imagine the feeling you had last night. Thanks for being there.

Posted by Buzz71 | Report as abusive

Why does the White House Press corps not refuse to shoot re-enactments? No number of disclaimers is going to prevent misleading viewers into thinking that they’re looking at the real event.

–Mark Loundy
Twitter: @MarkLoundy

Posted by MarkLoundy | Report as abusive

Thank you for posting this. Surreal is a perfect way of describing the event. I stepped off a plane and heard a man say “so she couldn’t tape the amazing race because Obama just announced that they killed Bin Laden and it’s on all the channels.” I grabbed my mobile and started looking through the news and there it was. I almost missed my bag on the conveyor belt.

When I started to see the pictures of revelers, and the photo of the young man with the face paint and flag draped around him like a cape I became a little unnerved and then I read a friend’s post on Facebook:

“I mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy. Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”
Martin Luther King, Jr

Just thought I’d share… those words are haunting in light of our joy at the death of our enemies.

-L

Posted by lenshneyder | Report as abusive

Hmmm…going to have to agree with Mark Loundy on this one. Why couldn’t they allow photographers a shot during the speech? Even if it’s from the back of the room with a long lens.

Lovely photos from outside the White House, however.

Posted by jboal | Report as abusive

I agree on the great shots, but am shocked that events are re-enacted! How phony.

Posted by billyjean100 | Report as abusive

If Obama’s re-enactment was phony, then it has an honorable history.

Re-enacted events are as old as broadcasting – as old photography, possibly even as old as painting.

For example, Winston Churchill would sometimes repeat his live wartime radios speeches for recording. And he’d be photographed doing so. The most famous example was his 1940 ‘We shall fight them on the beaches…’, which was a repeat of a non-recorded parliamentary speech.

I daresay you’ll find equivalents from Franklin Roosevelt and of course there’s the famous flag-raising picture at (?) Iwo Jima.

Posted by grannybuttons | Report as abusive

I have to add that one thing which irritates me about live TV coverage of such events is the constant clicking and flashing of cameras. I’m glad those are kept to a reenactment session!

Posted by grannybuttons | Report as abusive

I leave the debate about propriety, boycotting and such to the working pros. I am part of a group that is intensely interested in the implications about captions.

A key concern is subsequent info to the effect that pictures from the restaging were published in print and online with captions that did not indicate the restaging. Be sure to see the stuff on the NPPA site by Donald R. Winslow.

I will conduct a panel on captions (content, form, accuracy…?) at a national journalism educators’ conference (AEJMC) early in August. Can you, or any reader, point me to specifics?

John McClelland, emeritus faculty, Roosevelt University, Chicago. jmcclell@roosevelt.edu or john.r.mcclelland@gmail.com

Posted by ProfJohnMac | Report as abusive