Strauss-Kahn: The stakeout, the courthouse and the lookout
It was the kind of day every photographer dreads – pouring rain and a 15-hour stakeout. Not only were my shoes soaked through, but my only flash had drowned by the time I arrived at the NYPD Special Victims Unit headquarters in Harlem. By 8:30am, a mix of French and American media had gathered behind the police station, awaiting IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s perp walk.
Once seen as a strong contender for next year’s French presidential elections, Strauss-Kahn was now being charged with the attempted rape of a Manhattan hotel maid. We were informed the night before that he would be brought to his arraignment around noon. But as in all situations, things rarely go as planned; we knew we were in for a long wait. I was posted at the front entrance for most of the day and at 4:00pm, senior Reuters photographer Mike Segar motioned for me to join him in the crowd of 50+ journalists at the back of the station because it appeared that Strauss Kahn was about to be led out.
This was just the beginning of the countless false starts of the night, peppered with speculation, coffee runs, pizza deliveries and high anxiety. Seven hours later, at 11:00pm, I was perched on a small stool, sandwiched between a videographer’s armpit and a photographer’s elbow, when suddenly it happened. Silent and angry, Strauss-Kahn came out cuffed, staring straight ahead – a trophy escorted by five detectives. I had planned to shoot available light from the video cameras, but at the last second, another photographer offered to lend me a flash. Just as DSK was being guided into the car he looked straight at me, but said nothing. I leaned on the shutter and prayed that the flash would penetrate the glass of the window. Et voilà!
When you get a late Saturday night/early Sunday morning phone call while driving home after shooting a Yankees vs Red Sox game asking if you are available to work on Sunday on a stakeout at a police station in New York City, the first thing that crosses your mind as a photojournalist is not “Oh boy, a great assignment!” Far from it. Your thoughts turn quickly to: Where are my most comfortable shoes and best rain gear for standing out on concrete sidewalks and up on ladder rungs for hours on end in the rain. It turns out, they don’t make shoes comfortable enough for this one.
When we learned late Saturday night that Strauss-Kahn was being formally charged with attempted rape and other criminal charges, fellow Reuters photographers Brendan McDermid, Lucas Jackson and Pictures editor Gary Hershorn and I spoke at length – trying to gather together a plan and enough photographers to have multiple shooters covering multiple locations in Manhattan. All in the hope that we could get photographs of Strauss-Kahn in police custody and in handcuffs, knowing they would be of major importance and widely published.
Brendan had already assigned Allison Joyce to the story by this time and she was staking out the Special Victims Unit Precinct 5 in Harlem Saturday night. By then, we knew nothing would happen until Sunday morning at the earliest.
We also knew that we might be looking at a long drawn out wait Sunday with no guarantee of any chance to photograph Strauss Kahn, but the plan was in place for Sunday: photographers Lucas Jackson and Chip East would man the State Criminal Court in Lower Manhattan awaiting Strauss-Kahn’s arrival and arraignment. Selected photographers are often allowed by judges to photograph arraignment hearings, while Allison and I stake out the police precinct in Harlem.
The “perp walk”. It’s just what is sounds like. When the police are ready to transfer an arrested “Perpetrator” they will often “Walk” the person (more like parade the person) escorted by detectives past the press to a waiting car for transfer to the court and corrections systems. Think Law and Order. It’s an old tradition with the NYPD, and there is certain predictability to it. News photographers have all covered them. Nobody likes them. Its sometimes years between doing them, but they all have a similar feel. Time seems to stand still. You become a prisoner to a sliver of sidewalk. Your position where you hope there is a clear view of where the “Perp” will be “Walked”. You wait, it seems always in either deep arctic cold or torrential rains, for those some 20 seconds or less when the “Perp” is “walked” past your camera. But we all know that when the person is of such importance as Strauss-Khan, that our clients around the world will be waiting to see and publish their picture. It’s rarely a chance to make a great or interesting photograph. This is about ‘getting the picture’. Make it sharp; expose it well; don’t miss it! It may well be the only chance to photograph the “perp” before they disappear forever into the court and corrections system. You just don’t know.
The waiting: At 7:30am only a handful of press was on hand in Harlem in the early morning’s pouring rain, as I positioned a small step ladder, (we have them in all sizes just for this sort of event) near a police parking lot driveway where I could see the back entrance of the precinct where hopefully Strauss-Kahn would, at some point, be walked out. This would become my 2 foot square home for most of the next 16 hours. Allison arrived and staked out the front entrance one block away.
Hours and hours passed, police came and went not commenting on anything. Nothing happened. Lawyers came and went – nothing happened. Rumors abound. The morning’s coffee and bagels turn later into the afternoon’s pizza. Stories are told. Newspapers are worn out. BlackBerrys are overworked. Bits of information are passed back and forth, everyone trying to guess what will happen and when. Nothing happened. Will they walk him here? on the other side? or at all? Will we see him? the press corps grew throughout the day. Nothing happened. Reporters came and went, “the arraignment hearing is at 10am” Nothing happened. We heard “its at 12 or maybe 2” “ he has to leave soon”. Nothing happened. “Its going to happen at 7pm the lawyers are waiting outside the courtroom we hear”. Nothing happened.
The rain returned and left again. Umbrellas go up and down. Jokes and stories are told as we hold our positions when more press arrives; still no pictures. A convenient bathroom across the street in a parking garage becomes a frequent brief refuge for us all (Thank you Kinney Parking Systems). Shadows lengthened. A second and third shift of police came and went at their precinct, “you guys still here?”. Nothing happened.
Then at about 5:30 pm. Police barriers were quickly erected in front of us. “Its going to happen” we were told. Allison ran to our side of the precinct to take up a second position about 30 feet away at a different angle. The media was maybe 100 strong now, we were ready. The NYPD cleared the area, stopped traffic on 124th street. A car was brought up and the door was left open. I had a perfect spot. The waiting was going to pay off. The light was great, defused sunlight, plenty of time to make good clean pictures with long and short lenses as the detectives walked him towards us for some 100 feet but, nothing happened.
The car was driven away. “We are on hold,” an NYPD detective said as he walked back inside the precinct. Many grumbled, some left fed-up, others just sulked and rubbed their feet. We waited. BlackBerry batteries died. The wife of a photographer friend from EPA brought some of us a full Chinese dinner from over 100 blocks away. (Thank you Alena and Andrew!) A second wind, it had to happen soon now right? The sun went down and darkness fell. Flash units were dug out and fresh batteries loaded. We heard that at the court the lawyers said Strauss-Kahn would not be arraigned until morning. More grumbling, more people left and plans were made for the next day’s coverage.
Then, all at once, something happened! Near 11pm, close to 16 hours after arriving, the same car was quickly brought around again by the NYPD and moved into position to accept a passenger. We jostled into our places. TV lights and flash units were tested.
The “Perp Walk” with a flash as your only light source, is a whole different challenge. I don’t normally use a strobe, but I know when using one in near total darkness that you have to shoot slowly, no motor driving here. Click, wait, click wait, don’t use all the flash power all at once, get sharp frames, well lit. Just get the picture. In 20 seconds it was all over. Detectives walked him to the car and he was driven away. I looked at the camera screen – got him!
We quickly rushed to file pictures through laptops already running in a fellow photographer’s car parked just across the street. The frames were sharp, the exposure was good. I transmitted everything I had to our Singapore Pictures Desk as they requested. Ten frames and that’s it. It was over. A sense of relief and satisfaction that the many hours had paid off with solid picture coverage of an important story. These are not the pictures that we photojournalists long to make, or really want to make, but sometimes, like this time, they are really good and important for Reuters to have and the world to publish.
Home, bed, a few hours sleep and a quick kiss to the kids in the early morning and it was back to New York to Criminal Court for the scheduled arraignment. That’s where my colleague Shannon Stapleton takes over.
I arrived at Manhattan Criminal Court around 8 in the morning to a slew of media outside the courthouse. It was truly a media frenzy. Manhattan Criminal court is a classic “New York” scene. I went into the Press Office there and inside there were tabloid covers pasted all over the walls. Luckily, having been in New York for almost 15 years I know most of the guys whose beat is the courts for the tabloids in the city and can be a feisty, somewhat territorial, bunch. They gave me the inside scoop and let me set up my computer in the room which turned out to be a very kind gesture because others were not so welcomed. They gave me the court request papers and told me where to hand it in.
After filing the papers with the judges clerk we went to stand outside the courtroom and waited for our fate to be determined. The case was supposed to start at 10 and the amount of media that was trying to enter the courtroom was never ending. The court officers set up a barricade and if someone left the court room they were told they were out of luck and the next in line of reporters who were waiting to get in were allowed to fill their space. Something the reporters who left did not take lightly.
As 10am passed by quickly we continued to wait outside and the group of 5 photographers (three newspaper and two wires) was expanded by two more wire service photographers. At about noon we were escorted into the courtroom. As we walked to our tight designated spot we could see Strauss-Kahn sitting by himself waiting to be seen by the judge and his attorney. We all started shooting quickly and did our best not to be all over each other.
The case went rather quickly. After he was denied bail we realized that we would be the only ones with images of Strauss-Kahn that day. Rushing back to the Press room, I filed my take as quickly as possible trying to think what our clients here and abroad would be looking for. By utilizing our remote editing software, Jim Bourg in Washington edited the other wire services pool material that I quickly ingested.
I ended my photo report of the day by taking a two hour long journey through the rain clogged streets of New York city trying to get a shot of the City of New York Correctional facility Rikers Island. For those of you not from New York, dealing with traffic on a foggy rainy day in New York can be not only time consuming but to say the least a test of patience. After getting some pictures and filing, my mission was accomplished and my trek home to Long Island began.