From Downing St. to the White House… and back
It’s cold, it’s very dark and oh…. of course it’s raining. I have no idea if or when I will actually see the Prime Minister after standing here for hours.
That’s my enduring memory from 10 years (1989-1999) of covering Downing St. as a photographer for Reuters. I still tell people that Downing St. is the coldest place on Earth, no matter what month it may be!
Twelve years later, I walked up Downing St. as a veteran of the White House Press Corps for Reuters, and things were very different indeed. The sky was blue, the air was dry and warm and sunshine washed in from Whitehall. This couldn’t be the same place where I regularly photographed Prime Ministers Margaret Thatcher, John Major and Tony Blair all those years ago.
On this perfect day, as I awaited President Obama’s arrival at 10 Downing St., I reflected upon the many differences between covering Downing St. and the White House.
To start with, my days at the White House are actually spent inside the White House. My days at Downing St. were spent literally on the street. We were held inside a press pen made of bicycle rack-style gates designed to keep us in our place. At the White House, we are given a very detailed schedule of events to be covered. We always know if and when we will see the President. At Downing St, we were never actually told the “ifs” and “whens.” We were never actually told anything. When we needed a photo of the Prime Minister, we would simply camp out in the press pen all day in hopes the Prime Minister would actually emerge at all.
There are also differences of a more practical nature.
A long stakeout at Downing St. (and there were many) meant that at some point one had to abandon one’s post to take care of the basics – bathrooms, food and feed the parking meters. When to leave was always a stressful decision for fear of missing “the moment.” In the White House press room we have bathrooms and the press office will actually give us a “lunch lid,” White House speak meaning it’s safe to leave the premises and miss nothing. As for parking meters, well, even in Washington we don’t get a break – though parking is considerably less costly than in London, as are parking tickets.
Photographers at the White House are sometimes accused of being coddled and spoon-fed – I guess there is some truth to that. At Downing St., we were much more on our own and perhaps had to use our wits a bit more due to a lack of concrete information. I guess there is a happy medium somewhere in between. At Downing St. we simply left after we had captured (or not captured) the moment we came for, usually off to another assignment in London.
The White House, on the other hand, is staffed by Reuters photographers from open to close, regardless of how much news is actually happening. Being part of the tight Presidential pool means we are there “just in case.” And, “just in case” often happens in the form of a hastily called press conference or perhaps a motorcade to some “off the record” location such as a Presidential round of golf or a trip to a local burger joint.
All in all, working Downing St. and the White House are indeed two very different beasts, each with their own sets of challenges. The one real similarity is the camaraderie among photographers. On those cold, rainy and dark Downing St. days, we lifted each others’ spirits with healthy doses of British humor, rounds of hot tea or perhaps something stronger at the end of the day. At the White House, photographers similarly prop one another up, especially on grueling foreign trips. Through the years, I’ve made good friends with photographers on both sides of “the pond.” While we all enjoy healthy competition while shooting our photos, when the job is done, we are just as likely to be sitting around the same table enjoying a pint or a meal. I can’t think of too many other professions that offer this perk.
The next time I go to Downing St., there is a very good chance it will be rainy, dark and cold. And it will somehow feel right. I will try to remember that day when Obama stood on a sunny street waving to photographers.
But as the rain falls upon me, I will probably tell myself I must have been dreaming.