A country a day with Hillary Clinton
By Kevin Lamarque
Traveling with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, covering seven countries in seven days (Malta, Libya, Oman, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan) was sure to present some challenges, but also offer some fresh perspectives. My usual beat, covering Obama at the White House and on his trips abroad, generally involves lots of pushing and shoving with other photographers behind velvet ropes or trying to get a clear photo through layers upon layers of secret service agents. I was welcoming a chance to be free of these constraints in the more low key State Department bubble.
I was the “pool” photographer on this trip, supplying my photos not only to Reuters but to AP and AFP as well. I was hoping that being the only wire photographer on the trip would give me better access and more spontaneous images.
The Secretary of State flies on a smaller plane than the President’s 747; hers being a Boeing 757. It’s similar to the plane we call “baby Air Force One” which the President uses for travels to smaller airfields. I was lucky in the seat lottery and secured a business class seat for the entire week, a huge plus on a trip involving so much flying time.
With the first stop (Malta) out of the way after the exchange of a few diplomatic pleasantries, we headed for Libya. It was certainly an exotic place for me to spend my 48th birthday! The only things I knew for sure about this stop was that it would be fast moving and there were no communications on the ground whatsoever. I had my satellite phone with me, but not a lot of confidence that I would be able to get my photos out on the fly. En-route to Libya, I was given a quick photo op of Clinton at work aboard the C-17 military transport.
Upon landing, things were instantly working in my favor when Clinton was met on the tarmac by TNC (Transitional National Council) fighters. I was given good access, with no security agents pushing me away. What a nice change this was. With photos in the camera so early into the trip, I could take a deep breath. I had images that media outlets around the world would seek to publish. Now I had to find the time to transmit them.
We had a couple of stops in Tripoli for meetings with TNC leaders. During these meetings, I had just enough time to set up my satellite phone and send about eight photos from the greeting at the airport. After these meetings, we were in the motorcade again, with stops at a hospital and a town hall meeting with Libyan university students. These yielded more worthy images, and I managed to send them out quickly as Clinton ended her Tripoli visit with a stop at the U.S. Embassy.
The motorcade ride back to the airport was a mix of the TV cartoon “Wacky Races” and a bad driving video game. At high speed, cars whizzed in and out of our motorcade with seemingly wild abandon. At one point a pick-up truck with a mounted machine gun joined our circus and escorted us right to the plane. Once at the plane, Clinton greeted more TNC soldiers and the local participants of this crazy motorcade.
The departure made for some more celebratory images, little did we know the real celebrations would begin less than two-days later… after the capture and killing of Muammar Gaddafi.
We spent the night in the comforts of Oman, before jetting off for Afghanistan. With the plane blacked out, we made a rapid and steep descent into Kabul. You could have heard a pin drop during these final minutes of the flight. In the quiet, I believe even the most hardened of journalists was pondering just what a juicy target our plane would be to the Taliban. Fortunately we landed without incident and headed quickly to our helicopters that would take us to the U.S. Embassy to spend the night.
At the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, we were housed with roommates in trailers that were sandbagged 4-feet high. A tiny pub in this trailer village, aptly named “The Duck and Cover” was a welcome sight. The pub stayed open late for us and we were able to mingle with embassy staff, soldiers, aid workers and others over two-dollar beers.
The next two days would be spent covering tension filled meetings in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. These meetings probably yielded better copy for reporters than photos for me, but the images would be used with the stories nonetheless. With the heavy news of the trip now behind us, we headed next for Tajikistan and Uzbekistan before a long flight back to Washington.
The trip was exhausting but overall exhilarating. Secretary of State Clinton often came back to the press area of the plane to talk to reporters and it was fascinating to listen as she shared her thoughts; off the record of course. Her press staff was extremely professional and ensured I got the opportunities I needed to cover the story throughout the trip. The camaraderie among the State Department reporters was strong and they made me feel like a welcome member to this elite club. Being the pool photographer gave me access I am never given at the White House. It was a nice way to work, I was generally so close I could give my long lenses the day off.
I am now back to the White House beat, shoulder to shoulder with my photo colleagues, far from the President, with a wall of security and an image conscious press office in between. It was nice to step outside of this world during my travels with Secretary Clinton, if only for a week.