The first embrace

November 21, 2012

On the road with President Obama in Myanmar

By Jason Reed

It was something you wouldn’t dream of ten years ago. Based then as a photographer in Bangkok, our forays into neighboring Myanmar consisted of clandestine treks across a slippery border into the jungle camps of Karen rebels. Rebels who were child soldiers brandishing impossibly heavy weapons in their fight against a military junta that had not only persecuted them but also banished Nobel peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi into years of house arrest – denying her a place in the political landscape following democratic general elections in May, 1990.

Journalist visas to Myanmar were almost impossible to obtain and the only visual fruit they bore was to strictly-controlled, officially-sanctioned photo opportunities at the ceremonial burning of illicit drugs intercepted from the golden triangle.

Fast forward to November 19, 2012 and the dream is now reality – a first embrace by the United States government to the new social and political reforms in Myanmar. We’re flying into Yangon in a plane bearing the seal of the President of the United States. As journalists we are privileged to have a front-row seat to history. In this case, it was the first visit by a U.S. president to this nation as it slowly reveals itself from behind a curtain of 50 years of strict military rule and international sanctions.

Yangon airport, where in a past life I smuggled memory cards of images out of the country concealed in my underwear, is now a flashy contrast of glass and steel. On the road to town is where the first true glimpse of social upheaval hits you – British colonial-era boulevards lined with thousands of flag-waving children and families, office workers craning their necks for a glimpse of President Obama as his entourage motorcades to a meeting with Myanmar’s President Thein Sein. At times the crowd were just inches from our vehicles as they sped past.

The second surprise was an internet connection at government house so fast that I could transmit a two-megabyte picture to our editors in Singapore within about three seconds, saving us the agonizing minutes spent wrestling with a spotty satellite phone connection we were all dreading but were prepared for. The constant pressure that wire photographers put themselves under to get the first pictures out of important events is very real, leaving butterflies in your stomach until that first image uploads with the reassuring phrase.. “transfer complete”. Only after then can you breathe a giant sigh of relief, ready to actually enjoy taking pictures.

Next stop on the whirlwind trip was an unplanned visit to the beautiful Shwedagon Pagoda, a golden temple complex on a hill overlooking Yangon. Running barefoot with three cameras up flights of stairs in the steamy tropics was an experience at least one photographer would rather forget as he stumbled into the stairs, smashing one lens and breaking skin on a knee even before the first shots were made. The image of a barefoot president and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton strolling in the temple was the worthy prize.

But it was the next stop that held the most anticipation, an audience with Aung San Suu Kyi at the residence where she had spent so many years under house arrest.

In recent months the contrast could not be bigger as she traveled the globe, garnering support from the outside world that eventually brought her latest guest to her doorstep.

After remarks at the University of Yangon, the president and his entourage were already on their way back to the airport.

Total time on the ground – just six hours…

What may surprise a lot of amateur photographers is the rapid pace that pictures can unfold in front of a news photographer’s lens, even if on the surface the images appear to be very staged and therefore easy to capture. The White House will take us the first 15,000 miles on assignment but those last 15 feet are all up to you. This multimedia shows us running up the dozens of steps to get ahead of the president and his entourage at the Buddhist temple, as well as shooting in between official White House photographers, press wranglers whose job it is to keep you at a fair distance from the president, the Secret Service Agents and overzealous local security. It is one giant chaotic moving game of chess. You are absolutely going to miss moments because there are always too many moving pieces on the board, not least of which are your colleagues competing against you to get the best angles of the most important moments. But you keep on pushing, knowing that in this game there are no instant replays.

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