From the White House to the Mad House

February 14, 2014

Bali, Indonesia

By Jason Reed

Just a couple of months ago I was swirling in a perpetual bubble, a privileged circle of photographers whose job it is to photograph one man – the President of the United States.

I did it for ten years and mostly enjoyed every minute. Over that period of time there comes a predictable familiarity to the role, in which you can pre-write all your captions hours and sometimes days in advance and plan your coverage down to the last detail. It is a safe and cosy existence. Due to the nature of the subject, it needs to be.

Behind the velvet rope, boundaries are respected and the president’s handlers and the Secret Service ensure you are no closer to him than you need to be. Your bread-and-butter lens is most often the 70-200mm telephoto zoom variety and getting an exclusive image is almost impossible. Subtlety and nuance in your edit is the biggest differentiator between your work and the person that just shot the same thing over your shoulder.

I enjoyed the experience and learnt a heck of a lot from some great photographers at the top of their game. This was my life for a decade, but my feet were getting itchy and it was time for a change of environment. Well, be careful what you wish for!

I started a new role based in Australia, and barely a month in I knew working life would be different. I enjoy new challenges, but the contrast between working environments was about to prove as extreme as they come…

Languishing in neighbouring Indonesia was a once-aspiring Australian beautician and convicted drug trafficker, Schapelle Corby. In the biggest Australian legal saga since Lindy Chamberlain’s ‘a dingo took my baby’ case, Corby’s 2005 conviction in an Indonesian courtroom was broadcast live into millions of Australians’ homes.

The trial became a media circus and Corby’s impending early release on parole this week was guaranteed to be one of the region’s biggest news stories of 2014. I was quickly on a plane to join the scrum.

With potentially just hours until her release from jail, my newsgathering instincts started to flood back. Buy a cheap, local mobile phone. Give that number to your contacts and local drivers. Locate a hotel the shortest distance from the prison, and make sure you can get a signal to transmit your pictures to beat the competition.

Hours on edge turned into several days during which rumor and speculation swirled around the decaying walls of the prison, with no one really sure when Corby would be released. I was in the middle of a real, breaking-news story for the first time in a long while and loving it.

Knowing a weekend release was not possible, a visit was made in advance to the Bali prosecutor’s office across town and then the parole board where Corby would potentially be fingerprinted and set free. Both locations were 20 minutes from each other along some of the narrowest and most congested streets imaginable, where common rules of the road appeared to be optional.

Monday morning, 7.30 a.m., the phone rang. “Get down here now, she is about to be released,” a colleague said before being drowned out by the sound of chaos. Running out of the hotel and dodging motorcycles, taxis and wayward chickens, the thought of being just one minute late and missing the whole story flooded into my brain. We have all been there.

Thankfully the prison van and a mass of press were still waiting as I waded into the sweaty, heaving throng of Indonesian police, cameramen and journalists in order to get my spot.

While I was holding the camera above the crowd to avoid fogging up my lens, the front door to the prison swung open and everything changed in an instant. The mass of 200 press pushed forward towards the unseen Corby, cameras and microphones thrusting aimlessly towards the target.

The experience was akin to a rock concert mosh-pit, with most of us now passengers in this surging mass of humanity, some of us moving towards her, some of us away. There was no control and within seconds our subject was behind the darkened windows of a police van now rushing towards the prosecutor’s office. I was ready to follow, but my motorcycle driver was nowhere to be seen.

Hopping on the back of a competing photographer’s motorbike, we sped down the road to the first stop without the aid of Corby’s police escort, miraculously arriving just seconds after her. Another waiting throng of press swallowed her up once more. Using every fiber of my being I was determined to get a cleaner shot than at the jail and was rewarded with something more publishable. Throughout the whole ordeal her head was bizarrely covered in scarves and a hat, possibly to protect a rumoured exclusive interview with a TV network that was the source of much discussion in the Australian press.

One last, hair-raising ride across town to the parole office yielded even better pictures as we shot through windows into the office where Corby was processed by authorities and fingerprinted. Choosing this time not to stick with the throng, I was rewarded with clean pictures of Corby having her prints taken.

This assignment was a reminder of some vital rules for a breaking news story – there are no rules, in a scrum situation the photographer closest to the subject with the widest angle lens will probably win the story. Think on your feet, anticipate the subject’s next move. It has been a welcome re-ignition of the ‘fight or flight’ instincts that all humans exhibit when put to the test. It was a good fight and now it was time for my flight – back to Australia.

Corby’s 2005 trial pictures by Darren Whiteside and Bagus Othman

 

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