The White House East Room has been, through the decades, the site for countless ceremonies, speeches and historic moments. I have lost count of the number of times I have covered events in there, but on Tuesday, the most historically important moment in the young presidency of Barack Obama unfolded in the most packed working conditions I have ever seen in that grand room. Hundreds of invited Congressmen and women, who each had a hand in bringing about the health care reform bill, sat shoulder-to-shoulder and right up against the stage. Along with dozens of photographers, journalists and television crews, there wasn’t room to breathe and this presented a rare challenge for those that regularly cover the White House – the chance that you may not even see the event taking place!
With the front row of the audience about 3 feet (one meter) from the signing desk, it was almost impossible to see the Presidential Seal and that important document that President Obama was about to sign. Even on step ladders, which normally elevate us sufficiently above the audience, it was touch-and-go, and that’s before camera phones, the new nemesis for any working photographer shooting over a crowd, would inevitably start popping up. Not to mention the audience members standing up themselves to see over the rows in front. I even had to negotiate a compromise with one Congresswoman from New York that if she would refrain from pulling out her cell phone and blocking us behind her, I would ensure that she would receive a copy of one of my pictures as a trade off. She thankfully obliged and I emailed her a jpeg file later in the day for her private collection, for which she was grateful. Other congressmen in the audience were not as considerate, and anticipating this (hey, even elected officials can’t resist pulling out their cameras too), I set in place an “insurance policy”, because news photographer’s never get a second chance at capturing history.
My insurance policy was a Canon 5D camera and 24-105mm lens clamped high above my head on one of the towering light stands, atop of which is enough illumination to set an exposure of 400th sec @ f4, at 1000 asa. They do light White House events well, as administrations past and present recognize the power of the well-crafted image. I know a lot of photographers who shoot indoor events and would dream of soft, plentiful light rather than messing with high ISO speeds or the dreaded flash/strobe. With one dedicated radio transmitter attached to the hotshoe of my handheld camera, and a radio receiver connected to remote camera on the light pole, I could wirelessly fire the remote every time I pushed my shutter button. After editing the pictures from the remote camera for the Reuters wire shortly after the event ended, I thought it would be cool to put the entire sequence together with some sound to give you a sense of being in that room on this historic occasion.
One peculiar quirk you will quickly notice that has become a standard at President Obama’s signing ceremonies are multiple pens to sign just one document. He starts his signature by making one pen stroke, replaces that pen with another, signs another part of his signature with that one and carries on writing his name until all the pens are used. That ensures that all the important participants on the stage, in this case key congressmen who helped pass the bill in the House of Representatives, receive a ceremonial pen that actually was put to paper. You can see Obama reaching for the pens in this time lapse sequence.