This past Monday, I was part of the White House Press Pool that follows President Barack Obama. From what my good friend and colleague Cindy Ellen Russell told me from the day before, I had mentally prepared myself for a long(read, LOOOONG) day of hurrying up and waiting while living in a 16-passenger tourvan. As we gathered up before dawn, I was informed that President Obama was to give a public statement addressing the concerns of the recent thwarted terrorist attack on a flight from Amsterdam to Detroit. Larry Downing, Reuters staffer from Washington D.C., told me “You’re lucky, you’ll get to see him today!”
So off we went to the Windward side. The van consisted of five still photographers, including me, a pool videographer with sound, and a handful of journalists from various agencies. The ride to Kailua was a symphony of snores until we got to the security checkpoint. Here we spent about a 1/2 hour getting swept and cleared by Secret Service. I came to the realization afterwards that this is probably the safest place in the country right now!
We posted up at the press house, a rented single story home with a nice pool (no pun intended, even though we ARE the press POOL) in the backyard, for a while before Ben, our White House press agent, exclaims “We gotta go we gotta go WE GOTTA GO!!!” Instantly, all members of the pool dropped like ants dug up from their hill. We loaded the van in less than one minute, a time, according to AP staff photographer Alex Brandon, that was one of the fastest he’d seen ever. Others agreed as well.
The pool still photographers consisted of a boisterous and fun-loving crew from D.C. There was Alex Brandon from the Associated Press, Larry Downing from Reuters, Jewel Samad from AFP, and Kent Nishimura freelancing for Getty Images. Because of the “hurry up and wait” lifestyle in the pool, downtime was spent playing practical jokes on each other, and Larry Downing playfully told me that reading a book was illegal (I had brought a paperback to pass the time). The biggest gag, which never seemed to get old, even after 14 hours of President watch, was the “Oh oh OH! there he is!!” at which point motordrives start going off in rapid fire succession. Of course, he wasn’t there, and so the cameras are put down, and a chorus of “awwww, man, c’mon!” are followed by laughter of the jokester who’d started the bluff.
The majority of the day was spent photographing the motorcade. It was very difficult to see which SUV the President was riding in. Aside from the tint, they were always in motion as were at a stop. Throughout the course of the day, I became used to tracking and shooting the SUV’s and came to the conclusion that it was shoot, no MOTOR, first, chimp and see if you got him later.
After President Obama’s daily workout at Semper Fit, our pool followed him to Kailua Racquet Club, where I was able to get my first clean photograph of him. Composition-wise, it was great, because I got him framed through a coconut tree’s leaves–such a cliché Hawaii shot.
We left after about an hour and returned to our press house. Up next was his first public statement since arriving to Honolulu. We were shuttled into the conference room with about a minute to spare before President Obama went live nationwide. And all of a sudden, he was just there. He came from around a black curtain wearing a simple white collared shirt and a black coat.
It was just unbelievable–being that close to the President of the United States. Hearing his voice through my ears and not through the television or radio, seeing him right there–just intense. Of course the pressure of getting a good shot was immense, and at the end of the few precious minutes we had with him, we were hurried out to the waiting area of the press pool before boarding our mobile home again. Once on board, I uploaded and filed on our way to our next undisclosed (OTR, as they called it) location. After sending my photos, I was able to reflect on being in that room photographing the most powerful man in the country–a truly amazing experience.