I am a photojournalist for a smallish daily newspaper in the Baltimore/DC area. NO, NOT that one.
To apply for credentials to cover the Annapolis Peace Conference, hereby known as the APC, because I’m so tired of typing the word ‘conference,’ required filling out an application with the standard personal info and numbers over a secure email program you had to download.
You also had to send in a photograph of yourself, sized at the odd 1- and-3/8th inches. After asking around the newsroom, I had to call my wife who figured out that meant 1.377 in computer talk.
All was diligently completed before the holiday and a confirmation email was received. Things were looking good. Let me add, I was really looking forward to this. The eyes of the world on my town; my coverage area. I don’t care what it is, if it happens in my town, I shoot it. So it’s especially great when something actually happens.
On Monday, the day before the APC was to start at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, I got word that I could pick up my completed credentials at the stadium. I drove over as soon as I heard. With some pride I walked over to the long table and went to the suited guy with a sign reading ‘L-O.’
A pile of shiny red press cards was stacked in front of him like he was an Atlantic City dealer. I showed him my press ID and he shuffled through his deck. Once. Then twice. He rechecked my ID and looked a third time.
“Sorry”, he said. “Not here. You’ll have to apply again.”
“Wha…?” I said.
“It’s easy. Just fill out this form and wait in that line over there”.
I looked over at the line stretched across the room and with a sinking heart I noticed it snaked into another room.
“But I got a confirmation email…”
“I know. So did everyone. They were lost. Sorry!” he said, with an apologetic grin.
I could deal with this. Lemonade. I moved over to the end of the line. Some things became clear. The first was that almost no one had their credential waiting for them. The second was that I was in line with media from literally all over the world. The third was that the line…was…not…moving.
Suffice it to say, it took two hours and fifteen minutes of standing before I got my photograph taken and was handed my official APC credential. Picture literally one hundred sneaky journalists waiting in line in a conference room, bitching in a dozen languages into their cell phones. Waiting for the ONE machine that prints credentials. Add to that “star” journalists getting preferential treatment, jet-lagged starving competing Israeli TV crews, weird standalone “columnists” whose only interest seemed to be picking up Russian girl reporters, Naval officers humiliated about having to stand in line with journalists, no food or water and “White House” press line jumpers. And me. Things were off to a promising start.
But I got it!! A shiny red hard plastic card with a reflective laser paper bit, an official seal of The Annapolis Conference and a tiny picture that made me look thirty pounds heavier. Super cool. As I was leaving, I realized that no one had actually told me how to use it or what to do in the morning. So back I went to L-O.
“We’ll start loading the buses at 5 a.m. and taking you into the Academy to the press area.”
Jeez, 5 a.m. That’s pretty early, especially when I live an hour away. I didn’t care! I was going to photograph Bush and Olmert and Abbas and Rice and Blair! I was so excited that I hardly slept and had dreams that I was shooting it. At 4 a.m. I jumped out of bed and hit the road.
Now I should say, I didn’t expect to be sitting at the table with the negotiators. I expected a series of staged photo ops with people smiling and shaking hands 20 yards away from a line of photographers. All choreographed by “handlers” with white ear pieces and dark glasses. But I could work with that, I wasn’t worried. I had the Really Big Lens (the RBL)over my shoulder, held by a monopod like a battle axe. I had two camera bodies, four lenses and a laptop. I was ready.
So I showed up on time and was directed around the buses and into another line full of reporters and camera crews. The security line. As we waited, someone turned on a TV and the news of the Washington Redskins player’s death came over live. The foreign journalists were floored by this and confused. The fact that he was shot at his home seemed to be the major topic of concern.
That struck me as odd. These guys are used to covering daily violence and conflict in the territories, suicide bombings and the war last year in Lebanon. But an athlete getting shot in his home, now that was disturbing to them.
The security was impressive. A metal detector. I had to turn on all of my electronics, including the laptop, to prove that they were real. Then dogs went over everything, sniffing for explosives. It took about 40 minutes. Then it was out the door and onto the buses.
As the first streaks of dawn broke the sky, we pulled into the Naval Academy, driving past a parking lot with a dozen satellite trucks. We pulled into the loading dock of the large basketball arena. We shuffled in and found the floor of the arena covered with rows of long tables, chairs and electrical outlets. At one end of the arena was a huge screen hanging from the ceiling. I got my spot and immediately took out the laptop to make sure I could transmit pics back to the office for the afternoon edition. It was all a go. Now I was ready to get to work!
It was at this point that I noticed no one seemed to be in charge. Media was everywhere, newspaper reporters, TV reporters, still photographers and TV crews. But no one was telling us what to do. I ask around and no one else knew what was going on. I went back to my seat and spent a while helping a Russian reporter get his WiFi, which was trying to find his home network in Moscow, up and working. Still nothing was happening.
And I was getting a sinking feeling. I had to do something, shoot SOMETHING. I walked outside of the arena and found TV crews setting up their live shots by the Severn River. So I started shooting them, maybe as a funny side pic to go with the real work. A few other still guys were doing the same thing, but they only knew about as much as I did.
Suddenly, the air was thundering with helicopters. Huge helicopters arrived from the four corners of the compass and started to land in a soccer field. A soccer field across the water from where we were. Very far away. I’d left the RBL at my seat and there was no time to go back for it. So I started shooting with what I had.
I could dimly make out figures moving from the helicopters to a waiting caravan of black SUVs. I couldn’t tell who they were. The caravan started up and moved across a bridge toward us. The lead vehicles were huge Lincolns with U.S. flags flapping from their front corners. I assumed it was the President! They drove toward us and not even slowing, continued on.
Uh oh. They should have stopped, right? How were we going to photograph them if they didn’t stop? Surely they didn’t mean for all of us to go to them, that would be crazy. And they wanted us to take their pictures, didn’t they? The sinking feeling started getting much worse.
I ran back to the loading dock, but was turned away by a security guard. I had to be rescreened before I could go back into the building. The screening table was, of course, around the other side of the arena.
So I ran around the arena and had all my equipment rescreened. Back into the hall, now more crowded with late media arrivals, I tried to find out the scoop. Still, no one knew anything. Then a voice was broadcast through the basketball arena speakers.
“For those covering the opening ceremonies and have a BLUE WHITE HOUSE PASS, move to the lobby. ONLY if you have the BLUE WHITE HOUSE PASS.”
Blue White House Pass? Wha..? I didn’t have a Blue White House Pass. My pass was shiny and red. A small line formed near the front of the arena and I saw they did have blue passes. Big blue passes. With a picture of the White House on them.
I had to think fast. I needed one of those passes. I simultaneously called my editor and started to run around the aisles looking for someone who knew what was going on.
“Pass! Blue Pass! I need it. Call the White House, call the White House!!” I barked into my phone to my perplexed editor.
I finally found a young State Department official surrounded by a swarm of red-passed photographers, all asking the same question.
“How can I get a blue pass?”
He had a crumpled list in his hand and at first he tried to check it. But it soon became clear that none of our names were on that list. I could tell he was trying to be nice, but finally he had enough.
“If you didn’t talk to Bill or Jessica at the White House yesterday, you don’t get to go!”
And with that he turned his back on us and stiffly marched out of the room. I was standing there with a half-dozen other photographers and none of us had even heard of Bill or Jessica. So why were we even there?
I wandered around the room and found a person with whom I’d worked before – a government person. I asked if they knew anything. Would I be able to shoot anything? I’m told that after the lunch session, someone would be by to talk to us.
“How long do you think?”
“I don’t know. But it MIGHT be awhile…”
I could see the subtext. It was going to be a long while. Very long. If at all. I thanked my contact and wandered back to my seat. I called my boss and told him the deal. They were not going to let me see anything. No pictures. It was going to be White House Press Corps; it was always intended to just be the White House Press Corps.
The shiny red pass was just good enough to get me to the floor of an arena with hundreds of other media in the same boat. But they didn’t know it yet. And they crossed oceans to be there.
My boss told me there were protests around town and if I wasn’t doing anything there, I might as well leave and shoot them. I told him I would, but waited around for almost another hour.
Finally, the large screen lit up and there was Bush and Olmert and Abbas making speeches and shaking hands. The rest of the reporters took notes, glancing up at the screen and looking inquisitive, like they were going to be called on any moment. The other photographers started shooting the reporters, the screen, each other.
I shut down my laptop, loaded up my gear and walked back toward the loading dock, through a sea of dedicated, passionate professionals, intent on being a part of history.