President Obama @ UM Commencement 2010
Photographing the UM commencement on Saturday, May 1 was an exhilarating, mind-expanding experience. For starters, before that day I’d never so much as set foot inside the Big House (weird, I know). And, to the best of my knowledge, I’d never been within a nautical mile of Barack Obama (or any other head of state, for that matter) — let alone gotten to photograph him. Finally, and this may surprise you the most, I’d never shot with any lens longer than 135mm. But I got to do all this (and more) thanks to a great opportunity that fell into my lap.
Silly me, I wasn’t even planning to go.
I don’t generally go see super-famous people, mostly because of the crowds and hoopla associated with such events. So while I felt a fair measure of hometown pride upon learning that President Obama would be speaking just down the street, I had no intention of trying to get tickets — honestly, it wasn’t even on my radar. But I have to admit that when Mary Morgan of the Ann Arbor Chronicle told me she wanted to submit my name for press credentials to photograph the commencement exercises, I got very excited. And once my press credentials were confirmed, I got very, very excited. What a rare and delicious treat! I would get to be (or at least try real hard to pretend to be) a news photographer for a day. And what an assignment: Obama at commencement! Everyone was so excited for me, and I felt so high!
Sobering Piece of Info #1
This helpful tip from the UM Media memo quickly brought me back to earth with a deafening thud: “Photographers: Prepare for a distance of at least 60 yards in the stadium.” 60 yards? Gulp. Certainly they must’ve meant feet, right? Feet and yards are often confused. Nope, not a typo. I had a tough time getting my head around the “60 yards” concept. Typically, when I shoot events, I’m granted unlimited access — anywhere in the house, the wings, backstage, even (sometimes) on the stage. I’m not accustomed to there being several thousand people (some of them secret service agents) between me and my subject. I started to imagine what kind of lens I’d need so that the POTUS wouldn’t look like a spec, like an errant piece of dust on my sensor.
I talked to several photographers, intensively researched lens options, and factored in “Sobering Piece of Info #2” (see below) before settling on renting a 300mm lens and a 1.4x teleconverter (which would bring my effective focal length to 420mm). This lens weighs 6.3lbs; it’s 10.5″ inches long, and the hood adds another 5″ or so. I knew I’d need a monopod (it’s like a one-legged tripod, if you’re into the oxymoron thing) to bear most of the weight and help keep the unwieldy lens steady. When the lens arrived on Friday, I photographed Rich standing 60 yards away, and realized immediately that I needed more telephoto power. Thanks to Mark Bialek, a freelance photographer who frequently works with AnnArbor.com, for lending me his 2x teleconverter at the last minute, which brought my effective focal length up to 600mm.
Sobering Piece of Info #2
In the days leading up to May 1, all the weather reports were predicting thunderstorms for the morning of commencement. There was the distinct possibility that it would be raining in the hours before Obama’s speech — and even during his speech. In my portrait photography work, I can use a sophisticated, hi-tech device known to photo professionals as a “raindate” to protect me, my clients, and my expensive gear from inclement weather. Or, for fun, we can incorporate umbrellas into the photostory. But, I’m afraid, there are no raindates for commencement. And umbrellas aren’t allowed in the Big House, not even for the press. I’d have to find other ways of protecting thousands of dollars of equipment, including the rental lens (worth $5000) from rainy conditions. (Yes, everything was insured, but that doesn’t mean I wasn’t freaked out about it getting damaged and possibly rendered unusable.) I passed many a sleepless night tossing and turning over the weather and how I’d change lenses, etc. in a downpour.
What a huge relief it was that I didn’t have to learn whether my assortment of plastic bags would’ve kept my gear dry while allowing me to shoot. After a frightful thunderstorm at dawn, there was (mercifully) very little rainfall after 8:30am. This made life easier for everyone, especially for those of us working with sensitive, expensive, and not-at-all-waterproof equipment.
Sobering Piece of Info #3
I was stunned to learn at 8am Saturday morning that some photographers had been granted special access to the buffer area between the stage and the seats — within 10 yards of the podium! Melanie Maxwell of AnnArbor.com was one of them, and she got some amazing shots. This opportunity was also offered to other local news outlets including the Michigan Daily and the Detroit Free Press, but not the Chronicle. It was obviously too late for me to undergo the requisite background checks at that point, so we were out of luck.
All sobered up, and having a blast
Just being there at all, not to mention getting authorization to bring a high-powered lens to a national media event, was more than I’d imagined or hoped for. I may not have had optimal access to the president, but I’d do the best I could with what I did have. And he sounded great from where I was standing on the risers next to Rich and Mary. Obama's message was so inspiring and so relevant. I could totally get why 92,000 people braved the crowds, weather, and security checks to be here. I’m so glad I was one of them. You really should read an annotated transcript of President Obama’s speech and/or watch it on video.
It was sweet to experience the camaraderie among the news photographers. I imagine they could tell I was new to this media circus thing, and they were very cool and generous, taking the trouble to alert me to things that were coming up — so I’d be ready. That meant a lot to me. I have great respect for news photographers. They have to be crazy fast and efficient — they’re on their laptops uploading photos of what’s happening while it’s still happening. And then they publish the rest of their shots within a very short time of the event ending (unlike me). And the next day, they get to wake up and do it all over again. Amazing endurance. (It’s now Monday, and I’m still recovering from the commencement.)
I even managed to get well-acquainted with a member of the secret service. Well before the speeches began, I would venture away from the risers to snag photos of graduates (and their footwear) milling about, only to be chastised by the same secret service man over and over (and over) again. He had this seriously stern look on his face that never changed. I mean, even though he had to tell me so many times to get back on the risers, his stern expression never escalated to “how many times do I have to tell you? If I have to tell you again, you’re out of here!” And I appreciated that. He was the consummate professional. What can I say, I liked the guy.
Finally I want to express my appreciation to Mary and Dave. I was proud to represent the Chronicle, and I thank them for giving me such an exceptionally wonderful opportunity and experience. And thanks to Rico for assisting me at the commencement, and for his extensive editorial support on this hefty Relish entry!