Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Shooting the Secretary: The University

If the photos of the Secretary at the Presidency were the most important of the day, the images taken immediately following would be a close second as she would be delivering a speech about American engagement with Africa at a local university. This speech was expected to generate some news both for its content, but also simply due to the fact that it was given in Senegal.

This made the photographic problem simultaneously easy and complex. Easy, because the shots would be straightforward: get a photo of the Secretary of State giving a speech. Complex for two reasons however. First, speech photos are dreadful. You have to shoot dozens of frames to make sure that you get one with the speaker not looking ridiculous. Second, the location might be constraining. I knew, based on the Embassy seating diagram, that there was a row reserved for press so there was a question if I’d be limited to a static location. And finally, lighting. I expected it to be dark and poorly lit in the auditorium (and it was) but I doubted that I’d be able to use flash (or that it would even be viable based on the range). To top it off, due to the range issue, I’d be using (need to use, really) my 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 - a relatively slow lens. To mitigate this, I had my monopod but I still wasn’t sure how this would all shake out.

Her Plan. Um, she’d arrive, walk into the hall, speak for about 45 minutes, get back in her car and leave. As far as I understood it, the only shots I expected were podium shots.

My Plan. I assumed that I would be limited to the press seating section for my shots, so my plan was simply to balance my camera on my monopod and the seat in front of me and just shoot until I had an acceptable shot. I wasn’t anticipating the opportunity for anything other than a podium shot, but I would still be carrying my second body with the wide angle just in case. The flashes remained in the bag hower.

What actually happened. Upon arrival at the University of Chiekh Anta Diop, the Secretary got out of her car and went backstage while the press went into auditorium, house left. I went up to the press area and found out - to my happy surprise - that it was intended for the print folks - shooters were free to roam. Even with that freedom however, I would still be limited - the house was packed and the Fox News crew had set up in the main aisle. I sure didn’t want to get in the way of their shots and, as much as I wanted to work close to the podium, it was going to be hard to fight my way down there, so it looked like I’d be shooting from the house left wing and the back of the house.

As it happened, those angles were adequate. I’ll address it a little further down in the photo section, but since my problem was pretty simple (shoot until you don’t have a photo of the Secretary of State looking bad) I basically set up my monopod and shot away.

This was the first time that having an experienced PJ in the room worked to my benefit. I had shot several dozen frames and some quick chimping had shown me that I had basically gotten the shot, so I was ready to relax. However, I noticed that the AP photographer would make sure to shoot a burst whenever the Secretary became more animated and started using her hands to gesture. I didn’t take the same angle as the AP, but I did the same thing and got some better photos because of it.

While my House Left angle was relatively safe, after a while I was confident that I had gotten every shot I could from that angle. I’d have liked to have gone to the front of the house, but it still just seemed too crowded, so I decided go to the back of the house and see what kind of shots I could get from there. Even with the 400mm it was tough to really get a good composition, although looking back on it, I probably should have worked that location more. At the time though, I didn’t think too much of it and decided to move back to the wing and start shooting the audience. I was somewhat disappointed - the audience was overwhelmingly male, Senegalese and somberly dressed making it difficult to get an interesting shot, but a couple of at least decent shots presented themselves.

Speaking of.

Here you get an idea of what goes into shooting a speaker at the podium. These are the three best out of a couple hundred frames. There is one big problem with these photos though. Notice it? Look behind her - see the guys standing behind her (technically backstage) screwing up my background? I suppose I could blame the university for not providing a better backdrop, but that’s no excuse. I should note that our AP friend shot this in such a way as to eliminate those guys. Now, doing so forced you to take a pretty weird angle and have an awkward composition. but, did you get the shot or not? I did not get the shot.

This isn’t too bad. In some ways I like this composition taken from the back of the house more than ones above from the wings as it establishes the scene a little better (and the background is cleaner). The drawback is that the Secretary is much more static and less expressive in these shots.

Crowd shots. Like I said, it was difficult to get anything too interesting although I’m reasonably pleased with the repetition of the Senegalese men in the first shot and the contrast of the pensive diplomats in the second.

Eventually, the Secretary wrapped up her speech - and it was here that I began to fumble. As she came towards the end of her speech, I began to prep my gear so that I would be ready to move: monopod back in the bag, cameras on the shoulders, that sort of thing. My initial understanding was that she would depart the stage immediately, get back into her motorcade, and proceed to her last stop of the day. Instead, she remained on stage chatting with members of the university and working the crowd that had gathered around. It was here that not having the instincts of a professional photojournalist failed me - I should have closed in and worked close but instead stood off and worked with the long lens. But even as I was shooting, I knew that my backgrounds really weren’t that clean. Then, to further waste the moment, I decided to move back outside to get shots of her entering her motorcade. As it happened however, she must have spent a good five minutes more inside (so I wasted a further opportunity) and then, when she came out, I was at a terrible angle and basically got nothing out of all of this but fodder for the recycling bin.

As we pulled away, I knew I had missed the potential of making some unique shots and my mood began to match the rapidly darkening skies of the first serious rains of the year in Dakar. It was not an auspicious omen for the last stop.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Shooting the Secretary: The Presidency

If I had been too casual in my approach to shooting the health clinic, I was much better prepared for the next stop – although that was as much due to the limitations of the location as it was any planning I might have done: we would be paying a visit to the Senegalese White House.

Her Plan. The Secretary would arrive at the Presidential Palace and be led to a meeting with the President. While their initial meeting – or handshake really – would be open to the press, after a minute or two we would be escorted to the base of a staircase which Secretary Clinton would later descend, give a few brief remarks with the Senegalese Foreign Minister, and then depart to her next location .

My Plan. This would be easy, since there were really only two shots to get. The first would be the photo of her with the President; the second would be her with the Foreign Minister. Both of these would be fairly basic and generic photos of the kind you see every time a meeting like this takes place, but, if they are generic, they are also kind of obligatory. Photographically, I would be swapping out my 100-400mm for the 70-200mm since I wouldn’t need the range but I would need extra f/stops. The biggest challenge is that I would need to use the flashes for this event. I had been practicing with them as much as possible in the week leading up to the visit, but I still wasn’t comfortable with them. To minimize distractions, I would be shooting them fully automatic so as not to worry about manual flash settings.

What Actually Happened. As my boss in Iraq once said: “There are two kinds of plans: those that won’t work, and those that might work.”

This plan didn’t work.

Although it wasn’t my fault.

I spent the trip from the health clinic swapping lenses and memory cards (I used one memory card per even to guard against card failure) and getting my flashes set up. Pulling up at the Presidency, we again pilled out of the van and started to sprint – this time with more urgency. See, while Madame Secretary could go in the front door, pixel stained wretches had to enter through a side door. The race was on to see who could get to the president’s office first and Secretary Clinton had the head start.

Unfortunately, after all that build up, the result was, we didn’t make it. Well, most of us didn’t – myself, the Fox News crew. Somehow the AP Photographer made it in, although I have no idea how. I was quite disappointed to have missed the shot, but our AP friend showed me her shot and mentioned that the light and composition of the room were terrible and that I hadn’t missed much. At any rate, there was nothing more to be done but to wait for shot #2.

We were allowed (required really) to wait in the area where Secretary Clinton would giver her remarks and since the microphones were already set up, I could shoot test shots as much as I wanted. As it happened, I must have shot around ten, and the Senegalese guard who I used as my lighting dummy was sufficiently annoyed after the first one. Still, with an hour or so to kill, I was able to get dialed in and was even able to go with manual flash settings after all. The only pressure is that I would have a few seconds to get this one shot, and since she would be speaking, I’d have to shoot a few frames to make sure that everything would look okay.

Much like at the hotel that morning, you could feel things beginning to tense up before the Secretary actually arrived but presently, she descended the staircase with the Foreign Minister. I waited until she was at the microphones, and started to shoot. I came up with this:

Not much to say about this one really. Yes, it’s a very basic and boring shot, but it’s a necessary one and it came out just fine. I am pretty pleased that I was able to get some catch lights in the Secretary’s eyes (see those little white highlights? That’s my flash’s reflection). So I’ve got that going for me.

After a minute or so of remarks, the Secretary was out the door and we began our sprint. Once in the van, we began to careen across Dakar as I began to again swap cards and lenses and prepare for the next stop.

Till then Sports Fans.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Shooting the Secretary: The Clinic

Okay Sports Fans, here we go: the next few entries will be the actual play-by-play of how these events with the Secretary went down and how I shot them. I’ll provide a brief overview of the event, but will primarily focus on what the Secretary’s plan for the event was, what my plan for event was, and then examining how everything actually happened. I’ll finish with a few photos from each event, with self-critiques for each. It’s not quite the Hegelian Dialectic, but you get the idea.

Her Plan. After departing her hotel in the morning, Secretary Clinton would travel to a local health clinic that was supported by USAID grant money. The clinic was focused on women’s health, but also provided general preventive medicine services, mostly related to things like providing bed nets to prevent malaria transmission. Upon arrival, the director and staff and a member of USAID who would act as her translator would meet her. She wouldn’t go into the clinic proper, but would walk around the perimeter in what would basically be a giant ‘U’. Stations would be set up where she could get an idea of the types of services offered by the clinic and where she could interact with the staff. The press would be corralled in one of the bends in the ‘U’, so we wouldn’t be able to work the scene. Once she had made her way through gauntlet, she would get back into her car and the convoy would move to its next stop.

My Plan. I was pretty disappointed to hear that I wouldn’t be able to move around at the scene but fortunately I had the equipment to compensate. I would still go with two bodies but rather than go with the 70-200mm as my long lens, I would use the 100-400mm to allow me to cover the secretary as she moved throughout the complex (whether I would have any decent angles or not was separate issue). Beyond that, to be honest, I didn’t really think about much more - overall I went in with a fairly technical/logistical approach, and didn’t really think too much about an artistic one. I was really just focused on trying to get a clean shot of the Secretary and besides, I wouldn’t be able to move around too much, so what was the point?

What Actually Happened. I showed up early at the hotel, and spent about an hour in the lobby checking, and rechecking (and rechecking) my gear - ISO, Drive Modes, Focus Points, etc. After that bit of OCD was complete, I was ready to grab my gear and go on a moment’s notice, and so could spend the remainder of my time meeting the folks that would be covering this visit professionally. As it turned out, there really wasn’t much in the way of the visual arts - a Fox News crew shooting pool video and an AP Photographer as the pool photojournalist. There was also a local Reuters videographer but the vast majority of the media were print. I chatted with a few of the different reporters, but mostly just stayed out of the way and waited for my Public Affairs contact from the embassy to show up. Presently, she did and I learned that my earlier info was wrong - local (Senegalese) media would be corralled but credentialed press (which I was considered part of) would be free to roam during the Secretary’s stop. I’ll be honest that the implications of that didn’t fully register with me as we’ll see below. As we got closer to the Secretary’s show time, you could feel the tension build in the lobby: cameramen shouldered their cameras, the various reporters, rather than standing in small groups still mingled but now with their backs to the wall as they waited for Hillary’s arrival, and her security detail had spread out throughout the lobby and had clearly become more alert. The AP Photographer and I had both shouldered our cameras in preparation to snap off shots should the opportunity present itself. Organically, a path had already opened up in the middle of the lobby to allow the Secretary quick access to her car which was already staged in front of the door.

There wasn’t any fanfare when Secretary Clinton got entered the room. One minute there was this tension, this anticipation, and the next minute Hillary was striding through the lobby, smiling, and getting into her car. There wasn’t an opportunity for any photos and as soon as she was in her car, we sprinted towards the (camera) press van. By the time we started rolling, the Secretary’s car was already clearing the parking lot.

Traffic in Dakar at 0900 usually isn’t too bad, but with Gendarme motorcycle escorts, it’s even quicker and soon enough, we were pulling up in front of the clinic. This was to be my first lesson in how a professional photojournalist thinks - the AP Photographer had made sure she was sitting shotgun rather than ride in the back with the rest us. That proved prescient as, upon our arrival, she was able to immediately dismount while the rest of us in the back were forced to grapple with both the physical and metaphysical implications of a sliding door that just wouldn’t open from the inside of the van. Once that little fiasco was sorted out, we too hit the ground running.

It’s hard for me fully describe how the shoot went, because I wasn’t really consciously thinking about much while I was doing it. I hate to use the phrase “autopilot” but I can’t really think of a better one. Still, some general trends stand out: as promised, I had full access to move where I wanted and shoot how I wanted. I still had my 100-400mm on camera and primarily used that - for two reasons. First, I felt drawn to shooting very tightly cropped portraits. Both for optical reasons (the ‘flattening’ effect of zooms) and for artistic reasons. I probably went overboard on this however - I probably had way too many photos of roughly the same view of the Secretary, but I also knew that I’d need to shoot a lot to ensure that I had at least one good shot that didn’t have her with her eyes half closed and her mouth half open. The second reason is, I just wasn’t really sure how to work close-in in a situation like this. I understand the need to be aggressive, but I just really wasn't sure of the protocol involved. What angle to take? How do you break into that scrum? While you want to be aggressive, the last thing you want to do is be that guy who gets too aggressive and blows up the optics of the Secretary’s event. I hung back and worked long.

Well, except for when I was required to work short. It seemed that the embassy photographer is the designated “group photo guy”, so when the Secretary decided to take a group photo with the clinic staff, the call went out: “Hey, where’s the Embassy photographer?” I pushed my way to the front (although, no one was getting my way for this one), did a 3-2-1 count, and popped off a couple of shots. Nothing really too much to it - just make sure you get the exposure right (which, even I can do that). Otherwise, nothing remarkable - although, as we’ll see much later, not all group photos would be like that. I’ll spare you from having to look at that shot, but since you’ve sat through this thing this long, it is about time we get to the photos:

I suppose this will have to work as my establishing shot - and, in fact, I shot it with that in mind. This was taken soon after arrival as the Secretary was receiving an orientation from a member of the clinic staff. The dapper gent on the right is our Ambassador, His Excellency Lewis Lukens, Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary (Ambassadors have the best titles).

Okay, so this may not be the most flattering picture of Madame Secretary, but I really like the color and composition of this shot. And also, the look on Secretary Clinton’s face as well.

Well, this might just might be my favorite shot of the entire trip. As the Secretary went down into this courtyard I spied a wall opposite with some cutouts that I could climb up/into. With a little bit of balance, I was able to hold my camera up over my head (after having already zoomed the lens as wide as possible) and pop off a half dozen shots blind. This was one of the ones I came up with.

Critique. I know I mentioned that I would do individual critiques, but after writing this, I've realized that all of these photos - despite being my best ones of the clinic visit - suffer from (more or less) the same problem. Can you see it? Remember what I said earlier - I didn't go in with any sort of artistic plan or shot list so I was really just shooting on instinct. I think that more or less worked, especially in that last shot, but that lack of planning meant that I forgot to do the most important thing - tell a story.

Consider all of these photos. What is the Secretary really doing? How do you, as the viewer know what she's doing without me telling you? Sure, there're some white coats on people that you might associate with doctors or other medical professionals. You can probably figure out that she's in Africa. But I think it's really only the last photo that actually tells a story on its own. And that's because, even as I was shooting that one, I was (consciously, actually) aware of the crush of people and activity around her as she moved through the clinic and I wanted to capture that.

But of course, that's not really the story of the day (though it may be part of it). What was really needed (and which the AP photographer definitely did better than I) was to get a shot or two that clearly established "here is the Secretary of State visiting a health clinic."

Did I do better at the next stop?