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?

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