Since graduating, Michelle has been steadily gaining experience as a photojournalist. She is also an alum of the Eddie Adams Workshop XXVII and was an attendee at the Mountain Workshops in 2015. Both institutions are dedicated to storytellers and the art of visual storytelling.In this article, Michelle goes through all the details of what it actually took to plan for covering the inauguration, what the event was like, and then at the end she includes some tips for covering events! It's worth reading through to the bottom if you want to learn what it was like!
I’ve been a freelance photojournalist in Philadelphia since 2014, and with this election and political cycle, there’s never been a more exciting, if not also terrifying time, to be a member of the press (more on that later). When asked to contribute this post about my experience photographing the inauguration and the associated events, I figured it would be most interesting to present a behind-the-scenes look at what it's like to photograph this kind of event, so I will walk through how this assignment came about, what preparation I did, what actually happened, and how everything shook out in the end. It may be hard to believe, judging by how long this post is, but I did condense other details for the sake of not boring you to tears or describing something too complex. Over the last year or so, I’ve been able to develop relationships with editors at different publications, sometimes through rejected pitches and sometimes from fruitful assignments. Since July I’ve worked on quite a few assignments for The Wall Street Journal (WSJ). A few days before the end of the year, I received an email from an editor I’ve worked with before asking if I had any interest in covering the Inauguration for the WSJ, to which I immediately replied YES. I’ve covered political rallies before (a photograph from a Hillary Clinton rally ended up in a recently published book by CNN Politics titled “Unprecedented”), but never something as large and complex as this.
The assignment was pretty loose and simple. I was to go to D.C. and photograph the crowd on the National Mall watching President Trump and Vice President Pence be sworn into office, photograph the personalities, and get a sense of the environment and the mood of those attending. I was instructed to not worry about the “iconic” shots (Trump actually being sworn in, for example) as that would be something WSJ would pull from the wires (for reference: “the wires” refers to the Associated Press, European Press Agency, Getty, and a number of other large services that photograph just about every event that can be licensed by publications around the world).
When it came to the logistics, the actual assignment turned out to be much easier than all that had to be done prior to even stepping foot in D.C. To begin, I needed to actually apply for media and press credentials to go to the Inauguration. In case you’re wondering, anyone can go to watch it happen and it’s free for all to attend on the National Mall, you just have to request a ticket online. For members of the Press, it’s much more complicated. I had to submit a few applications and pass a background check by the USSS (United States Secret Service), in addition to my editor having to submit to someone else what events I needed to attend (Inauguration? Morning Prayer Service? Parade? Inaugural Ball?). And after jumping through those hurdles, ... I had to wait. And wait some more. There were several emails between myself and my editor, and eventually from the DC Bureau of the WSJ to see if I was approved for credentials. Eventually I learned that my application had been approved by the USSS for press credentials, as well as something called an underlay, which is basically the tangible pass I was required to wear. I would post a photo in this post of all of these, but have been instructed as a matter of security not to post them online, so just imagine a lanyard with large laminated cards, the one on top being a picture of my face next to The Wall Street Journal. This underlay was my Secret Service pass. Without it, I couldn’t get anywhere. With it, I could go EVERYWHERE!
As far as the gear for the day went, I kept it as light as possible because I had been told by friends and fellow photojournalists that I needed to pack as though I would be carrying everything, all at once, all day long (which ended up being true). Also there was a Secret Service limit to the backpack size that members of the Press could bring with them (I believe it was 18x7x13 inch). My bag, a Lowepro Flipside 400W included my 13” MacBook laptop and charger (programs I used: Photo Mechanic and Lightroom), two Canon camera bodies (Mark II and Mark III), 24-70mm lens, 70-200mm lens, 35mm lens, Canon 580EX-II flash and off-camera flash cord, card reader, ethernet adapter and ethernet cord, (5) 16GB CF cards, 1 external hard drive, lens ponchos (for rain cover, which ended up being very useful. I bought two of them on Amazon for $6), and notepad/pen.
The Day Before
Thursday, January 19 arrives. The WSJ booked me a hotel room at the Hyatt in Arlington, VA, because all other hotel rooms were very expensive or already booked. At this point, I had been in touch with the Washington Bureau of the WSJ (sounds fancy, doesn't it?). I’d spoken with the Bureau Chief who was my point person in D.C., and who kindly picked up my credentials for me so I could save a stop once I got there. She informed me I was cleared to cover the National Mall, the Inaugural Parade, and the Salute To Armed Forces Ball. I drove down to D.C. with a good friend of mine who was shooting the Inagauration for Getty. On the drive there, I realized that I hadn’t packed anything remotely acceptable to wear to this Armed Forces Ball (acceptable means black pants, black shirt, black shoes, and a blazer ... otherwise known as caterer-chic or DC informal wear). Once we got to D.C, we went straight to the Capital so my friend could pick up her Getty credentials. We walked around the National Mall to get an idea of security and where things were roped off. We found the Press Filing Center where all news stations / photographers / videographers / correspondents transmit images and stories from. After getting our bearings, we went to my cousin’s house in D.C. to borrow an outfit for the ball, filled a Metrorail card with $30 fare, went to WSJ Washington Bureau to pick up my credentials and get logistical info, have a bite to eat, and study all the road closures in order to find Union Station, which were mostly done with large Metro buses blocking off streets and swarmed with police. Once I finally got to the hotel I laid out the clothes I needed for the next day, and went to sleep.
On the day of the actual inauguration, I woke up at 4:30 a.m., got dressed, packed, consumed some coffee, and was out the door by 5 a.m. I arrived at one of the entrances at 12th and E street, and there was already a line of people waiting. I learned some had arrived there as early as 4 a.m., even though everyone was told that they wouldn’t open the gates until 6 a.m. As it turned out, members of the Press got to go in first, sometime around 6:30 am, because the Secret Service had to go through everyone’s backpacks and video equipment. Everyone was patted down, had to go through metal detectors, have each piece of gear inspected (including cell phones, opening laptops, and even having a USSS agent take a picture with my camera to make sure it was actually a camera), and then they had to do it all over again at a second check-in that was located closer to the National Mall. All of Press was escorted through gates by Secret Service members.
At 7 a.m., there was a beautiful sunrise taking shape. People were milling around in the dark, getting their bearings, taking photographs of the well-lit Capital and sunrise (which I, too, had to get, so I asked a National Guardsman to take an obligatory tourist photo of me). Prior to the day, my editor and I discussed the logistics of when to file images. This task can vary for every publication and editor. We decided I would shoot for a few hours and then file at 9 a.m., and then go back out to shoot the actual swearing in, and file again when that was over, but before the parade at 3 p.m. I found transmitting to be tricky because cell service was clogged up with so many people. Thankfully, the ethernet wire helped. With some publications, they may want you to file every hour, some at the end of the day, some over an FTP (File Transfer Protocol) system, (when this is the case, I like to use a program called Fetch, btw), and some directly from camera to phone to be transmitted quickly. The images that I initially sent were put online for WSJ, published in their Saturday paper, and put on the WSJ Instagram account. I don’t have the links to those, but I’m including the tear sheets so you can see how it laid out.
After the actual inauguration, I headed over to the press riser (literally a large bleacher where different news agencies have a reserved spot) at the National Archives, and waited for the motorcade to come down Pennsylvania Avenue. Keep in mind that directly across from me, on the other side of the street, were large numbers of protestors present holding signs and yelling. Mixed in were many of Trump's supporters, and, well, you can guess how that turned out. Eventually, Trump and the motorcade drove past me, but he was sitting on the other side of the car, facing the protestors. Facing me was First Lady Melania Trump and their son, Barron. I finished shooting the parade around 5 p.m., made my way back to the filing center, and filed for the last time of the day. After that I quickly left to go back to the hotel to change my clothes and have a quick shower before going to the Armed Forces Ball.
I wasn’t able to photograph any of the protests that were occurring simultaneously to all this because of the short layovers between assignments and where I needed to be at certain times (again, the Secret Service rechecked all of my bags and all of my gear, every time I passed through an area, thus making me unpack everything several times throughout the day). Many of my friends shot the protests that happened on Friday, which turned out to be quite violent and included about 100 or more arrests, including 6 journalists, cars and trash cans on fire, windows broken out, people pepper sprayed, etc. About 8 p.m., I arrived at the National Building Museum to have my bags searched (yup ... again), and then go into the Armed Forces Ball. At first I was relegated to a terrible spot on a press riser far away from what was essentially a large cocktail party for military members and their dates, in front of a giant stage with the Presidential Seal on it. I ended up leaving that spot and walked around in order to photograph people, and occasionally ventured up the very edge of the media riser to get some height and a different perspective.
Around 10:30 p.m., the entire Trump family, along with Mike and Karen Pence, came out and did a slow dance with different members of the armed forces while everyone watched with their cell phones out. It was surreal to say the least. Both Donald and Melania gave short speeches to the audience, as well as to a live feed streaming to a troop stationed in Iraq. Then, then they left and the party ended shortly thereafter. I left to get the Metro with other party members, got back to my hotel about 1 a.m., edited and transmitted images to the night editor, and went to sleep until about 3 a.m. If you’re keeping track, you are correct ... I was up for almost 24 hours. For those of you who are getting into this line of work, be aware your body will go into survival mode on these kinds of assignments. I hardly drank any water or ate any food, and didn’t use the bathroom for over 12 hours. It can be grueling work. And on top of that, I don’t think any of the Armed Forces Ball photos made it online or got published in the newspaper, which is just how it goes.
The Day After
As far as the WSJ goes, they didn’t assign me to cover the Women’s March the following day, but I decided to cover it on my own. The hotel was accommodating and agreed to hold my bags until I had to grab my Amtrak that afternoon. Needless to say, it was uplifting and overwhelming, and a completely different vibe from the day before. I saw so many families, especially young children with their parents, which I really enjoyed. Because I wasn’t assigned to this, I’m keeping the Women’s March portion of this blog post to a minimum, but anyone is welcome to contact me if they have questions regarding covering massive protests. (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Overall, I’m still processing everything that happened. Being a member of the media, I got some harassment by Trump supporters at the actual inauguration, and dealt with some aggressive behavior. My protocol for any situation like that is to be as minimally reactive as possible, and try to engage those who are confrontational with me. What I found is that the more I said (calmly), "I’m here to listen but you need to lower your voice and stop pointing your finger at me,"the more defused the situation became. The media, at this moment in time, is certainly under attack, and it’s important to stand your ground and not give in to heightened emotions while you're working. The majority of people I photographed were kind and respectful and somewhat amused that I was taking their photograph. If someone knew I was photographing them – for example watching the swearing-in happen – I made sure to be right in front of them, and I always asked permission. Like most things, when people feel they're being engaged in a kind manner, and someone is showing interest in their perspective, they’re very willing to engage in a kind manner back.
This was certainly an assignment of a lifetime, and although I wrestle with the term “historic” in this context, I suppose it was. I’m grateful I was able to witness both Friday and Saturday’s events, and to speak with those who held beliefs all across the political spectrum. There are some logistical aspects I would have done differently, but overall, going forward, the main thing I learned is that from here on out, I will try to stress as little as possible until there is something to truly get stressed over. In my not-so-humble opinion, journalism is one of the most important jobs out there, a pillar of our Democracy. To have been able to cover a presidential inauguration like this, it’s safe to say it’s something that has left a lasting impact on my work, both present and future.
If you want to see more of Michelle's work, visit michellegustafsonphoto.com and her Instagram here. Thanks Michelle!