So this past week I had one of the most surreal experiences of my life: meeting the President of The United States. So many people have been asking about it that I thought I’d do blog post explaining the entire experience—
About a week and a half previous to the event, I received an email from the folks at the Blumenthal For Senate offices regarding an upcoming event at the Stamford Marriott. The referral came from a most unlikely place: a previous Brunswick School student (a private boys school in Greenwich, where I have been shooting for almost 15 years) for whom I had done several private events, who now works for Attorney General Blumenthal. He was nice enough to think of me for this opportunity.
Anyway – we went back and forth on the price, and they kept suggesting, “It’s a VERY high profile event, that we think you will REALLY want to photograph.” So I start wondering–who is it that might be a Blumenthal supporter? Bush? Clinton maybe?? I had no idea.
The next day I get an email with final price negotiating, which said “…you have probably figured out by now that the guest speaker is President Obama.” I stared wide-eyed, heart racing at that email, re-reading it like 10 times. NO – actually – THAT guest option never crossed my mind!
So suddenly the game was changed. The nerves set in. Apparently there were about 60 guests paying a pretty sweet sum for the VIP meeting. Actually, I wasn’t too nervous until I received some more info in another email referring to it as the “VIP Presidential Photo reception.” That particular wording really hit home. I had 20 minutes to get all 60 people/groupings.This alone caused a knot the size of a melon in my gut, and i’ll tell you what – for as anxiety producing an event or wedding can be – it all pales by comparison knowing you have to efficiently photograph the President in a short period of time, while being watched by the Secret Service! Once we agreed on the final details, I had to supply social security, place and date of birth etc etc for a Secret Service background check on anyone coming with me. Not that I had anything to hide, but the idea of being checked on at the level gave me pause–it was cool but kinda creepy as well.
Jump ahead to the day of – – I left the house extremely early as I heard about Stamford streets being closed for his arrival. We got to the hotel around 1:30, and despite reading that we could NOT park in the hotel garage, it turned out we could. The fella out front asks me “Are you Secret Service?” I’m like, “Uhhh- no—we’re just the photographers!” The entire first floor of the garage was kept clear of all cars, however.
I called my contact and met up in the lobby which they had blocked and sectioned off for a ‘security sweep’. We dropped off out photo stuff and ran across the street to the mall for a quick bite, as I had to eat something or I thought i’d barf in front of the Commander In Chief. There were – what I believe to be, Federal Police all over the place. I tried to ask one a question and he just looked past me like I didn’t exist. OK – I thought–I’ll just keep moving along to lunch…
We JUST get our food and my cell phone rings from my contact “You’d better get back here now.” he says, ..the security is setup and they need to go through your bags.” We scarf down out lunch in – not joke – probably 3 minutes and practically run back to the hotel.
When we get back – now the REAL DEAL is there as the place is crawling with Secret Service. (It was interesting as the day progressed to notice who had what kind of pins on – all ‘official’ but with difference degrees of clearance I suppose–more about MY pin in a moment!~)
They had an airport type X-Ray machine set up, which everyone – guests, staff, volunteers –EVERYONE had to go through. A Secret Service agent comes up to us and says “Are you the photographers.” We tell him yes and he says ,”OK – wait right here.” A few minutes go by and he comes by again and says, “I haven’t forgotten about you…” We were kinda like, “Don’t worry Sir – we are not going ANYWHERE!!”
So after a bit of time, 2 plain clothes agents come to us and THROUGHLY go though all of our bags. Taking of lens caps – peering into both ends, looking into the camera bodies–firing off shots, unzipping pockets—the whole deal. “Please move back from the bags.” they asked seriously, as then – a German Shepherd comes over to go to town sniffing our bags. Again – obviously we had nothing to hide but it creates a weird feeling regardless.
After we pass through the x-ray machine we are issued security pins affording us a certain degree of clearance (since we had been ‘vetted’ : a word I was honestly not familiar with!) I noticed some had an “R”, other an “S” and some an “I”. I asked and it turned out my “R” pin meant that I could be “within arms reach of the President as long as I was being watched”. The “S” was staff and the “I” gave the wearer more mobility without Secret Service monitoring. I have to tell you – while they were actually ALL VERY nice, polite and accommodating to us, you KNEW you were being watched at all times, and its a downright odd feeling. I actually think I may have been followed into the bathroom.
3pm: so we have about 2 hours to kill. 2 hours to get more and more nervous. It was absolutely fascinating though, watching all the logistics, running around, blackberrying, phone calls etc etc prior to Obama’s arrival. We kinda made friends with the agent monitoring the photo area which was all roped off, and who was really cool about the whole thing. As a matter of fact the only person we had troubles with was a surly ‘media pool’ videographer who took his scoped out spot in the back of the main room VERY seriously, and kinda gave us a hard time.
5 pm: the VIP people are lined in the hall patiently waiting, like for a visit with Santa. The energy in the air is getting stronger—more palpable; it was a very strange feeling (or was I just having a heart attack?) We are standing alone in the photo space with the agent just waiting… WAITING. I’m trying unsuccessfully to stay calm.
5:30 PM: the agent listens into his earpiece and tells me “The President has just landed at JFK and is taking a chopper here. I’ll let you know when he’s close.” Time starts to stand still. I check my camera settings over and over and over ‘just in case’. My hands are literally shaking, I hate to admit. Food in the meantime was being served in the main room for 500 people, since once the President arrived, all hotel staff had to leave and the room was to go into lockdown.
The agent gestures to me and silently holds up his five fingers; Obama is 5 minutes away. In the meantime, Richard Blumenthal’s family comes in for some photos which was good, as it let me test out my lights (once again!) as well as DO something other than wait nervously. I asked a woman (who seemed very official and was talking in 2 Blackberrys), “Is it cool if I go up and say hi when The President arrives?” She says, “At the end yes – it might be weird to do it at the start and besides, he’ll probably take a photo with you guys – he usually does that.” REALLY??!! NO WAY—
I hear some rustling in the kitchen hallway. The door opens. About 5 BIG guys and another photographer come in and spread out in to my little photo area.
There He is.
President Obama just kinda casually strolls in. I’m about 8 feet from the President. You can’t help but stare, despite your political affiliation. He chats and jokes with Blumenthal’s family and says – “Well come on, lets get a picture then..” turns around and is then staring at—ME – waiting for me to do my thing.
Now at this point, i’m operating on raw nerves and semi-autopilot, to be truthful. Looking through the lens helps make it feel less real somehow, perhaps easing my nerves. After the first few groups, I start to calm down and get in a rhythm. It gets less weird. Plus I know I have to zip through this line and gotta keep stuff moving. Bam Bam Bam–the groups keep coming. My flash nearly overheats.
So we near the end of the groups and The Prez gets some shots taken by his photographer with local fire and police officials as well as an Iraq War widow whom he hugs and consoles. He’s about ready to take off but – surprisingly- the Secret Service agent tells him, “You still need to get shots with the photographer, Sir.” “Oh, right!” Obama says being incredibly accommodating. With camera and focus set, I go over, shake hands, say something mindless about how nice it is to meet him, he places a hand on my back, I turn towards my camera like a deer in the headlights and as time momentarily freezes, the Secret Service guy takes several shots (knowing enough not to take just one!!!) Obama turns to go but I extend my hand again – opting for a second hand shake which he does and ‘thanks me’ (for taking the photos, I guess)
Here, The President comments on my thinning hair, and gigantic noggin—
please note my super-official extra-high clearance “R” pin – which does not stand for ‘Robert’
And that… was that.
I quickly break down and nearly RUN to the main room, where the doors are being locked. Luckily my little security pin came in handy, as when they saw me coming they said “OH!! wait a minute – the photographer needs to get in!!” I barely get into position as Blumenthal and Obama take the stage. They speak for about 20 minutes total – wave good-bye and zip off the stage. The lights come up and the room clears up. Over and out.
So back in my room packing up I finally have a moment to absorb it all, and I suppose it’s then that it really hit me, as I felt kind of a wild rush and foggy at the same time. Did I just meet the President? What’s been really funny since posting a couple to Facebook is how many people have suggested that I Photoshopped myself into an existing shot! Which in a way I cant blame them: I mean—who’d of thunk it??!!
Somebody get me a cocktail…AND FAST!