Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Obama, Part Three

In the past it was unusual that a president, any president, would visit Phoenix once in any given term, let alone three times in one year.
I had the opportunity to photograph Obama for the third time this year as he spoke to the Veterans of Foreign Wars convention in Phoenix.

According the the press release, equipment had to be in place for the security sweep between 3 and 4.

AM that is.

Interestingly, only one other photog was there that early along with a number of TV folks setting up their sticks, staking their claims on the press riser.

I staked my claim, affixing a business card to the floor in my chosen spot an then vacated so the secret service and police to could do their security sweep of the hall an the building.

So, at 4 am, there I am in an otherwise deserted downtown Phoenix.... nothing to do but find somewhere to sit and read my book.

Fortunately the lobby of the Hyatt nearby offered a comfy spot to read until the bagel and coffee shop opened. By then I felt as if I had been traveling all night and was stuck in an airport waiting for the next flight and needed, as my brother-in-law likes to say, to pour a big cup of coffee in my eyes.

After sharing a calm and pleasant bi-partisan chat with a couple of convention attendees in the bagel shop, I headed back to the media camp on Third Street.

By the time the doors reopened for media, about 7:30 am, the protesters had begun assembling and my pickup had been hemmed in by two tv satelight trucks. Cool.

Obama arrived about 10:15 in spite of two different pieces of info that said he would speak at 10:30 and at 11. The organizers had set up two risers, one with a straight on view and another from one side with flag positioned as a huge background. Obama spoke long enough so that I had time to use both vantage points for a variety of photographs. This is pretty important as when I shoot for Corbis and there was usually another Corbis guy in the White House press pool who has up close access. I have to work hard to make some images that he can't.

With all of this, once you get down to business it is just that. Photograph a speaker, using as many angles and elements as you possibly can to make a variety of good, usable images. Oh and by the way, they guy in the photo is the President of the United States.....

For a few more pix, the Corbis address is pro.corbis.com, then search for Obama, D'Elia

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Collecting news in Kampala, Week one.

Part two of a series, a year in Uganda

Oct 6, 2003
Threading through downtown Kampala traffic seated on the back of Willy’s dirt bike, I pulled my knees closer to lessen the chance of knocking them on the car we pass between. He makes his own road as he turns in an unexpected direction moving between more cars and matatus before zipping up a hill toward the National Theatre off Siad Barre Road.

The Mystery Assignment tour had begun.
Willy and his ride.

Earlier, as we exited the news meeting, the photo editor, Henry suggested vaguely that I go shoot pictures in Owino Market.

Okay. Henry, is there a story? What am I looking for? It’s a big place with a lot of common things going on (common to local readers, anyway) so I’m not sure what he really wants. He explains they like to have some file photos of stuff happening for business pages.

First I think I’m going on my own, my first challenge. Go to a place where people frequently shy away from or shout unapprovingly at photographers. It is a wild place with many people moving about and it can be a security risk, and I’m going in on my own. Am I nervous? Do Ugandans drive on the left? (yes!)

Before I have a chance to get on my way, another photog comes to me and tells me “your going with this one” referring to Willy. So off we go on his motorcycle to, I assume, Owino Market.
Instead, we go to the National Museum.
Hmmm, Willy neglected to mention this.
“What are we doing here?” I ask. He doesn’t answer as we search the building for something unknown. We find a press conference with a Senegalese filmmaker talking about his new film.
--Filmmaker Absa
Our next stop, another backstreet near Owino, he tells me to take a picture of bikes and cars moving through the sloshy mushy mess of a street. It looks pictureless to me but I’m playing along as I try to understand how he operates. At the same time, I’m feeling a little like photographer in a box: take me out at the desired location and tell me what to shoot.

While we’re standing there, Willy points out a place down the street where mayirungi, is sold. It is a green, leafy drug being pedaled in the open from stalls on the sidewalk. We need a picture of it he informs me.
Are you kidding me?
When was THAT mentioned, I wonder?
Shoot that picture in broad daylight? Are you insane?
--Nimarungi for sale.

He assures me it will be okay as long as I don’t linger too long. He says that they won’t bother a muzungu, where they would possibly attack him.

“You’re sure its okay,” I ask for extra assurance.
“Yes, no problem,” Willy says.
“You better be nearby with your bike if they start chasing me.”
I’m really feeling lost now.

With the camera already out in the open, I wander toward that corner trying to look confident. I climb a small mound of dirt across the street from the intended site. I survey the area with my lens intentionally like a tourist. My heart pounds against my ribs as I swivel toward the sellers and knock off a few frames and then lower my camera. Looking in another direction I try to show no special interest in the corner. I’m sure that drug sellers have noticed a muzungu with a big camera just across the street. I wait for a reaction.

Finding, none, a tiny sliver of confidence forms and, I point my lens again, lingering a bit longer, shooting a couple more frames including a woman behind her makeshift counter of drugs and a small child standing in front. Another woman hides her face.

“Okay, that’s enough exposure to danger,” I think, and look for Willy. I meet him and he suggests the angle he’s standing at. Still nervous, I look and I shoot some more frames under some cover of a parade of people walking along this other side of the three-way intersection.
Time to move on.

We travel to two more assignments without Willy ever really sharing our destinations. He makes stops as if he saw something interesting just by driving by, although both have the feel of an assignment the last is a big meeting of Boda-Boda drivers with their union boss. I think they were engaging in a mini strike to protest either too much government intervention or no government intervention on how some Boda drivers operate. I couldn’t figure it out.
Boda Boda union meeting--

Willy looks at the outdoor gathering, from an elevated sidewalk and decides it’s a great picture with the knot of people and the Boda-Boda’s in the background.

I see an uncompelling photo of blob people and some shiny things which will never look like boda-bodas in the background and tell him so. He can take that picture but I will not. Feeling led around and not being respected enough to be informed of our activities, I decide to take back control of my day and lead by example at the same time. I want to demonstrate a better way to handle this assignment. I shoot a preliminary shot with a couple of Boda-bodas’ in the foreground with the crowd in the background and move to the crowd. As I look for a space in the crowd, a couple of drivers realize I’m media and encourage others to make space for me. The crowd parts as I move toward the boss, who is making loud speeches for television and radio interviews.
Leaving a few people in front of me to use as framing for the central figure, I am rewarded as the drivers cheer for their leader with arms raised in the air. Now we have a picture which has some meaning and emotion. My example is highlighted by the photo editor as encouragement to think a little more outside of their box in doing their assignments.
--Union leader

I realize that it looks like Willy is not a good guy. He is actually a nice guy, just trying to make some sort of living on the pittance they pay him.
I reminded myself of something easily forgotten once I get in the familiar mode of working. I must be more patient at times in a place where even journalists communicate in a different way. I understand the fact that I must ask more questions to avoid the mushroom syndrome (remaining in the dark) as full disclosure of any activity is not automatic with Ugandans.

The week proceeds at a busy clip as I allow myself to be involved in the daily grind long enough to get more of a feel for working here. It also gives me a chance to get my photojournalism brain energized again after a month and a half of lethargy.

Wednesday proved to be another busy and challenging day as I accompanied John, another photog and a reporter in a company car (!) to a function involving the Kabaka. The name is loosely translated to King of the Bugandan people in central Uganda. They use the term kabaka as the Egyptians used the term pharaoh. It would be written, the Kabaka, Ronald Muwenda Mutebi II .
We left blacktop and bumped along a dusty partly graded road in the company four wheel drive truck toward what I was told was a function with the king. The jostling 40-minute ride left me feeling I’d ridden in the bed of the pickup rather than in the cab.

The little function, it turns out, was Independence Day for the Buganda. The thing was filled with music of the kind I’d only heard on the CD’s or in Rwanda. School choirs, elderly women, signing with equal skill and the complex harmony of African singers. Alongside the king’s tent, men stood in traditional dress of the kings guard wearing bark cloth, and a weapons belt as well as carrying a spear and shield.

But the Baganda really love their speeches. Everyone who was anyone, had their turn at a long-wind speech in Luganda. We waited four and half hours to photograph the king making his comments.
--King Mutebi

Riotous Time
While returning to Kampala, John got a call from the office about unrest at Makerere. As we approached, cops in riot gear prepared to break up what was apparently a peaceful gathering. John spoke to a commander who told us to get back. Following John’s lead, we stayed nearby. One cop, holding a shotgun yelled at us again and began to dismount. (the shotgun was ore likely for using to fire teargas using a special nozzle).

Okay, I thought, so it’s a country of hiding from the press anything distasteful. We backed off until we were out of view of the cops and cut through the woods and behind small dorms. Not sure about dealing with the cops, I stayed close to John, assuming he knew what he was doing. As we moved parallel to the cops we began to hear the pop of tear gas guns followed by shouts and screams of students. Soon we encountered students, some of them grasping softball-sized rocks, running away from the apparent gathering area. As I tried to capture that I wondered where the police were and how they would feel about us being in the middle. As I followed students, I began to notice a burning around my eyes. And then tears. I had passed through a dissipating cloud of tear gas.

Eventually we found other cops and some commanders. They recognized John and he asked them, just to play it up, “can you protect us, some students were chasing us” etc. (it was either a joke or he was playing up to the cops a bit in order to get on their good side so we could continue shooting.). After that they didn’t care what we photographed as they made a circle of the campus to root out any other pockets of students they felt were a problem. The rooting by the way constituted firing some more tear gas canisters at offending students.

The interesting thing in all of this is that the students were engaged in a peaceful forum that supposedly they didn’t have permission to hold. Police moved in with their tear gas and their truck-mounted water cannons and fired without any prior warning to disperse, or so the reports say. The subject of the gathering? Student opposition to lifting the constitutional limit of two terms for the presidency. Hmmm, convenient, huh?

Many people believe that if this president is able to convince or coerce the constitutional commission to change the law and he wins reelection in 2006, it may be the beginning of a life presidency for him. If that happens, this country, which has come so far in development, could plunge backwards in struggle. (Historic Note: they did in fact find a loophole allowing a third term. There is now talk of a fourth).

I did make it to Owino another day, on my own, finding some who didn’t care whether I photographed them and some who did. And I emerged without and attempts to relieve me of my gear.

Just wondering whether this format is working. The whole idea of Photographic adventures is when we have the opportunity to work in and on some interesting projects home and abroad. Clearly the year way fits the bill. The question is since it is archival, should it be a separate blog?