There is something about the office of the President of the United States of America that you have to respect, regardless of the person holding the office at any given time. That’s why, when I received the phone call that I was going to be photographing POTUS at a gala, I was humbled, honored, and more than a little terrified.
As a professional corporate event photographer, I am paid to make the client look good under all circumstances and despite any of my own personal feelings of biases. I have photographed personal heroes as well as people whom I strongly disagree with, but at the end of the day, I am there to do a job and to deliver results for my client. It is with this mindset that I go into every event, and especially this one, knowing how divisive the current president can be.
So how did I find myself in this position? For that, I have to thank Hewell Events Group, a team of unbelievably talented event planners and problem solvers. I have had the pleasure to work with this team on several occasions, photographing celebrities and the Vice President of the United States, and thankfully we had built up a level of trust between us so I knew what to expect from them and they knew that I could handle anything they threw at me.
I received the phone call about two weeks earlier. “Hey Adam, we have a change of venue for the gala,” she said. “Nothing is 100% confirmed yet, but there is a good chance there is going to be a very high-level VIP as the keynote speaker. Can you send me your vitals for clearance? Oh, and don’t say anything to your team about the VIP yet”
Well, I know what that means… “No problem, say no more. As far as my team is concerned, we just have a change in venue.”
A few days before the event, I finally get the confirmation via text message. “Hey Adam, POTUS is confirmed for the gala. Can you send me your team’s info?”
Ho-ly crap! I wrapped up the job I was working on and let my team know about the update. By the end of the day, everyone was fully briefed, and we had everything in place to photograph one of the most high-profile jobs of my career.
On the day of the event, I was up early so I could travel to the venue, set up my lighting equipment, and get out before the secret service shut everything down for the security sweep.
The venue looked gorgeous! I have seen the National Building Museum dressed up for parties and galas, but I had never seen anything like this! No expense was spared… The drapery and lighting were amazing, the stage was beautiful, and even the tables were perfect.
It was around that time that the excitement, and the gravity of it all, started to set in. I went back to my studio to get some work done and wait until it was time to come back for the event.
Knowing that traffic was going to be a nightmare with rush-hour plus closures for the presidential motorcade, I arrived early and waited for Secret Service to finish their sweep and open the building back up. Once through the security checkpoint, I turned on and tested all my equipment and briefed my team one final time before guests began arriving for the cocktail reception.
As far as reception photos go, this was about as straightforward as they come. I had one photographer photographing the step & repeat, another handling the main reception candids, and I was photographing the VIP reception.
As the reception was winding down I received the call to go backstage to wait for the President of the United States of America to arrive. I did a quick check-in with my team since they would be covering the first part of the main program without me, and I went backstage.
If you have never been backstage at a large event with VIPs before, it can be a little surreal. All the glitz and glamour is on the other side of the curtain while you are crammed into a tiny hallway watching things from the monitor and juggling the logistics of who is where and when they should get on deck to go on stage.
In a lot of ways, this event was no different except for the dozen or so Secret Service agents watching every move and knowing that any minute the President’s limousine would pull up to the door.
The videographer and I were kindly asked not to take any photographs or video backstage until the official meet & greet since they prefer keeping their methods for securing The President secret. I suppose that’s fair… Given that, I’m going to skip the next parts of the story and just jump straight to part where I’m jogging next to the White House Press Pool and being ushered into a partitioned off space directly in front of the stage where the President would be introduced.
I’ll be honest, aside from being elbow to elbow with a gaggle of photographers and videographers all jockeying for the best position, this was not much different from any other VIP keynote. In fact, having the partitioned area for the media even gave us better access and mobility than usual.
I took a few test shots and dialed in my settings while Secret Service hung the presidential seal on the podium and got ready for the big introduction.
Finally, the moment arrived. Now, I’m not one to be swept up in celebrity or power but there really is something special about seeing the President of the United States take the stage. He came out to a roar of applause and had a genuinely warm smile on his face. He was among his people and he knew it.
For the next 30-40 minutes, I must have photographed over 1200 frames from every angle and every possible expression. I knew the hard work was going to come later when I had to actually cull those images down to the best 15-20 for my client.
As for the difficulty of photographing the President, it was pretty much business as usual. If anything, it was made easier by the beautiful stage lighting and fact that I had such great access and mobility in the front of the stage. Despite all that, my knees and legs were screaming in pain by the time the President left the stage and I was finally able to stand fully upright again.
As quickly as they came, the White House Press Pool exited the venue and I was left behind chatting with the sole remaining secret service agent guarding the stage.
You could almost feel the relief in the air once POTUS cleared out and the guard was dropped. The previously stoic Secret Service that remained finally relaxed and even joked around a bit and the restrictions on movement around the venue were finally lifted.
I met my team for a quick debrief and, for the first time in hours, took a moment to relax before the 2nd half of the program began.
Maybe I’m just getting too used to this town, but now after photographing at the White House several times and after photographing both the Vice President as well as the President, it all feels pretty routine. Sure, there are extra security measures and a “hassle factor” when dealing with security for government officials, but at the end of the day, it’s just another event with a timeline that never holds up and the usual curveballs that you just have to roll with and work through.
Still, it was a pretty cool experience…