With the Royal Wedding supplements only just hitting the recycling bin, London had to spring back into gear once more for a visit from the American Eagle himself, President Barack Obama.
Having already produced some great moments during his visit to Ireland, it was going to be hard to beat some of the fantastic photos that were filling the papers. From rock star-like fervour from the crowds in Dublin to his taste of Guinness in his ancestral home of Moneygall, Ireland was always going to be a tricky act to follow.
In the days leading up to the arrival, I volunteered to step in and help out with the logistical organisation in Downing Street. Some of those reading may base their concept of a photographer’s working conditions on either the scrums they see on breaking news stories, or the pap fights outside nightclubs that fill the gossip pages. The truth is actually far more organised than that, with the major events seeing photographers come together to work out the best way to allow a fair chance for everyone to get the shot.
In years gone by, a photographer wanting the front row would be forced to arrive in the early hours of the morning, if not have to sleep outside the venue overnight. Thankfully, a powerful force of self-preservation has won through, resulting in positions being decided through a lottery draw with press cards going into the proverbial hat (or lens pouch, in many cases) and the photographers being allowed into the pen in the order that they are drawn. This only happens on exceptional events in Downing Street such as budget day, elections or major visits such as this. On top of the draw, there is also the issue of marking up the pavement into a grid so we can guarantee the maximum amount of people into the best positions. With slim places at the front for the lucky few drawn early, through to the wider spots at the back for those balancing on the top step of their ladders, everyone has to be considered. You see, we’re not horrible scummy types as some media outlets like to imply, are we?
After marking up the street with Telegraph photographer Eddie Mulholland and Rex photographer Ray Tang, I found out that I wasn’t even going to be working on the street anyway. I was on ‘pool’ duty. With two on the first day and one on the second, I was to be given more exclusive access to different aspects of the visit to Buckingham Palace, Westminster Abbey and Downing Street. I’d love to say it was due to my unbelievable photographic skills but in reality, like the draw for the positions outside, the pools are decided on a rotating basis and it just happened to be AFP’s turn. It was very pleasing to have been picked from within AFP though!
The first job of the visit was to cover the President’s official welcome to his hotel for the next few nights, Buckingham Palace. With Brenda acting as landlady, he’d no doubt been looking forward to her famous fry-up as soon as he decided to stay. After an early start, I was led into the gardens of the Palace and onto the stand at the bottom of the lawns. Having only been told that it was a rota pool job in the Palace, I had no idea what to expect. My heart sank when I saw the distance we were looking at. The lawns stretched on and on between our position and the door where they would appear. With only a 300mm to hand, I thankfully was able to borrow a 1.7x converter from fellow AFP photographer Nicholas Kamm and with the aid of the 3LeggedThing 1LT monopod, I managed to rescue the situation. After the stress of the Royal Wedding, I hoped I wouldn’t be put in this situation again for some time!
With the shots still on the card, I jumped into a cab with AFP colleague Adrian Dennis, and headed on to the next job, Westminster Abbey. With three pool positions, the group that I was with had possibly the most interesting of the choices, with the President and First Lady being given a guided tour of various aspects of the architecture in the heart of the Abbey. While it might look lovely, it is dark. When I say dark, I mean DARK. The kind of dark that makes you think your light meter’s broken as you dial the ISO up and up and up to get a balance. Finally, with the D3s creaking like Das Boot, I settled on 6400ISO at 200th/sec at f2.8. With all of the photographers in the pool looking at their gear and pictures with dubious expressions, the President arrived and duly walked past us as planned. Just as we were thinking the moment had passed, he found a single shaft of light, beaming down onto the alter. I’m sure you won’t need many guesses as to where he decided to pose for a while. Argh! From the depths of darkness to the purest brightest light. All you could hear was the frantic spinning and twisting of dials as we all scrambled to drop our exposures down to a decent level before he moved on. Someone joked afterwards that it was one of those moments where you daren’t look at the EXIF information on the image as you know you’ll probably have ended up shooting at 60th at f18 on 1600ISO. I will forever love RAW.
Wednesday started well, with the news that the previous day’s shots from Buckingham Palace had done well in the papers. The Grauniad ran the fourth shot above of the wind damage across two pages. Yay!
With Obama set to pose up with Cameron on the doorstep, the mass of media on Downing Street was a bubbling swarm of chatter and discussion as I arrived for my internal rota jobs. Due to the sense of occasion, I’d broken out the suit again and stuck out like a sore thumb amongst the sea of jeans and North Face jackets. To remedy the situation, I decided to defect to US security instead. With the help of a handful of bored colleagues, a pair of shades from Ki Price and a spare Lumedyne cable, I was ready for the West Wing.
When the Downing Street media team came out to collect those invited inside, I found that there were two pool jobs that morning. One would be recording two “grip and grins” followed by a shot of a meeting around the Cabinet table, while the second would see Cameron and Obama holding a barbecue in the back garden and serving tasty treats to a select gathering of military personnel and their families. On hearing which I had, I proceeded to spend the next half hour whining, pleading and hoping to swap with no luck. With AP’s Matt Dunham getting the barbecue, it would be handshakes all the way for me.
Once I was inside Number 10 with the Evening Standard’s Jeremy Selwyn and a BBC cameraman, we sat down to wait for the job to happen. Only a few minutes beforehand the press officer told us that we were to be joined by thirteen other photographers and cameramen from the travelling rota. For anyone who’s shot in there before, the “Terracotta room” has a sweet spot for maybe two people. There is certainly not room for sixteen and knowing how little time we’d have, it was going to be all about forward planning. With this in mind, Jeremy and I used our local knowledge of working inside Downing Street to make sure we were always going in first and always into the right position without wasting time. The shoots last about 20-30 seconds from entering the room to being tapped on the shoulder to leave. Thankfully, our experience paid off and we got what was available to us, however uninspiring!
With the shots edited and filed, I moved outside to get the exit picture as the President left Downing Street for the final time of the visit. Thankfully, colleague Carl Court was called to Lancaster House to shoot another rota so I could slip into his central position. As is tradition, Downing Street managed to present it’s usual lighting challenges with the doorway featuring a wonderful concoction of pitch black shadows, a strip of brilliant sunshine and two men of different skin colour. When camera manufacturers are trying to test their highlight protection and shadow recovery features, I can think of only one place that can give the gear a true run for the money!
As the US President’s tour of the UK and Ireland drew to a close, it was quite a relief to think that things are going to be returning to relative normality after months of Royal wedding planning and VIP visits. With June shaping up to be a month of tennis action, it’s time to learn a whole new skill.