A Trip to the U.S. Capitol | May 2010

The United States House of Representatives, 111th Congress, 2nd Session. (Photo/Stephen Masker)

Getting There:

My trip to Washington D.C. started at 11:30 a.m. EST Tuesday, May 18, when I landed at Reagan National Airport (DCA). Fortunately I have extended family living in D.C. and so I got to sleep on the couch, rather than pay hundreds of dollars for a hotel. To make getting around D.C. easier, I highly recommend having a good understanding of how the Metro works. To help me, I downloaded a Metro Map Ap on my iPhone for free that showed me the names and routes of the system.

The free Metro Map Ap I downloaded from the Ap store on my iPhone 3Gs

Something important to remember is that most cabs in D.C. don’t accept debit or credit cards like they do in New York City, only cash, so be prepared! Once I arrived at my family’s home near 22nd and P, I unpacked and organized, then I was ready to start photographing.

Being There:

As I discussed in my previous post, Chip was my contact on this trip and he would be the one who’s work agenda would essentially plan the day. Chip, who shoots on Capitol Hill, covers almost everything political, including events at the White House. While although Chip had several assignments there while I was visiting, I unfortunately was unable to attend those assignments.  To get into the White House as a photographer, and perhaps as a member of the media in-general, you need a special pass (as you might have guessed).

The National Press Foundation website offers this information concerning media passes to the White House:

“Regional Reporters can cover events that are open to the press calling the Office of Media Affairs and asking for a “DAY PASS.” When you call 202-456-6238, give your full name, date of birth and social security number.  The person on the phone will give you the location of the event, and let you know if you will need an escort.

If you are a full-time White House reporter or will spend at least 3 days a week at the White House, you will need a “HARD PASS.” This is more difficult to get, as you must undergo an FBI background check. Call 202-456-2580 and a White House Press Office staffer will walk you through the process to obtain one.”

However, all that aside, I woke up at 7 a.m. and was picked up by Chip around 8 a.m. just outside my family’s home which is located about five minutes away from the Capitol. On the way, Chip showed me a few publications on his Blackberry that were useful for their ability to communicate what was happening politically in D.C., including the Politico, a free publication in which a columnist writes about stories in-progress but that are not yet written. Chip said staying abreast of these publications help him in knowing what’s going on in D.C. and are very useful in his job as a professional journalist.

When we arrived, we pulled into a parking lot with spaces designated for Media. I immediately met a photographer who Chip knew that pulled in along side us who was shooting for a French publication. He had a suitcase equipped with children’s glowing wheels and a personality to match. He, like all the other photographers I met on Capitol Hill, was good-humored and charismatic.

Out in the parking lot before we started to walk towards the Capitol, I was prepared to photograph throughout the day on my Canon 5D Mark II and a Canon 50D, my uncles camera, with a 70-200mm f/2.8L IS USM on the 50D and a 24-70mm f/2.8L on the 5D Mk II. However when Chip began to unload his gear from the trunk of his car, he asked me if I wanted to shoot with one of his cameras. I said sure as he handed me an EOS-1D Mark IV body. If you’re ever used a mark series body, you’ll know that their operation – and performance – is entirely different from the rest of Canon’s line, so needless to say I had to learn the camera rather quickly. Among all the other components, however, I think changing the camera’s autofocus point was the most difficult! When the orientation of the camera was altered from horizontal to vertical, the AF point seemed to change, and when shooting the President of Mexico as he entered the Senate floor, you kind-of need to know what-the-hell you’re doing, and it’d help to know your equipment. However, all that aside, when someone hands you a 1D-Mk IV and says, “have fun!”, you take it!

After our short walk to the Capitol we had to go through security. To be honest, I was expecting a lot more than what we were subject to. In fact, I’m fairly confident that going through the airport’s security is worse. So every bag you have is swabbed quickly with a few strokes over the exterior, then it’s subject to X-ray as you pass through the metal detector. I’m not sure if this small interior security entrance was for journalists as the guards asked for no identification, however I didn’t recognize anyone else coming through. After we passed through security we took the elevator up to the Press Photographers’ Gallery where I was given a temporary press sticker by Assistant Director Tricia Munro and my ticket to the floor of the House.

The best way I can describe the Gallery is, in a word, disorderly. To every laptop there was a reporter/photographer, most of which were multitasking; approximately 11 or so people in all located in the photographer’s Gallery. Something else I noticed: 300mm lenses were EVERYWHERE. There were in backpacks, on tables, on cameras, on the floor, on shelves, under books, hanging from the ceiling, in coffee pots.. but unfortunately I didn’t get to use one. On one of the several TV’s was a live broadcast of whatever was happening on the House floor (voting, I think), and that makes for a pretty entire description of what was going on in that room. It was also here that I met Molly Riley and Larry Downing who were both shooting for Reuters, and Alex Brandon shooting for the Associated Press.

Entering the House of Representatives:

Not too long after Chuck and I were in the Press Gallery it came time to leave and prepare for the arrival of the Mexican President, Felipe Calderón. We walked down the hallway and around a few corners and then once again it was through another security entrance. This time we were greeted by two guards, one of them made sure you removed everything from your person, watches, belts, rings, glasses, etc., the other one checked (again) every single pocket of every camera bag that you had. So I did the security thing and three minutes later, along with Larry Downing (who I was shadowing while Chip was ‘roaming’ – in other words, he did not have a specific seat inside the House), we were directed by another man inside the House to our seats. In actuality, it wasn’t really a ‘seat’. On the second floor, where we were, there’s an empty space located between the chairs and the balcony for photographers. That’s where we were. Below is a map of the second floor of the Senate Chamber to give you some idea about location. Imagine drawing a line straight out from No. 49 (highlighted) – I was located in that dead space with the other photographers:

A map of the current senate chamber

Entering the House of Representatives for the first time was a truly amazing and awesome experience, but where I was positioned kind of sucked – but not really. Let me explain.. The images were freakin’ amazing. Phenomenal photography of high-profile politicians, etc., etc. However.. what did suck was freakin’ kneeling the ENTIRE time. I don’t know how long Calderon spoke, but it seemed like FOREVER while I was kneeling on concrete with heavy camera equipment. All the other photogs there had small collapsible stools similar to this one. So that’s definitely something I’ll remember should I ever find myself back in the senate chamber.

Basically once we were inside we waited for Calderon to enter. While waiting I was sure to take some practice shots, changing the ISO, making sure my AF points were properly set, adjusting my white balance to Kelvin 3000, and fiddling with the camera, practicing on members already standing on the Chamber floor. During my time there, I photographed some of the Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, Vice President of the United States, Joe Biden, Calderon’s wife, Margarita Zavala, and the United States Secretary of Homeland Security, Janet Napolitano.

The Associated Press

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