Flashback: I photographed President Barack Obama.
My President is black!
Next year, I won’t be able to say that SO, I’ll say it now for what will likely be the last time that I can say it for awhile.
About 7 years ago when I first decided to take my photography to the next level, I started as many photographers do. I took classes, learned as much as I could and shot as much as I could. This meant shooting a TON of events. You name it, I was there. Didn’t matter the event or if there was a budget attached to it (which most if not all of the time, there wasn’t) I just wanted to get out there and shoot, share my images and be seen on the scene as a photographer (most definitely not my style now). My first big gig was to photograph various events for a member of the NAACP at it’s 100th year celebration at the Hilton Hotel in Midtown. This was a huge event with the main speaker being non other than President Barack Obama.
The universe aligned perfectly to even allow me in the building, let alone capture images for one of the representatives and possibly of the then newly elected President Barack Obama, but it didn’t start out that way. After hearing about the event a few months earlier, I applied for a press pass for “The B Side Show” which was a podcast that I hosted and produced back then. I picked up my official pass and details about the events. The President was the highlight speaker, but only pre approved national news organizations and members of the press would be allowed into the auditorium to cover the speech for national new outlets. Blogs and podcasts be damned. Note: this was 7 years ago, before people even truly understood what blogs and podcasts were. Today, SOME of them are highly respected outlets of information, 7 years ago when I started mine, people scratched their heads and wondered why anyone would listen to a radio show online. Meh. My goal was to cover the event for my show and blog at the time. Sure I would have LOVED to be in the same room as the President during his speech but with no real connection to any national news outlets, it didn’t seem possible…to most.
The hotel was a few block away from my then current job at Sirius XM Radio. I was able to work my 9-5, leave and walk up the block to the event. It couldn’t get any better, right? I bolted out of the doors at Sirius XM (back then just Sirius) with the first DSLR that I’d ever purchased and my standard lens kit, press pass in hand, for ready for whatever. I made it to the hotel with no problem. Got to the entrance, showed my press pass to the attendant and made my way inside.
So now I’m here! I’m inside
The Carter ugh, The Hilton (but I did have that same excitement as Ice T and crew when Pookie finally made his way into the core of the operation). Now what? I didn’t have anyone on the inside to guide me through anything. I had my list of events and speeches that I was allowed to photograph but there was no point person to check in with. The President was scheduled to speak the following day, so this was the warm up to the burn down so to speak. One of the main days of musical performances, lectures and other NAACP events that led up to the President’s address. So, I made my my around. Pulled out my camera, put my press pass around my neck and waited. I was ready, but there was nothing happening. I’d gotten there early and none of the events were scheduled to take place at that time so I roamed around looking for anything to capture. I made my way into an event space for one of the speakers and performances of the evening. I stood close to the stage, camera in hand and again, I waited. Then something happened, the universe came through in a major way. A handsome young black man who worked for the organization approached me. “Are you photographing the event?” he asked. “Yes.” I replied eager to do something other than wait. “Would you mind helping me out, my name is…and I’m the Director of…for the NAACP and I need someone to follow me around and get images of me and the celebrities of the evening” he said. “OF COURSE!” is what I hope I said. Like his name, title and the exact conversation, I can’t remember every detail but it ended up with me following this young man around for hours meeting, photographing and mingling with celebrities and activists that I grew up seeing. HE was the plug as folk would say today. He knew everyone and everyone knew him and I was his photographer for the evening. PUSH THROUGH UNIVERSE.
We ended the evening with me having a ton of photos to sift through and him mentioning the main event the next day, The President’s speech. “Will you be here for that?” he asked. “Well, yes but I don’t have a pass to get into the actual auditorium.” I told him. “Ok…we’ll see what we can do about that. Be here tomorrow and I’ll try and get you in.” “OF COURSE!” is again what I hope I said, either way, I was excited and knew I would be there.
If you live in NYC or any town in which any President has ever visited, you know the madness that I am about to speak on. When the President comes to town everything shuts DOWN. I’ve never seen a city stand still and have so much movement at the same time quite like it does when the president arrives. I figured the word would get out about the President being at the event but I didn’t think it would be Times Square New Years Eve crazy. After working my shift at Sirius, I left a bit earlier to try and avoid the crowd. Unfortunately, I could see the crowd from a few blocks away as I approached the hotel. Excellent. I somehow managed to get myself to the front of the crowd with the NYPD and their barricades. Here comes the bullshit I thought. I showed them my pass and without a word, they opened the barricades and let me through. It was like the parting of the Red damn Sea! If there was ANYTHING that would stop my ass from getting into the building SURELY it would be NY’s finest, but no, the universe kept on providing…
I made my way in and called my contact. “You made it!” he seemed thrilled but not as thrilled as I was to make it in the building. Again, I don’t remember how exactly the conversation went but it ended with me getting access to the auditorium in which the President would speak. He told me that I would be seated next to the official White House TV crew. Some national media outlets were allowed inside the room, but most were only allowed in the separate media room to watch the event on tv screens. He pointed out the secret service people and other people that I should be aware of. He showed me to my section and off he went. He had to return to his duties and would actually get to meet and greet the President as an NAACP member. “Get whatever shots that you can get, but most of all have fun and enjoy his speech…” he said warmly. My heart smiles to this day when I think about the kindness and willingness of this stranger to give a newbie like myself an opportunity to shine. Hey universe, hey…
And then, there was The President.
The room exploded with applause as he walked on stage. Newly elected, youthful and full of energy. His speech provide inspiration, hope and promise. He gratefully acknowledged the past and looked onto the future. As a black woman, seeing my first black President address members of the NAACP at its 100 year celebration was one of those defining moments in my life. A monumental and historic experience that I will cherish for all of my days. But I also had to work! After the initial shock, excitement and moment of clarity, I picked up my camera and went to work. I couldn’t move around the auditorium and I had several huge tv cameras in my line of sight. Not mention the fact that I was situated on the balcony and was only working with a consumer level camera and standard lens as a novice to the art…so my photos weren’t great LOL. In fact they sucked. They suck to me now, 7 years later after learning more about the craft, myself and my equipment. After sharpening my skills with years of practice and investing in better equipment. But back then, they were ok. In fact, everyone including the person that I eventually delivered the final images to thought they were great. Keep in mind, the NAACP most certainly had other photographers present that were able to capture up close and personal images of The President backstage with other prominent NAACP members. The White House also always has its staff photographers on hand to share images for the press that they have total control over. I was more of a Camera B/behind the scenes photographer for the President’s address. But nonetheless, a behind the scenes photographer for a historic event featuring President Barack Obama. Not bad for my first official gig.
“And when you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you achieve it.” – Paul Coelho The Alchemist
Overall, all of the images, including the photos that I took at the various other events for the celebration, came out pretty good. Today, I strive for greatness and know that if the opportunity presented itself now, I’d excel at it with no problem. With the knowledge and skills that I’ve accumulated for my craft both in the field and in the classroom, there is no doubt in my mind that I would be able to provide exceptional images, even from a dimly lit balcony with tv cameras in my direct line of sight. Experience does that. Time and practice as well. Here’s the one thing that I had back then, even without the added skills and experience, I had confidence. I had it all! Did I know that my equipment wasn’t the best of the best? Yes. Did I let that stop me? No. Did I let the fact that I wasn’t as experienced as most scare me into backing out of this amazing opportunity? Hell no. I showed up, was ready to work, learn, listen and be open to the possibilities. That event, that moment in time solidified a lot of things for me, including my push to become a full time photographer. It proved to me that you don’t have to have a big name, huge following or sometimes, even the most knowledge in the room. You have to be willing to show up, step out on faith and be open to the possibilities. And let’s not forget, if you make mistakes, learn from them and move on! I am grateful that I had the universe working on my side that week and always. I’m grateful to the young brother that took a chance on me and offered an amazing opportunity to get my foot in the door. I’m grateful for being able to witness a black man with ties to the south side of Chicago be elected President in my lifetime and for the opportunity to watch him address those who helped create a path for himself, myself and the black youth that follow. Those images and that day are apart of my history.
No matter what happens with this election, UPDATE: Fuck Trump… I’m grateful that I was able to witness someone who looked like myself accomplish something that was so much bigger than myself. President Barak Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama inspire me to BE.
Posted on: November 7, 2016Shavon