To Take a Picture of a US President

Even after all these years, I have to admit to a surge of excitement when I heard that President Barack Obama would be making a state visit to Israel.

Although I knew it would be incredibly difficult to get strong images of him, due to the intense security operation that a US president’s visit entails, and that photographing world leaders is part of my day to day work, I had never actually had the opportunity to take a picture of an incumbent United States president.

I had been fortunate enough to photograph former president Bill Clinton in London at an event after he had left office, but the chance to take a picture of a recently re-elected American, and all the challenges that go with it, gave me an incredible buzz.

So now all I had to do was find a way of actually getting anywhere near to him, when I knew everything would be pooled (photos to be supplied by chosen international news agencies or The White House) and that everyone else had the same idea.

It turned out that there were going to be two opportunities to at least get a crack at getting a half decent image of him, the first was on his arrival at Israel’s Ben Gurion International Airport, and the second was a speech he would be delivering to handpicked students at an auditorium in Jerusalem.

Having an official press card is useful, however, it does not guarantee you entry to a US president’s visit.

So having had to apply in advance to the Israeli Government Press Office to gain access to the airport, and to the American Embassy in Tel Aviv to be allowed to take a picture at the speech to, I was then sitting twiddling my thumbs waiting to learn if I would be given permission to attend one of the opportunities, both, or neither.

Usually I would be being a lot more proactive in getting the picture I want, but no amount of experience, inside knowledge or favours will gain me the upper hand when it comes to events that are being planned by the American and Israeli security services.

A few days before the visit, I received confirmation that I had been granted permission to be airside at the airport when President Obama landed. Now I had the chance. At least the next part would be in my own hands.

It was stated via a second official email that photographers and TV crews had to be at the airport by 6am, which was 6 hours before Air Force One was due to land and the US President would be greeted by the president and prime minister of Israel together with the newly formed government and various religious leaders and dignitaries.

Having been one of the first group of photographers to arrive and clear security, the likes of which I had never seen, I was on the runway a few hundred meters away from where Air Force One was due to be in another 6 hours.

The most important thing now was to get in to the best possible position with a clear view, and as head on as possible to where President Obama would be standing, sitting and walking.

There were two camera positions, one at the side, and one straight on, both were raised, tiered platforms.

It was important to get as much height as possible. Given the level of security and the size of the entourage, there would be a lot of potential obstacles that could block my view.

I had to make my decision very quickly as there were already others running for the best positions, I decided to go right to the back and centre, as I could already see the row in front, which was the second row, was being reserved by American Embassy staff for the White House Press Corps, and the first row seemed too low.

I got myself a chair to stand on, which would give even greater height as I knew the TV cameramen in front would raise their cameras way above their heads, which from experience I knew was another potential obstacle.

It is always important to have an idea in your mind in advance of the kind of the picture you are looking for, and the ideal position you are going to need to be in to get those images together with a backup plan.

When you are photographing somewhere that you are familiar with, it’s a lot easier because you have already seen the layout, know the light and the possible advantages and disadvantages of working from that position.

I was not sure what to expect as had never photographed a runway arrival before, let alone with a subject as high profile as the president of the United States.

However, I had got there early and made a very quick decision having seen the layout where I wanted to be, and reserved that position for myself in direct line with where the door to the plane would open and President Obama would step off and to be greeted.  Now all I had to do was hold on to that position!

You may think that sounds easy, however, with a visit like this, there were a lot of very nervous photographers and all of our worst nightmares: TV cameramen who were all under enormous pressure to get the images no matter what.

Arguments were already starting over positions, and it got to a point about an hour after arrival that even toilet visits and getting a bit of shade, as we were directly in the getting-hotter-by-the-minute sun with no cover, were a thing of the past, unless you wanted to lose your space.

So we were back to the photographer’s least favourite pastime, waiting…

As the time of President Obama’s arrival approached and the baking sun was reaching its midday zenith, which is always the worst time of day to photograph due to the position of the sun, everyone was getting very fidgety having been there so long and a few tempers were starting to be lost due to inconsideration of cameramen standing in front of others and blocking their shots.

I was still doing ok, mainly due to the fact I had got there so early and got a perfect position. I even managed to deal with the constant knocks from the photographers either side of me, both using Cannon 400s on monopods due to the fact we were all crammed in so tight.

There is nothing quite like that feeling when you have been waiting for hours worrying about all the things that could possibly go wrong, when you are primed with the camera up to your eye, finger ready to release the shutter, exposure set, heart racing with the mixture of fear and excitement, and you see the door open of Air Force One, the steps hastily attached and the president of the United States of America appears and waves. You make sure you’re in focus and squeeze off that first frame.