The Digital Journalist
A Big Night

by James Colburn

It's sort of like a prom. It's sort of like the Oscars. It's sort of like a high school reunion. It's the annual White House News Photographers' Association dinner and it's happened every spring for decades.

The President (or POTUS to sound cool) is always invited. Most of the time he doesn't go (a good year as there's no security sweep or magnetometers and after a couple of drinks you can ride around the reception area on a Segway, which is way better than watching a video of Dick Cheney riding around on a Segway). But once in a while he does (usually a bad year because you have to stand in line to get searched and everyone has to be on their best behavior).

It's a shmoozefest of the first order. Editors show up, agency heads and minions show up. Photographers, both currently active and retired, fly in from all over the country for the weekend and meet all the old friends they haven't seen since the last WHNPA dinner. Hands are shaken and backs are slapped and business cards are passed around by the hundreds. You can saddle up to the open bar and have some wine or something harder (or softer) and then you're free to see how many people have put on weight, lost some of their hair, slicked back their hair even more than last year, gone grey (when it used to be brown) or gone brown (when it used to be grey).

The women are dressed in gowns and the men are (almost) all in tuxes and there's a certain restrained elegance to the crowd, an elegance only broken by the rare individual that insists on wearing the High School Prom special with blue jacket, blue pants and semi-matching light blue poofy shirt. You know who you are

George W. Bush showed up this year, which is kind of funny because he doesn't really like photographers much but the buzz was that he needed some good PR after the big hit Laura had cracking jokes at the White House Correspondents' Dinner. His father (George H.W.Bush) loved photographers and they loved him right back but Dubya? Not so much.

The color guard presents the flag and the anthem is sung and after a few minutes of welcome you get to see who the MC is for the night. Sometimes it's a good choice (Brian Williams was excellent and did you know that he was, at one point early in his career, a videographer?) and sometimes it's not so good (see: Joe Scarborough). The MC cracks a few jokes and introduces the head table and then someone from the Washington Post gets the Photographer Of The Year award. Then someone from the Washington Times wins Best Pictorial and someone from The New York Times wins Best Washington Insider and then they pass out a whole bunch of other awards (see the most excellent winners at www.whnpa.org).

The highlight of this year's dinner had to be the Lifetime Achievement Award given to Chick Harrity. Chick worked for The Associated Press and then U.S. News & World Report and is one of the nicest people you'll ever want to meet either in photography or out of it. He's been on boards, he's won awards and is now retired and spends most of his time sipping wine and laying around in mud baths in the Napa Valley. Tough life.

But wait - it gets better...

When Chick was in Vietnam for the AP he took a well-known photo of two small children, abandoned on the street. One of the children was very small and in a cardboard box. The photo caused quite a stir when it was published and the child in the box was eventually adopted by an American family and grew up in Ohio, leading to the conclusion: Don't Think That Your Pictures Can't Have A Direct Beneficial Effect On Someone's Life.

So we're sitting around and Chick's going to get his award and everyone's got this little voice at the back of their heads saying, "Wouldn't it be nice if they could've found the girl and gotten her to give Chick his award?" when whamo! they announce that the girl, Nhanny Heil, had been flown in from Ohio and was there to present Chick with his award. It was amazing. Not a dry eye in the house. Kudos to the people on the WHNPA's dinner committee for keeping it a secret.

And another thing. There seemed to be a few people at tables dressed in, oh hell, t-shirts and shorts and jeans and things, which lead one to wonder, Huh? How did they get in without renting a tux? Oh wait. The Washington Post invited a bunch of wounded Iraq vets from the rehab facilities at Walter Reed to the dinner. Excellent idea!

After the dinner many people went out to trendy Washington bars for a nightcap or two. Some got silly; some didn't. And cell phone cameras seemed to be this year's big thing

A Practical Note: I flew in from Omaha, Nebraska, for this year's dinner (and boy are my arms tired) and I had to rent a tux. I went into my local Men's Warehouse and found out that you can get measured and pay for a tux in one location (like Omaha) and pick it up in another (like Washington) meaning that not only do you not have to pay for an extra day's rental but you don't have to carry the thing on the plane and take it through security and worry about it getting lost or crushed. Such a deal.

© James Colburn
Contributing Writer