What It Was Like to Cover the
Obama Inaugural
February 2009

by Dirck Halstead

In my career as a photojournalist, I have now covered 12 Inaugurals.

The passing of the most powerful position in the world to a new president is always momentous. I learned early on that documenting the White House means standing at the door of history. For good or bad, the actions of the president of the United States affect not only its citizens but also people and events around the world.

© Joan Gramatte/The Digital Journalist
The view from the U.S. Capitol's south camera stand, with Dirck Halstead's 600mm Canon lens in the foreground. Bitter cold was a problem for the photographers who had to man their positions as early as 4 a.m.
However, most of those Inaugurals were really political events. They were transitions. In my experience, there have only been two that transcended the moments of the swearing-in and its accompanying hoopla, to become cultural watersheds, events on the level of the landing of men on the moon, or the fall of Saigon, or even Woodstock. The first was John F. Kennedy's Inaugural in 1961; the second, Barack Hussein Obama's.

Much has been made of the "celebrity" of Obama, but on January 20, 2009, the events on Capitol Hill were truly in keeping with some huge rock concert. The star was Obama. Others on the bill were Aretha Franklin and Yo-Yo Ma who were the "openers."

Just covering the Inaugural is a challenge. The U.S. Senate Press Photographers' Gallery, which controls access to Capitol Hill, and the Presidential Inauguration Committee (PIC), which issued credentials to cover the parade, balls, and other official events, were inundated with requests from thousands of photojournalists, newspapers large and small, magazines and Web sites such as The Digital Journalist. Yet, there were only so many spots for coverage. A criterion for credentialing was to be "reputable."

Part of the trick of getting that spot which will produce worthwhile photographs is knowing what it is you want to do. This is a basic tenant of journalism. It's not possible to do everything. Choices must be made early on.

© Joan Gramatte/The Digital Journalist/Zuma Press
The Digital Journalist's Dirck Halstead on the south stand on the west front of the U.S. Capitol, photographing the Obama Inaugural. He is using both the Canon 5D Mark II with a 600mm lens and a Canon Vixia HV30, with a Sennheiser MKE 400 mic, Sennheiser wireless system and a BeachTek DXA-2 adaptor.This was the 12th presidential Inaugural ceremony that Halstead has covered, dating back to the Kennedy Inauguration in 1961.
From covering past Inaugurals, I knew that I wanted to be on the stand closest to the podium where Obama was to be sworn in. I also knew that I wanted to be able to use a long lens to drill in on his face as he spoke. Just to make this decision starts to limit other options. For example, to do what I wanted meant being on eye level with Obama. But that meant that depending on where the Chief Justice stood for the swearing-in, I could be blocked by the raised hand. But to position myself to be safe on that, I would lose the eye level that for me was important. This is "the cover" shot, where Obama is speaking directly into the lens. In order to get that spot, I had to start early, six months ago, calling in chits from people I had worked with over the years when I covered the White House for Time.

With 2 million people expected to attend the Inaugural festivities, Washington became the city of ultimate gridlock. In order to try to even get the press to the places they needed to be for coverage, security considerations dictated that photojournalists covering the Inauguration ceremony had to be in place by 4 a.m. on Tuesday. This involved spending hours in lines outdoors in the pre-dawn darkness, then climbing onto camera stands as the temperature dropped into the high teens. For those photographers and camerapersons atop the 30-foot tower of the central camera stand, the wind chill was in single digits. And there was no place to seek shelter.

© Dirck Halstead/The Digital Journalist/Zuma Press
Looking like a ninja, Xinhua News Agency photographer Xhang Yan endures the bitter cold on the south camera stand on the west front of the U.S. Capitol in the early-morning hours prior to Barack Obama's Inaugural.
According to historical records, the coldest Inaugural was Ulysses S. Grant's in 1873. My first Inaugural was the one for John F. Kennedy in 1961. The night before there was a blizzard in the District of Columbia, and I have memories of elegantly gowned women standing in the middle of 14th Street trying to flag down any passing cars. But at least photographers could wait until daybreak to get into position.

By 8 a.m. on the morning of Obama's Inauguration, I was approaching hypothermia. Photographers to the left and right of me were finding that camera batteries were dying, and it was still four hours to go before the ceremony. The camera stand I was positioned on held hundreds of photographers and TV people, who were swearing as they found that the circuits they had ordered to file their photos were not working.

Jeff Kent, the director of the U.S. Senate Press Photographers' Gallery, was able to supply me with the spot, on the first level of the camera stand. There was literally nothing between my lens and Obama some 50 feet away. Not only was I shooting stills for The Digital Journalist, but also simultaneously recording video on the Canon D5 Mark II camera. I had a second HD camcorder, the HV30, rolling at the same time, in order to make sure I had continuous audio roll on Obama's speech. Audio was brought into my cameras using a Sennheiser EW-112 wireless and a Sennheiser MKE 400 mini shotgun.

Dirck Halstead's press credentials for Barack Obama's Inaugural.
Photojournalists from all over the world were shivering together on those stands. According to the U.S. Senate Press Photographers' Gallery, they had issued credentials to three times the number of press than for previous Inaugurals. Photographers came from places like Italy and Ethiopia. Xhang Yan, from China's Xinhua News Agency, looked like a ninja, her black sweater pulled over her cold nose, while David Burnett was making home movies of his colleagues, such as Frank Fournier. Peter Turnley was huddled with CNN's Christiane Amanpour.

In previous Inaugurals, it was possible to cover the ceremony on Capitol Hill and still have time to get into position along the parade route. This time, it was impossible to move from spot to spot. Cell phones stopped working. Broadband circuits on the Hill failed to work.

Following the ceremony, as I waited to cross Constitution Avenue to the Senate filing area, loaded down with still and video cameras, tripods, and the big lens, I was astonished to see Annie Leibovitz sashaying past me with one little camera on her shoulder, as if she was off for a walk in Central Park. Then I saw a couple of young assistants, loaded down with her equipment, struggling to keep up.

The good news is that the pictures turned out fine!

You can see them in this issue, and in "Obama: The Historic Front Pages," which will be published by Sterling Publishing on February 11.

© Dirck Halstead/The Digital Journalist/Zuma Press
Veteran photographer Frank Fournier suffers from the bitter cold as David Burnett tapes him with his video camera in the early-morning hours of Inauguration Day, Jan. 20, 2009.

© Dirck Halstead/The Digital Journalist/Zuma Press
Photographer Peter Turnley with CNN's Christiane Amanpour on the camera stand at the Inauguration of Barack Obama, Jan. 20, 2009, Washington, D.C.

© Dennis Brack
David Hume Kennerly photographs the Obama family watching the "We are One" Inaugural concert at the Lincoln Memorial, Jan. 18, 2009. Kennerly was Gerald Ford's official White House photographer.
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© Dirck Halstead
Editor and Publisher of The Digital Journalist

Dirck Halstead was Time magazine's Senior White House Photographer for 29 years. He now is the Publisher and Editor of The Digital Journalist, the monthly online magazine for visual journalism, and a Senior Fellow at the Center For American History at the University of Texas in Austin. His new book, MOMENTS IN TIME, published by Harry N. Abrams, is in bookstores, and available from Amazon.com.