The Digital Journalist
State Funeral
July 2004

by Spencer Platt

On a rainy Saturday afternoon I hear that Ronald Reagan has died. Reagan has been a background figure for most of my news conscience life, not someone I could particularly identify with, but someone who is, and always will be, spoken of. Those grainy black and white pictures of his assassination attempt in 1981 were some of the first images to awaken me to news photography. I remember asking myself how the photographer was able to keep his cool and compose an image. So here was the news that he had died. Later in the day, as I began to converse with my increasingly frenzied editors at Getty Images in New York, I gradually became aware that this was to be a state funeral like few others.

Photo by Spencer Platt
If you are not from Washington DC, it can be an imposing and somewhat thorny place to work as a photographer. As the epicenter of American, and really, world political affairs, it's a town that's predicated on journalistic formalities. There are people to know, passes to get, bureaucracies to get through. Unlike, say, New York, where an unfamiliar shooter can usually elbow his or her way into a news event without much to-do, Washington wants your curriculum vitae and two recommendation letters. New faces are glanced with nervous suspicion by the ever chummy DC press core, a group where the ultimate accolade in life is to receive a nickname by President Bush.

I arrive to a sweltering and humid Washington that seems perfectly content to have the week's news cycle once again all to itself. Streets are swept clean, flags lifelessly hang in the sultry air and the lawns are all perfectly manicured. I've always found it both an enticing while equally frustrating city to work. It seems that events are usually so finely choreographed, that getting an unscripted image, a spontaneous moment can be next to impossible. Washington too often lets you see what it wants you to see, and Reagan's funeral was going to be no exception to this unyielding rule.

Waiting is a fine art in news photography. One can never be too early for an event, only too late. In my case, our chief DC shooter suggested I get to a 6pm event at 9am, just to make sure I get that exceptional spot. Arriving at the prescribed location on 16th and Constitution Ave., I'm informed by the media advance that I'm free to grab any open space on the riser. Glancing up I make out a sea of television cameras that seems to have overtaken the riser like a small third world army. There are correspondents in various stages of make-up preparation, monitors haphazardly sitting on cases and cameramen lounging about in beach chairs as only network cameramen truly can. After a futile attempt to squeeze into a corner, I place my ladder below the riser with the sole other still shooter to arrive at this hour.

Photo by Spencer Platt
This would be my first state funeral, and really only my second time on assignment in DC. I persuade myself that this is an asset; the whole city is political tableaux with the photographic possibilities being endless. As the crowds begin to leisurely fall into place along Constitution Ave., I'm reminded of the historical magnitude of the day. Regardless of how one feels about Reagan, he was a figure that altered world history in a profound way. Strolling along the sidewalk, I'm searching for an image that will convey the day's enormity both tomorrow and in 2050. But this isn't Washington circa 1963. There are no looks of disbelief in people's eyes, no feeling in the air that tomorrow brings uncertainty, and no John Kennedy Jr. to defiantly salute a nation in turmoil. This is an event that was not only anticipated, but which had been planned right down to the tiniest detail years prior. While this certainly doesn't take away from its grandeur, it does make the job of capturing an iconic picture all that more difficult.

Selena West is typical of the people lining the street awaiting the day's first event to commence. A pretty woman in her late thirties, Selena and a friend have driven hours to witness Reagan's last amble through Washington. She doesn't strike me as terribly political, but certainly exhibits a passion for the man known coolly throughout the world as the "Gipper". Selena proudly displays a shirt that features a life size picture of Reagan's face accompanied by the words "In Memory of Ronald Reagan". It dawns on me that I'm walking among a group for whom Reagan possessed the allure of a rock star. He was not only the man who brought Communism to its knees, but a person that symbolized a time before the Al Qaeda attacks, before the Lewinsky scandal, a time his disciples like to remember as a winsome America, beaming with pride and might.

The number of still shooters gradually increases as the day progresses. We're amassed at the beginning of the funeral procession, the point where Reagan's casket is to be taken from the hearse and placed on a horse-drawn caisson for the solemn ride up Constitution Ave. to the rotunda in the Capital, where the body will lie in state. Because of the restricting pen that has been erected for us, our panorama is limited. We will be able to photograph the casket transfer and little else. Our confines serve as a reminder of the new restrictions placed on the press since the days of Reagan's Washington. Taking a light reading while bomb sniffing dogs scrutinize my belongings, I overhear a colleague announce that people are "running for their lives" at the U.S. Capitol after a mysterious plane has entered restricted air space over Washington and is headed towards the Capital. As it turns out, it is only a communications failure between the Federal Aviation Administration and the plane carrying Kentucky Republican Gov. Ernie Fletcher to the funeral. But the freakish incident, comical in hindsight, underscores the apprehension of life in post Reagan America.

At around 5:45 we're informed by secret service that the Reagan party has indeed arrived at Andrews Air Force Base and is proceeding down Constitution Ave. As the wail of police sirens steadily grows louder, the crowd, now in the thousands, becomes completely silent. Except for its nearly uniform whiteness, the crowd is a fusion of Middle America. There are children in their Sunday attire, men in garish shorts and veterans standing to attention. With the White House bathed in a hazy summer light, it is a perfect grand finale for a president who was the master of the idyllic backdrop.

At 6:05 the motorcade slowly crawls up to our left. With the secret service nervously scanning the crowd, a lone hunched woman in black exits a limousine. A decorated soldier holds her by the arm as she hesitantly walks up to the hearse to observe the casket transfer. At that a moment a voice cries out from somewhere in the crowd "we love you Nancy" and the former First Lady turns to in our direction. With a retiring wave, a thousand cameras go off and Reagan's state Funeral begins.

© Spencer Platt
Getty Images

Spencer Platt is a staff shooter for Getty Images, based in New York.