Greetings from Georgetown
Note: I’m trying out a different approach to blogging. I don’t really write on my Tumblr anymore — mostly because it’s a nightmare to embed full-res images the way I want to — so I’m going to migrate my photo blog here, to Medium. It’s a lot easier to write and post photos here, so I’m hoping that’ll result in me writing more. I already like it a lot better.
For the duration of my stay here, I’m also going to broaden the scope of these posts, beyond assignment recaps and reflections on myself as a photographer, to include what I’ve been up to, what I’m listening to, the food I’m eating and other little details that I’ll want to remember when I’m old.
Post begins below.
After living here in Georgetown for almost two weeks, and in D.C. generally for a little over a month, it already feels like home. (This is a good thing, considering I still have another month and a half here.)
I knew I would really like it here, but I didn’t expect to end up being so smitten with this town. I’ve visited plenty of other big cities — San Francisco, Los Angeles, Seattle, Portland, Denver, Austin, Chicago, New York and even D.C. once before, the summer before eighth grade — and no city has struck me quite like this one. Not even Chicago, which I adore and can’t wait to visit again, even if it’s in the dead of winter.
No, this place is something else entirely. It’s not the only city with a river (this is an important feature for me); it’s not the only city with centuries of history; it’s not the only city with a huge urban center and thriving downtown areas and things to do on the weekends. It’s not the only city with public transit that’s robust enough that you can get anywhere without a car. It’s not the only city with shady trees and narrow side streets and red brick townhouses and little coffee places and great food.
But it’s the only city I’ve ever been to where all those things coalesce in the right ways, especially here in Georgetown.
In case I haven’t been obnoxious enough about it yet… I’m just gonna say it flat-out. I really, really love Georgetown.
Louder, for the people in the back: I REALLY, REALLY LOVE GEORGETOWN.
I suppose it helps that I live where I do — the location is just unbelievable. My front yard is M Street, the main drag; my backyard is the Waterfront Park and the Potomac River. If I could get onto the roof of my building, I would have a clear line of sight to the Kennedy Center, the Watergate and the Washington Monument. My commute to work involves a bit of walking but it’s bearable. Stuff happens here on the weekends. I can walk to the Trader Joe’s in the West End and walk back with a week’s worth of food in one or two shopping bags. There’s a Dean & Deluca less than a thousand feet from my front door, for crying out loud. I don’t know how it could get any better.
It’s definitely strange being out here on my own — this is the first time I’ve lived anywhere other than the house I grew up in. It’s been an amazing learning experience and I’ve done a lot of growing up in the month or so I’ve been out here, but sometimes I feel like a dog taking itself for a walk. I’ve never owned my own fork before, much less a full set of silverware. But it’s deeply satisfying to have things of my own.
Work, work, work, work, work
I’ve been writing a lot here at Cronkite News. It’s not what I came here to do, but I kind of knew this would happen. When you work in a nine-person newsroom, you don’t really have the luxury of being a specialist. But I have done a fair bit of shooting, and I’ve come away with a couple neat frames from my assignments.
By some miracle, I got to cover former FBI director James Comey’s testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee a couple weeks ago. I say “by some miracle” because the event’s only connection to Arizona (and therefore Cronkite News’ main market) was John McCain, who sits on Intelligence as an ex officio member because he chairs the Armed Services committee.
If we wanted to get a story for our troubles, our only hope was for McCain to do something newsworthy. And boy oh boy, did he deliver.
I got there just before 7 a.m. to make sure I would get in and lock down a decent position. (As it turns out, everyone else in this town had pretty much the same idea, and the lines to get through the metal detectors wrapped around the buildings.)
Once I got in, the line wasn’t any better. (Actually, it was even worse.)
I don’t know how many people ended up in that line, but I’m sure it was well into the hundreds, if not a thousand or more. Seating was limited, both by fire code and by the physical limits of the size of the room, so only a tiny percentage of those lined up ever had a chance of getting in. (I don’t remember exactly how many spectator seats were set up and I don’t want to speculate in case I’m wildly off-base, but it was definitely less than 100.)
To say space was limited would be an understatement. You don’t come to the legislative session’s marquee hearing expecting to be able to set up a lawn chair or anything, but it was beyond anything I would have expected. AP’s photo staff should have had a designated survivor somewhere offsite. Just about every Washington political photographer I follow on Instagram was there. Melina Mara, from the Post, shook my hand and called me “love.” Doug Mills, from the Times, winked at me. I swooned.
During the hearing, I wasn’t able to stay in the “well” (the space between the witness table and the committee members’ desks) with the rest of the photographers because Cronkite News isn’t credentialed by the Senate press photographers’ gallery. Even if I had, I’m not sure there would have been room for me. As it was, I had to climb up onto one of the risers that were set into the side walls of the hearing room.
On paper, there was probably room for three photographers on each section of each riser. Of course, when I climbed up, there were already five, and I made six. I squeezed off about 50 shots with my long lens; I would have gotten a couple wide shots too, but my 24-70, attached to my other camera hanging off my right shoulder, was pressed into some other guy’s butt. We were packed too tight—no way that was gonna happen. I took a couple more photos and eased my way back down off the riser. That whole episode lasted less than three minutes. It felt like an hour and a half.
I wasn’t about to get trapped up there and work that same angle for the next three hours, so I grabbed my belt pack and bugged out. There was nowhere else for me to shoot, but McCain was late to the hearing and I still needed more photos. The ones I got on the riser would do just fine, but I didn’t want to get complacent and lose the good habits I’d built up at the Republic. There was almost no chance the article (if there was one) would feature a photo of anyone not named James Comey or John McCain, but I was already there and I was on a roll, so I set out to get some photos of other Comey-related happenings around the Senate. I took it as a challenge to show the hearing, and the atmosphere that surrounded it, without actually being in the room.
Overall, it could have been worse. I was surprised at how many opportunities there were to get feature-type photos (although most of them involved screens showing Comey’s face or signs with his name). Of course, the hearing room filled up immediately, so Senate staff set up an overflow room for spectators in the adjacent office building. That filled up so quickly, they set up another overflow room, bigger this time, a couple floors down in the same building.
I spent an hour or so working a few different angles, then I found a vending machine and scrounged my first meal of the day (a bag of almonds and a Snickers—the height of luxury). After that, I scurried back to the main hearing room, past the “authorized personnel only” sign (because I’m authorized personnel!) and back to the risers to catch the end of the hearing. Luckily the swarm of photographers had thinned out, so I was able to get up on a different riser and work another angle without getting too familiar with any of my new friends in the press corps.
As luck would have it, I got into position just in time for the tail end of the hearing. McCain, the last senator to question the former FBI director, had the floor. His questioning had gone a bit off the rails, but honestly, I didn’t notice—I was too focused on making a couple decent photos. I wish I’d had a longer lens or a teleconverter (or a better shooting position), but I made the best of it and got what I could, including Comey’s departure from the hearing room after his testimony.
Before I go on, let me set the scene a bit better. The Central Hearing Facility, where all the action happened, is connected to an anteroom—it reminded me of the narthex in a church, but it’s almost as deep as it is wide. (The risers are accessible through side hallways that connect to the anteroom.) The anteroom is at the end of a hallway, which is itself connected to the building’s main walkway. The main walkways on each floor snake around the walls of the Hart office building, which is designed around an atrium with a glass ceiling.
Anyway, the best photo ops ended up being in the anteroom.
For reasons that are too boring to explain here, Comey entered the hearing room through a back door, but exited through one of the side hallways, into the anteroom and down the main hallway. It turned into a stakeout, where I almost got boxed out because I’m still too nice and I didn’t bring a step stool. (I’m serious—as soon as I got off work that night, I went and bought a step stool.)
We stood there for about ten minutes and it was over in less than ten seconds, but it was worth it.
(Side note: James Comey is extremely tall.)
Then, about an hour later, he came back for a classified briefing before the Intelligence Committee, and as luck would have it, he came back through the same hallway. A stakeout ensued, and I had plenty of time to figure out exactly how I wanted to work the great light that was coming in through the skylights. I kept fiddling with my exposure settings, shooting test frames on anyone who walked down the hallway, and finally got it dialed in. Then we waited… and waited… and waited… and waited.
Then, out of the distance, a flock of black suits appeared, wearing earpieces, carrying pistols (probably) and escorting one very tall former FBI director.
Cue the shutters. Rat-a-tat-tat.
The shots I made with my long lens were decent, but it was the wide angle that really came through. As soon as I saw it on the back of my camera, I knew I had something good. It took a lot of restraint to keep from shouting an expletive or two in celebration, but I kept it in a thought bubble.
I moved those photos to the CN social team as quickly after that as I could. Then I filed a few more low-priority photos, packed up my gear and hauled it all back to the newsroom to help our reporter write up whatever he got and find some ibuprofen for my aching knees, back and shoulders.
The “golden hour” lasts at least three hours here in the summertime. On a clear day, there’s still enough light at 8 p.m. to shoot photos handheld at f/5.6 if you want to. And the light is just delicious.
The remains of the old aqueduct, which used to connect Washington with Virginia across the Potomac, is a popular place to go to watch the sun set over the river. It smells pretty strongly of weed and body spray. The light is awesome and the people didn’t seem to mind me taking photos, so I plan to go back and try to get to know the regulars.
My music taste has been a bit scattered since I’ve been here, but there are a few albums that have stayed in my rotation for quite a while.
I’ve been playing Them Crooked Vultures’ first album on repeat. If you haven’t heard of them, they might be the ultimate rock-and-roll supergroup: Josh Homme on vocals and guitar, John Paul Jones on bass and Dave Grohl on drums. It’s amazing they can play indoors without blowing the roof off. (I say “first album” because they don’t have public plans to make another, but I desperately hope they do.)
The first half is one banger after another. My favorite track is “Mind Eraser, No Chaser,” which is a great song to play while you walk down the street with your sunglasses on. The second half is slower and kind of dreamy, like a third, more hard-rock side of Cream’s Disraeli Gears.
I’ve also been playing a lot of music that reminds me of home and my parents. When my roommate isn’t home, I crank up the volume on my little Bluetooth speaker, put on “Angel From Montgomery” by John Prine, and belt it out at the top of my lungs. And whenever it rains, I put on “40 Days,” by the Wailin’ Jennys, and, similarly, sing along as loud as I can. I especially relate to “Heaven When We’re Home,” given my current living situation.
As for right now, I’m listening to the Nationals play the Marlins. I’ve always been a Diamondbacks fan and I always will be, no matter how awful they’ve been, but as long as I’m here, I think it’s more than fair to support the local boys. (I bought a retro-styled Washington Senators baseball cap and an oversized Nationals spatula, so that makes me a real fan now, right?) And no matter who’s playing, any baseball is better than no baseball. (Unless it’s the Dodgers. Boo, Dodgers!) Go Nats!