The lows of the well

Washington -- Every time I get this assignment, I get a knot in my stomach. Ugh. Not this again. I call it the lowest form of photography. You are shooting people who are sitting right in front of you. There is no action, nothing interesting. So you’re constantly desperate to find something different. On the other hand, when you do, it’s always such a high because it’s just so rare.

Welcome to photographing hearings on Capitol Hill. As news events, these meetings can be very important -- these are people who have come to testify before Congress on various issues. Think Hillary Clinton, former FBI chief James Comey. So these are photographs that everyone wants and needs.

But from a photographer's point of view, it’s not exactly exciting. When your editor tells you you’re going there, you kind of slump. I’ve been photographing these events for 12 years and that’s how I’ve felt every single time.

Oh no, another well assignment? Then US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton tesitifes before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, December, 2009. (AFP / Jim Watson)

You see, for a photographer, this is a deathly boring assignment. You shoot from what is called a well -- the floor in front of the table where the witnesses sit. You’re squished in there with a dozen or so of your colleagues, all trying to get a shot. Every picture possible has been shot there before.

The stock shot you must get. Former acting Attorney General Sally Yates (R) and former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper (L) are sworn in prior to testifying on May 8, 2017, before the US Senate Judiciary Committee. (AFP / Jim Watson)

Being a photographer for a news agency like AFP presents its own challenges. We absolutely positively have to get a center position at the hearing so that we can have a picture of the witness arriving and if possible being sworn in.

That means we have to arrive at least an hour before the hearing starts to claim the coveted spot. With so many photographers covering the Hill nowadays, it seems we have to get there earlier and earlier. It’s gotten so bad that sometimes the hearing room isn’t even open yet and we’re jostling with each other in line at the door. Once you get in and claim your territory, you spend the next hour or hour and a half just waiting before the hearing actually starts. You talk with colleagues, but it just adds to what is already a long and boring day.

So you really try to think outside the box. You look for something different. Every once in awhile you can get a different angle, or a different moment. And when you get it, you get very excited about it. Because it just doesn’t happen very often.

The first thing you do in any well assignment is to get the bread and butter photos. The standard ones that everyone is expecting. Once you have those, you usually crawl out to file them and come back, to fill in any holes and to look for different angles. The logistics of it all are quite comical in and of themselves. You can’t stand up, so you’re literally crawling around on your hands and knees, pushing your cameras and equipment in front of you.

Try getting an original photo from there. Photographers jostle for position in a tiny space as Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein (C) arrives to testify before a Senate investigative committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, April 27, 2010. (AFP / Jim Watson)

Invariably you always miss something. When you leave to file your pictures, something happens. And sometimes, the opposite -- your colleagues leave and you’re the one who stays and gets the good stuff. That happened to me a few weeks ago, when I was shooting Comey. Everyone left to file after getting the first photos. But my editor and I had decided that I would transmit from my camera, so I stayed behind. And Comey happened to have gotten emotional just at that time, he was fuming about the Clinton emails. So I had lots of great pictures.

FBI Director James Comey gets animated as he testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, May 3, 2017. (AFP / Jim Watson)

Sometimes you can sit there for an hour and not take a single photo. Sometimes the witness is just not a very animated person, so there are no good photos to be had. Sally Yates, the former acting attorney general whom Trump fired for refusing to enforce his controversial travel ban, was like that. She was very difficult to shoot because she was very composed and not very emotional. Which may have made for great news as she coolly parried criticism from senators. But for me it was the same picture, one after another.

What may be big news doesn’t always result in a big news photo. I did manage to get one of my favorite ‘offbeat’ photos during her testimony. Though it wasn’t of her, but of former director of national intelligence James Clapper. He was testifying along with Sally Yates and the committee kept asking him questions that he could not answer in public because the information was classified. And he was getting tired of the same questions over and over again and this photo just illustrates that frustration so well.

Former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper listens during testimony on May 8, 2017, before the US Senate Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. (AFP / Jim Watson)

I've had plenty of other offbeats over the years. Here are some of my other favorites:

Here, I was trying to get something different from an ordinary hearing, with then US Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner testifying. I remember getting low in the well and waiting for Geithner to look up. He appeared to me as if he was looking up at the committee saying he had no idea what would happen if the budget was approved, but he needed the money and they controlled its release and it made him angry to have to ask for it.

US Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner testifies before the House Budget Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, February 16, 2011. (AFP / Jim Watson)

I like this one because then FBI Director Robert Mueller looks like he's had just about as many questions as he could stand from the oversight committee. While this may not be the most amazing photo that I've ever taken, this type of shot cuts through the monotony of the assignment and provides context to the story of the day.

Federal Bureau of Investigation Director Robert Mueller takes questions during a full oversight committee hearing on Capitol Hill 02 May 2006 in Washington, DC. (AFP / Jim Watson)

This is then US Secretary of State John Kerry arriving to address the House Foreign Relations Committee and being confronted by protesters ahead of the hearing, to debate authorization of the use of force against Syria following the government's alleged use of chemical weapons. I remember being excited that something out of the ordinary was happening at the hearing and how Kerry was reacting to the confrontation. 

US Secretary of State John Kerry arrives to address the House Foreign Affairs Committee and is confronted by protesters from Code Pink on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, September 4, 2013. (AFP / Jim Watson)

This photo was taken just before then FBI director James Comey was sworn in. I like it because he just looked like 'I'm here and I mean business' and I like the way that it's balanced. It was just a few days before President Donald Trump fired him.

FBI Director James Comey prepares to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, May 3, 2017. (AFP / Jim Watson)

This was another instance of a normal (read boring) hearing getting some color. Literally. This is former secretary of state Henry Kissinger testifying and being confronted by protesters over his actions while the US top diplomat.

A CodePink demonstrator holds up bloody hands and hand cuffs calling former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger (L) a war criminal as he speaks during a US Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on Global Challenges and the US National Security Strategy on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, January 29, 2015 (AFP / Jim Watson)

This was a nice catch as I arrived to an empty committee room to find only the stenographer who obviously hadn't been told that the hearing had been cancelled, after Senate Democrats boycotted the proceedings. I just really like the shot because it tells the news of the cancelled hearing, with the guy not understanding if he was in the wrong place or not.

Empty seats in the Senate Finance Committee hearing room on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, January 31, 2017, after Senate democrats boycotted the markup hearings for the nominations of Steven T. Mnuchin, of California, to be Secretary of the Treasury, and Thomas Price, of Georgia, to be Secretary of Health and Human Services. (AFP / Jim Watson)

Aside from hearings, another really, really boring assignment on the Hill is this. After the elections, all newly elected congressmen have a mock swearing in and have their picture taken with the Speaker of the House. It is an incredibly long day as they are ushered in and then pose, and we snap photos along with the official Capitol Hill photographer. It's like a conveyor belt -- politician comes in, picture taken, next one is shown in.  It is monotonous, and seems like there is no end in sight. This was just a nice, funny moment that broke up a really boring day. Here the daughter of Congressman Kevin Yoder (with his hand up) pulls a blanket over her head during the swearing-in.

Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (L), R-Wisconsin, points at Caroline Yoder (2nd L), the daughter of US Congressman Kevin Yoder (C), who covered her head with a blanket during pictures of her father's mock swearing in, with his wife Brooke Yoder (R) and their other daughter Eloise Yoder (2nd R)on January 3, 2017 on Capitol Hill in Washington,DC. (AFP / Jim Watson)

This was a nice funny photo. It's FBI Acting Director Richard Burr, pulling out his Top Secret files at the start of a hearing, just a few days after he was named to replace fired chief James Comey. And the other top intelligence officials are laughing at him because he is being hounded by photographers. It was a light moment that also illustrated the news. Everyone was shocked by the Comey firing and yet these top intelligence officials found it funny that we were taking his photo rather than theirs, especially since the director of National Intelligence and the head of the CIA were there, and they are rarely seen in public.

Chairman Richard Burr (2nd L), R-NC, Central Intelligence Agency Director Mike Pompeo (C), Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats (2nd R) and National Security Agency Director Adm. Mike Rogers (R) watch as Acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe (L) arrives to testify before the Senate Intelligence Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, May 11, 2017. (AFP / Jim Watson)

This was another different one. Then Defense Secretary Robert Gates had his arm in a sling after falling on ice. How often do you see a man testifying before Congress half in and half out of his suit? It just looked weird, but I guess protocol dictated that the secretary still had to be in a suit, broken arm or not.

US Defense Secretary Robert Gates testifies before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, January 27, 2009. (AFP / Jim Watson)

This was a truly touching and emotive moment. Ahead of a hearing on the people who died because of faulty ignition switches in GM cars, family members arrived to put up pictures of their lost loved ones. It made for quite a change from an ordinary hearing, where the crowd is usually tourists or people concerned with a particular issue, but rarely to an extent that these people were.

Family members place the pictures of Richard Bailey (L), Sarah Trautwein (2nd L), Joshua Wooten (R), as well as other victims of the car accidents, on the committee wall as General Motors CEO Mary Barra testifies before the House Energy and Commerce Committee for a hearing on the GM ignition switch recall on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, April 1, 2014. (AFP / Jim Watson)

I like this photo because then US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on "Evaluating Goals and Progress in Afghanistan and Pakistan” and in this photo, she looks so alone, like she is defending herself at a trial.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (C) testifies before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Evaluating Goals and Progress in Afghanistan and Pakistan on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, June 23, 2011. (AFP / Jim Watson)

Even when you do manage to get a nice shot, you still are so happy to leave. Then you can roam the Capitol and look for nice, offbeat shots. Like a difficult camel.

An annual event on Capitol Hill is the live Nativity scene put on by a faith group. It can get as repetitive as a hearing. But as I was lining up the photo on this one, the camel decided he wasn't going to participate in the parade. It made an okay photo great as it provided some color to an otherwise boring day.

Kara Iden(R), a member of Faith and Action in the Nations Capital, tugs at an uncooperative camel as she and others participate in a Live Nativity on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, December 3, 2013. (AFP / Jim Watson)

This blog was written with Yana Dlugy in Paris.

Jim Watson