Saving the shot
New York City -- When I learned that the stage at Hillary Clinton’s election night party was shaped like the United States I rubbed my hands in anticipation. That was going to be THE shot that I got on election night -- a beautiful shot from above a mini US of its first-ever woman president-elect.
I had spent the last days of the campaign covering Hillary as she raced around the country. With polls showing she was in the lead, the mood around her campaign was festive. I took pictures of her with First Lady Michelle Obama and the energy was palpable in the presence of these two powerful women.
I took a picture of her taking a selfie with singer Pharrell Williams.
The whole campaign had a celebratory feel. During Halloween, she was fooling around, trying on a mask with a staffer on her campaign plane and the campaign photographer was blocking the view for us, the news photographers in the back. We yelled for her to move and just as she did, Hillary burst into laughter. She seemed to really enjoy that moment.
Hillary talks with her eyes, she makes a lot of faces, so she’s fun to photograph.
The happy atmosphere extended to my house, where my six-year-old daughter Ayaan was very excited to have the first “girl president.”
The day before the election, I showed up at 7 am at New York City’s Jacob K. Javits Convention Center to set up my remote cameras. I donned a harness and a helmet and climbed to a thin catwalk near the ceiling. There, I carefully attached one of my Nikons with a “clamp” to a railing, connected it to a network wire, attached the safety and tested it again and again and again.
I wasn’t alone -- there were photographers from AP, Reuters, the New York Times, Getty Images doing the same thing. We spent the entire day, carefully installing our cameras and testing them for the big moment.
The next day we came back and spent hours testing everything again. It is every photographer’s nightmare when your equipment malfunctions. And you really don’t want it to malfunction on the world’s biggest story, when history is being made.
Then we left and returned in the late afternoon, to take our assigned spots. AFP had five photographers at the center that night and my spot was on the main riser -- a platform above the crowd, right in front of the stage.
The gates were opened around 6:30 pm and Hillary supporters poured in. They were all happy, smiling, cheering, singing. They were ready for a party.
Some donned boxing gloves.
Some chanted “Madam President!” All I could think about was my remote camera way up above the crowd. When would I begin to take shots on it, sending the pictures directly to a photo editor on the desk in Washington, who would then edit them and send them to clients? When they just release the confetti that was prepared? Would I be able to get a shot of her all by herself? Or with Bill and his unmistakable white mane?
Because of my vantage point, I mostly saw the backs of the supporters, but it was easy to feel their energy. When you’re at a public event, if there is genuine energy, it’s palpable. As the night wore on, however, and the results began to be announced, that energy ebbed away.
When results from swing state Florida dropped, the party was over. The supporters realized that the party was going to be elsewhere that night. So did we, the photographers.
My thinking switched -- instead of my beautiful, confetti-filled victory shot, I would capture the despair as Hillary walked off that US-shaped stage after her concession speech.
Then her campaign manager walked out around 1 am and told supporters to go home, meaning Hillary would not be appearing that evening. No Hillary-walking-off shot.
The supporters that were dancing and singing a few hours ago were now openly weeping and the energy that filled that center was gone, filled by despair. Including in the photographers’ lair. “Two days spent putting up those cameras,” one colleague muttered, only half joking. “What a waste of time.”
I’m not wasting two days of work, I thought to myself. I may not have Hillary, but I’m going to get my walking-off-the-stage-in-dejection shot. I waited until I saw a guy doing just that and set off the remote camera up above.
I left the center around 3 am and went home for a few hours. I was woken up around 7 am by a phone call - a colleague telling me Hillary would give a concession speech at a hotel.
I took a shower and headed to the Wyndham New Yorker Hotel and waited for two hours to get in. It was a much smaller event, with the room filled with mostly campaign staff. When Hillary came out, I was looking for a dejection shot. But for once, the woman who talks with her eyes didn’t make too many faces. I managed to get a few.
And then the speech was over and she left the stage and I got the walking off shot. It wasn’t from a US-shaped stage, but in front of US flags.
When I finally got home that day, my six-year-old Ayaan was waiting for me.
“Why didn’t Hillary win?” she demanded. “Why do only boys get to be president?”
“I don’t know,” I said.
“If Hillary didn’t win, then when I grow up, I’m going to be the first woman president.”
This blog was written with Yana Dlugy in Paris.