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|| News Item: Posted 2004-10-15

Olympic Hazing
By Ben Burgeson

Photo by Rick Rickman

Photo by Rick Rickman

Ben Burgeson in Athens.
I sprinted from my car to the mailbox drenched in anticipation. I threw open the lid of the box and fished through the usual sea of junk mail only to find what I had been waiting for since I picked up a camera in high school and decided I wanted to be a photographer. In my hand I held round trip tickets to Athens.

I was going to the Olympics to assist Rick Rickman and Newsweek magazine, and now it was more real than ever. I had the full support of family and friends, and all my limits were about to be tested unlike they ever had before. The 2004 Olympic Games in Athens would turn out to be the best and worst times in my life.

I arrived in Athens in what seemed like five days. I had to catch a taxi and meet up with Rick at the Hotel Pentelikon (where we would be staying). I found my way to the hotel and dropped my bags in the room that Rick and I would share for the next month.

My phone rang just as I closed the door to our room, it was Rick, he was in the lobby and wanted me to come down and meet him. I was so glad to hear his voice and so excited to get started I ran down the marble staircase and nearly ended my life on the way. Rick was standing in the lobby with Newsweek's photo editor Kelly Grant whom I had worked with before.

Rick and Kelly both greeted me very warmly and we went to have dinner. I found myself across the table from Newsweek staffers like Kelly and Mark Starr, and photo legends like Rick and Dave Black. I thanked Kelly for the dinner she had just paid for and she said, "My friend, this is for the things that you had no idea you would be doing for us later." They all chuckled, and I found myself a little nervous about what that meant.

The next day I was supposed to check in and get my credential. I got to the credentialing offices only to find that my name was not on any list whatsoever. After three days of only being able to get day passes into the MPC (Main Press Center) I finally got my credential. Although Rick was a little frustrated about my inability to help him at the pool where he was setting up an underwater camera he was glad that I was finally able to help in the way he needed me to, and so was I.

Rick was assigned to cover swimming that morning and as I walked behind him carrying the gear I had to hold back tears of joy and laughter because I was so excited to be where I was. Amidst my excitement I felt determined that I could complete the task given me no matter how complex or difficult. Later I would find that the basics would be the faltering point for my career as a photographer.

Photo by Ben Burgeson

Photo by Ben Burgeson

Ian Thorpe
I assisted for a couple sessions at the swimming complex for the next day and a half. My basic task list was to pack the gear, load it onto the cart, haul it over to wherever we were going, and either set up and fire remotes or follow Rick around the venue and switch out lenses when he needed. One afternoon, before we went to the swimming complex, as I packed the gear in the Newsweek office Rick said, "You wanna shoot tonight?" I nearly jumped through the roof when I heard him ask me, and he already knew the answer before I accepted. I brought a 400mm f/2.8, 80-200mm f/2.8, 17-35mm f/2.8, and 3 Nikon D2H cameras.

I was placed in photo position B that overlooked the pool and was about 10ft. above the pool deck. I sat at the starting block side. I was assigned to shoot the race between Phelps and Thorpe that night. Both of them had been doing well at this point and I knew it would be a close race. After about 3 heats it was time. I couldn't think. I was so nervous because if I messed this up I most likely wouldn't be able to shoot for the rest of the games.

Before I knew it, the race started. I had time since they would be swimming several laps. From the start of the race to the final turn I must have checked, changed, and adjusted my exposure 1,000 times. I was about to explode. I felt like I was going to vomit and I was sweating like I never had before. I pulled away from my camera and watched as they touched the wall and started the final half of the last lap. I remember thinking about all the sacrifices everyone at home made so I could be there, all the sacrifices and risks that Rick made, and how much it would disappoint all these people including Newsweek if I didn't pull through.

I took a deep breath and found somewhere inside me a calm and rational state of mind. As I watched Phelps through the viewfinder I dropped my exposure to make a motion pan and then brought it back up to freeze the water coursing over him as he almost hovered down the lane. I moved to Thorpe and made one image of him swimming. They touched and I turned my camera to make a vertical image of Thorpe's reaction (he beat Phelps).

Thorpe threw his fist and screamed in victory, and as I made the images of him doing so, I shared in his emotion because I too had made history that night, a piece of my own. The night was not over. Phelps and Thorpe were awarded their medals and I made an image of Phelps glaring at Thorpe as he played to the crowd, overcome with the smug feeling that I would guess winning a gold medal would induce. Rick reviewed my images and said that I had captured a true Olympic moment and that no one made that image as well as I did. That night would not be the last great moment I had, but it would get much worse in the coming days.

Rick and I covered everything. We worked an average of 20.2 hours a day and got about 3 hours of sleep or less every night. After the morning sessions we would rush back to the MPC and download cards, touch base with Newsweek, and pack up to leave for the evening session. Rick was making incredible images of Paul Hamm's comeback, Gail Dever's fall, Michael Phelps's continuous medal wins, and much more.

Photo by Ben Burgeson

Photo by Ben Burgeson

Michael Phelps, right, glares at Thorpe after Thorpe won the gold medal.
I was in awe watching these amazing professionals all around me. I was learning more than I ever had and really seeing the editorial process work as a machine. I understood that the photographer was one piece of the puzzle, and how a team functions. Newsweek felt like family to me. The atmosphere in that office was like any other present at the Olympics. Newsweek and NewSport had a great relationship and both had amazing photographers working to cover these games. I was in the midst of it all making images that were getting great reviews from the editors and from other photographers. It was the hardest work I had ever done and my payment was the knowledge and small personal successes I was having along the way.

One day Rick asked me to go to the track and set up the remotes at the finish line before he got there. I had done this many times before. I set up the cameras we would need and instead of paying attention to the task at hand, I focused on what I was going to shoot that night. We set up the remotes for the 400m finals. I finished with the remotes and went into the media room to get start sheets. The meet ran slowly that night for some reason and I was not feeling well at all.

I stood by Rick as the 400m runners prepared to start the race we were there to shoot. Rick asked me, "isn't this your race?" by the look on his face I knew he was already angry that I was not in place and hadn't been anticipating the start of the race. I ran to my post and pulled the Pocket Wizard out of my vest. As they crossed the line I held down the button to release our two cameras. Rick came up and put a firm hand on my shoulder and said, "That's why you gotta pay attention to your sheet!" I would later find that getting to my post late was the least of my problems. Rick went to check the cameras at the end of the day and I had forgotten to set the cameras to the correct exposure and turned the Pocket Wizards to the wrong channel.

The Americans had swept the medal stand that race and Newsweek would very possibly run a story on it. Rick would have to tell Kelly everything that happened and Rick's reputation with Newsweek would be tarnished for not completing his assignment. It was all my fault. I apologized to Rick all night but I knew it wasn't enough. I had totally screwed him over and was questioning myself to the point of doubt. Later that night Rick mentioned, as I got ready for bed, that he had talked to a Newsweek staff member about me doing better next time, and response was something to the affect of not having me back to the Olympics with Newsweek ever again.

Rick said, "Everyone loves you here, Ben, but the worst thing that can happen to a photographer is that everyone loves them but no one has any faith that they can get the job done. You're here to get the job done, and you didn't do it today." I had a hard time getting my 3 hours of sleep that night.

The next day we went back to the track early. Rick walked me through setting up remotes just like I had never done it before. I listened and took notes just like I always do when Rick talks. I sat in the Olympic Stadium all alone with one of the greatest photo minds out there; in a position people would kill to have, and in my heart for the first time, I doubted myself. I felt like I had ruined everything I had worked for up to this point.

I watched the Olympic flame burn and prayed. For the first time I had nothing inside to draw on for confidence, I needed someone to tell me I could do this, because I was having trouble convincing myself. I hid all of this inside as Rick coached me through and made it clear that last night could never happen again. We started back to the MPC and I said, "I think I'm gonna stay here for a minute. I'll catch up." Rick said OK and started up the steps. I went to the shooting well and sat down to try to pull myself together before tonight.

After about 2 minutes Rick came back down into the stadium and found me. It was so un-characteristic for Rick to say what he said to me then, that I couldn't decide if it was an answer to a prayer or if he just cared enough to tell me what I needed to hear. I think maybe both. He said, "You can do this, ya know. Your chances of overcoming how the folks at Newsweek view you are slim, but I have complete faith that you can do it. I'm hard on you because I know you're capable. You've just got to learn how to focus. I know you can do this, or I wouldn't have asked you to come here with me. It's a smart thing to get all your mistakes out of the way now so when you get to be my age you'll be perfect like I am."

We laughed and went back to the MPC for lunch. Everyday after that at the track I made no mistakes. I remember the next day Vince Laforet saying, "Are you alright dude? You just don't seem like you normally do." I said, "Thanks," and continued setting up the remotes.

Photo by Ben Burgeson

Photo by Ben Burgeson

Michael Phelps
I had about 5 days to go at the Olympics and was feeling better about myself everyday. I had made it through 10 days of Olympic coverage for Newsweek, lost my cell phone once and got it back, lost 10 lbs, dropped Rick's lens hood for his 400mm into the water at the triathlon and got it back, stayed up for 3 out of the 9 nights I was there, screwed up remotes and pissed Rick off (which is really hard to do), probably ended any working relationship with Newsweek, and I thought that would be enough.

I got an email from my girlfriend letting me know that she had to go to the emergency room. I got another email from her father letting me know that she had been admitted to the hospital and was in a critical state of having a blood clot in each of her lungs and that it could be fatal. I broke down at the desk in the Kodak Workstation. I made contact with the US and spoke to her mother who assured me that everything was going to be OK and that the worst thing for me to do was to come home. I spoke to my girlfriend and was again told that she would be fine. It turned out to be OK in the end and now she is fine. I can honestly say I know what real stress is about after these games.

I finished. The games were almost over and as I helped pack up the Newsweek office that had been my home for the past month I looked back on the 2004 Olympic Games in a positive way, feeling I had accomplished something big, and that I had made new friends and become closer with old friends. Not to mention I got some photos that I was really happy with.

It was the most intense learning experience I have ever had. And even if I knew what would happen before I left San Diego, I would still have gone because I learned the value of teamwork, how far I could push myself mentally and physically, the importance of creating photographs that no one else does, how to be in the right spot at the right time, how to make the wrong spot be the right one, and most importantly how to focus in times of extreme pressure.

I took a taxi back to our hotel with Kelly Grant (photo editor for Newsweek). We got into the elevator together as she had asked for my help getting some equipment into her room.

"Well," she said, "how was your first Olympics?" "Really?" I asked. She nodded and I said, "I feel like I let you guys down. I feel like I was more hurt than help some of the time." She said, "Are you kidding me? You were great! You helped the magazine and Rick out so much. Seriously, you should be very satisfied."

Later that night I told Rick what she had said and he told me that Kelly doesn't say things like that if she doesn't mean it. He also told me that I really turned things around and would probably be asked to help out with the Olympics again. I was floored. I can't begin to describe how I felt with words only that again I kind of felt like Ian Thorpe did that night he beat Phelps.

I've had many teachers and have found that what makes a good teacher or mentor good, is not the skill they have themselves, but the ability to instill a confidence that can only be given by a teacher or a mentor to a student. A confidence that helps one realize and validates potential. Rick and the team at Newsweek are all these types of teachers. My father always told me that there is something you can learn from everyone, and there is always the choice of a positive and productive perspective in every situation.

Every hour of sleep I missed, every dollar I am in debt, every cheese burger and beer I ran to get, every cab I called, every mistake I made, photo I took, and goal I met, was all worth it and has benefited me ten times over. I owe a debt of gratitude to Rick Rickman for giving me the chance of a lifetime and helping me through it, the Newsweek staff for welcoming me into this experience, to Dan Helms and NewSport for helping me get to the Olympics, and to all the members that have posted their photos and comments for students of the craft like myself that just want to get better.

(Ben Burgeson is a student in the San Diego area.)

Related Links:
Ben Burgeson's member page

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