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|| News Item: Posted 2008-12-02

Once a Photojournalist, Always a Photojournalist: Recording a Magical Moment
Matt Mendelsohn will always remember the special moment he documented on election night.

By Matt Mendelsohn

Photo by Matt Mendelsohn

Photo by Matt Mendelsohn

A group of people gather around a transistor radio at the Lincoln Memorial, and listen as President-elect Barack Obama makes his victory speech in Chicago. The time of the photograph is 12:10 a.m., 11/5/08.
As news photographers, we're taught early on to always be prepared for anything.

We check our cameras the night before a big game, we stash extra compact flash cards in the glove compartment for those what-if-a-plane-crashes-in-front-of-me moments (they never do), and we monitor CNN and all-news radio at the same time to stay up to date on breaking news. But nothing can quite prepare you for what happens when the most spontaneous, most profound and most exclusive news event of your career as a news photographer happens to come after that career is over.

I found myself in this odd position last month, on election night of all nights, and the experience continues to prove both magical and illuminating.

It was close to midnight on November 4th, the culmination of the most exciting presidential race since Dewey beat Truman, and I was sitting on the couch eating chips. Not exactly what I thought I'd be doing on an election night twenty-five years ago but I had years ago traded my lanyard of news credentials for the vendor meals and crazy mothers-of-the-bride that go with being a wedding photographer. This time around I was just a civilian, my cameras replaced by a small bowl of medium salsa, watching the events of the evening unfold just like all the other neighbors on my block.

I made my peace with this arrangement several years ago, or so I thought, arriving at my own truce between the importance of news photography and the relative financial security of wedding photography. An uneasy and fragile truce to be sure, but the years of regret and denial had finally subsided into a routine that I could live with. After all, I was finally in a growth industry (joking!), with all of my friends in newspapers calling me on a weekly basis asking for advice on parachute color. What had gone around was now coming around, and I was perched snuggly in my second career. I reached for another chip.

And that's when the tingling in my stomach started. Because the truth is that while credentials may expire over time, our love of news never does. As I watched Oprah waiting and Jesse Jackson crying and those tens of thousands of folks in Grant Park coming out the woodwork, something inside of me stirred. I looked at the clock and it read 11:40 p.m. I wasn't exactly sure what I could do or where I could go but it didn't really matter. "I'll be right back," I said to my wife, grabbing those long-expired credentials, and I was out the door.

As I sped down the empty streets of Arlington, VA my rusty news brain tried to get up to speed itself. I knew from watching CNN that the crowds were growing on Pennsylvania Ave. outside the White House. But something didn't feel right about going there. For one, I wasn't running out of my house close to midnight to go compete against current wire service shooters. Secondly, and stupidly enough, I was concerned about parking. And finally, and much more importantly, the White House didn't really strike me as symbolically pertinent to this story. The crowds may have been at the White House but the provenance was clearly a mile away.

On the night that America was electing its first black president, I steered my car to the only place that seemed fitting: the Lincoln Memorial and the site of Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech. And as I huffed and puffed in the rain towards those famous steps (some things never change about being a news photographer), I expected to see a crowd numbering in the thousands.

Or, maybe a group of 26 people.

It turns out, regular folks are a lot like the news media: they travel in packs. If their television sets tell them to go to the White House, that's where they'll go. So on this drizzly evening in Washington, one of the media centers of the world, I arrived at the plaza of the Lincoln Memorial, just as President-elect Obama was beginning his speech in Chicago, and found not much at all. I was puzzled. A television news crew sat on fold out chairs a few hundred feet from the memorial doing nothing and in the universal language of journalists, one of them looked at me and shook his head.

"Nothing to see here."

Photo by Matt Mendelsohn

Photo by Matt Mendelsohn
I knew what he meant. Though out of practice, I still spoke Journalese. But as I peered at the gigantic statue of Abraham Lincoln in the distance, I could make out something and it definitely didn't feel like nothing.

And as I got closer and closer, I knew immediately that TV news crew was missing something special. There, on the very spot that Martin Luther King had once stood, a group of twenty-six strangers stood gathered around a lone transistor radio. I thought I had taken a wrong turn on Independence Ave. and stumbled into 1963. You just don't see too many devices with long antennas these days. Some of these people had their arms around each other and others sniffled quietly. Though one could hear the enormous cheers of the assembled throngs at the White House wafting through the Mall, here on the Lincoln steps you couldn't hear a sound. It was absolutely silent, save for the voice of Barack Obama and those few sniffles.

Talk about left brain, right brain. As I stood there, taking only a few photos so as not to disturb the mood, part or me knew I was in the midst of something incredibly special--a profound news event with not a single member of the news media present. Well, I was there, of course, but something inside me told me to hold back, to go easy on the pictures. These twenty-six people had managed a coup of sorts and I didn't want to spoil it.

I instantly thought of my favorite movie, Local Hero, a great 1983 film about a Texas oilman who travels to a tiny village in northern Scotland intending to buy the town and turn it into an oil refinery. But the longer he stays, the more he knows he wants nothing to do with the idea. With this small group I felt less like a news photographer with an exclusive than a regular citizen wanting to be part of the moment. After more than two decades of dropping in on other people's events, I was oddly protective, thankful there was not a single boom mike hovering over the radio, a video light blinding the scene, or a reporter asking any questions. It was as pure a gathering as I've ever been a part of.

And then it was over. The twenty-six started to disperse and new folks starting climbing the steps, joyfully taking pictures and hugging each other. As photographers, we know when the moment is over, when that photo of two coaches shaking hands at midfield is utterly irrelevant, and I grabbed my gear and headed home. Unable to sleep, I went downstairs and wrote a little piece, which the New York Times ran on its op-ed page the day after the election. Though the photo was not much larger than a postage stamp, it clearly resonated enough that hundreds and hundreds of total strangers have written to me.

Just recently, I received this email from Justin Elliott:
"I am one of the folks in the photo - I am the bald guy sitting on the steps on the right-hand side of the photo at the base of the right column. I am wearing the black leather jacket looking away to the right.

It was such a special night that I never imagined would lead me there. My roommate and I had gone to an election night party and driven home to Alexandria. We were sitting at home, ready to go to bed, when it became official that Obama had won. We knew then that we HAD to go somewhere.

At first we thought to go to the town square in Old Town Alexandria since its right down the street. However as soon as we started driving we said no, we MUST to go to the Lincoln Memorial. When we arrived there was only a small group of folks, which surprised me. I was inside the Memorial reading the inscriptions on the wall when suddenly I heard Obama's voice giving his speech. That single instant still sends shivers up my spine.

It's really funny how people can converge to share a moment in time. Such an eclectic group of folks who, for whatever reason, had been drawn to go there. I still can't find words to explain it. But slowly, one by one, we sat down to listen. But I know it is a moment that each of us will remember forever - it truly was special."

I'm with Justin. Special.

(Matt Mendelsohn is a Washington, D.C. photographer who writes about photography on his blog, "The Dark Slide" He formerly worked as a staff photographer with UPI and as a picture editor at USA TODAY and USA Weekend. He owes all he knows about ordering Dim Sum to Robert Hanashiro and Ronal Taniwaki.)

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