The Inauguration of Barack Obama

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A couple of weeks ago, I got a surprise call from Senator Webb’s office asking if I wished to attend Obama’s inauguration in Washington, DC. Are you kidding!? I’d barely hung up the phone before I was renting lenses and starting to plan the trip.

Within the next hour, luck struck twice when a close friend’s sister that lives on Capitol Hill loaned me her apartment for the duration. That put me about three blocks from the Capitol steps (the site of the ceremony) AND the ability to drive since I could park my car there in her neighborhood. I tend to prefer the train to DC, but this allowed me to keep my own schedule and, better yet, take as much gear and crap with me as I thought I might need.

As far as lens rentals go, I snagged two lenses that seemed a good fit for the various possibilities. The first is a Canon 70-200 f/2.8L IS – a lens I have coveted for ages and plan to buy (AFTER I get a 5D Mark II body). Knowing there could well be some serious distance to cover, I also grabbed a Canon 100-400 f/4-5.6L IS, the first push/pull lens I’ve used. Both were superb and, ultimately, fit the bill perfectly in harmony with the Canon 24-70 f/2.8L that I already own. Security prohibited me from carrying any “large” camera bags, but one of the lens bags that came with the rentals had a neck strap and was within size requirements. Therefore, I carried two bodies and lenses on shoulder straps and a third lens in that bag around my neck so I would have the option to swap off when needed.

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The weather was bitter cold (as is so often the case in January in DC), so I crowdsourced a bit among my Twitter compatriots and assembled a great series of suggestions for winter weather gear. A few hundred dollars (ouch) later, I was ready to go with a new wind/waterproof Columbia jacket with removable fleece liner, uber-warm socks, a nice Thinsulate stocking cap/beanie, Manzella Cascade Convertible mittens/gloves where the mitten end flips open to reveal exposed fingertips, and a set of high-tech “long underwear” (for lack of a better description) made by Under Armour. Special attention is to be paid here to the gloves that are ideal for photographers. My hands stayed toasty warm with the mitten ends closed (mittens beat gloves for overall finger warmth), but with a flick I could have my fingertips ready for working the buttons on the camera.

The Under Armour was… interesting. Dignity goes right out the window when a non-athletic guy like me crams himself into a pair of these things. I began referring to it as my “Super Suit” in honor of The Incredibles. This Teaser Trailer immediately came to mind. Maybe not that bad… but I did feel like a human sausage. Fortunately, they go UNDER one’s clothes and not even my wife has seen me in them in “raw form”. All of that said, they quite literally kept me from freezing during Inauguration as well as utterly eliminating that horrid “freezing while sweating in your coat” situation one so often encounters in the dead of winter. I’m impressed… albeit compressed… while wearing them. 🙂

After arriving in DC on Monday, I spent the evening scoping things out and getting a sense of how everything was laid out for the big day. Light was fading fast by the time I was out and about, so most of my first shots here are evening and night shots of the Capitol building. The mood around the area was already like a gigantic block party, though, with happy and excited people literally everywhere. The capitol lawn was crawling with folks wanting to see as much up close as possible before the major security wall came down on Tuesday morning.

Monday night was also special because I finally got a chance to meet Steve Simon, co-panelist on TWiP and tremendous pro photographer, in person. As coincidence would have it, the accommodations he arranged via Craigslist somewhat at the last minute were approximately two blocks from the apartment I was using. A mere block walk for both of us brought us to a decent coffee shop in the middle, a chance to chat, and a walk around the capitol grounds to see the preparations. I shared what I knew of the layout, security, etc., for Tuesday with Steve. We were ticketed to be in different parts of the capitol grounds the next day and, with millions of people attending, figured this would likely be our only chance to hang out.

I started Tuesday morning at 5 AM, grabbing a quick take-out breakfast from a local diner and returning to the apartment to eat and pack gear. I was out in the crowds before 6 AM and making my way to my ticket gate. Thus began what I refer to now as “the death march”. The next five hours were spent in an ever-increasing mob packing itself into an ever-decreasing space. By 10 AM I was crammed into a barricaded intersection with people packed so tightly that I couldn’t raise my arms or even dig my iPhone out of my pocket. I spent much of it with my cameras and long lenses clutched to my body while I was swept along with the crowd if it moved. Granted, movement was rare andnever exceeded five steps in any direction. As the ceremony time approached, the crowd started to get a bit of a cranky mob mentality and I seriously started to wonder if I might end up in a riot or stampede. A lot has been discussed about this breakdown in security and crowd management, especially for Purple Ticket holders.

Fortunately, I did make it through just a bit before the ceremony started and, ultimately, ended up on the back of the capitol lawn. While not close enough for tight shots of the platform – even with the 400mm lens – I was able to witness history firsthand rather than via Jumbotron. Any group of strangers you stood with for even a few minutes turned into a temporary group of old friends. This was most evident to me when a group of about six of us immediately fell into happy conversation and, at the close of the oath, were all tearfully hugging one another. Nobody ever got around to asking names and, I suspect, none of us will ever see each other again… but we sure were happy to be together “again” for that hour or so. 🙂

I grabbed quite a few shots of people in my vicinity and their various emotions. There are a few shots of the ceremony itself but, as I said, they are somewhat distant. Upon leaving the ceremony and heading back to the apartment to rest for a few and eat, I managed to stumble on the other event I had hoped against hope I’d witness: Bush gettin’ the hell outta Dodge on Marine One. As I came around the back of the capitol, the event was already starting and I arrived in time to get – again, distant – shots of the Obamas and Bidens escorting the Bush’s to the helicopter as well as the wave from the stairs as the helicopter, thankfully, took one of the worst presidents in US history out of our collective lives. See ya.

After a brief stop to download shots and actually bend at the knees into a sitting position for a few minutes, I bundled back up and headed out in search of some parade-related activities. The parade route itself was going to be a bit of a hike and I’d heard it was already essentially closed after filling up (or at least being locked down) by about 8 AM that morning. My assumption, though, was that Obama’s motorcade had to leave from the capitol to start the parade, so I hung around by the barriers there and was rewarded with a nice presidential and VP limo drive-by. People already lined the barricade, so I had to shoot over their heads to get anything… but it was my first time seeing a presidential motorcade and the car they now call “The Beast”.

I had originally planned to stay Tuesday night, but I was exhausted by this point and decided against breaking up my next day with driving. I packed and headed out of the city by about 6:30 PM on streets with little to no traffic. This seemed great at first until I realized the city had been chopped into a million pieces with police road blocks and barriers. Ten official Inaugural Balls meant the motorcade was going to be zipping around quite a bit and security didn’t want anything or anyone slowing it down. I spent well over an hour winding around the streets of DC with my GPS trying to find a way to get far enough past the lockdown to reach I-66. I witnessed some of the most bizarre, mid-intersection barrier arrangements I’ve ever seen and my main memory is that the city was either flashing blue lights, glowing red flares or some combination of the two. It was like some kind of scifi escape scene from a movie.

All in all, I had a tremendous, albeit exhausting, time and am thrilled to have been able to witness this historical event firsthand. I have a few shots I really like and quite a few that are just taking up disk space. They are all geotagged and appear here, as usual, in both HTML gallery and slideshow form. Also, for the sake of experimentation, I’m placing them on my account as well. I have a set on Flickr, too, mostly to use their nice Map View for my geotags. Lastly, I’m putting up a Google Earth map with my GPS geologger data overlaid.
UPDATE: Oh, and one relevant bit of audio in closing: Super Suit! 🙂

– Aaron

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4 Responses to “The Inauguration of Barack Obama”

  1. Gregg Obst says:

    Aaron, great work covering the inauguration. All the photos are great but the image labeled “20090120-_MG_8782” belongs on the cover of Time or Newsweek. That image reaches out to me in a way that no other photo from the Inauguration has. Well done sir.

  2. Aaron says:

    Thanks so much, Greg! That shot is one of my personal favorites as well. 🙂

  3. Shane LaFever says:

    Nice work.

  4. Truly, a great job capturing the events of the day. I especially enjoyed the crowd shots and those showing the people working hard to make sure everything went smoothly.