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The Free Lance-Star Photography Department shares the stories behind the photos.

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You call this glamorous?

I often hear my job described by acquaintances as glamorous. There are times when I have the opportunity to photograph events that are of national significance and that’s where the glamour perception comes in. But this common perception is quite skewed. In September I photographed a McCain/Palin rally in Fairfax and the following day I covered the dedication of the Pentagon Memorial on Sept. 11. Folks (non journalists) who heard about that experience told me they’d love to have my job. If they only knew.

I had to be at Van Dyck Park in Fairfax City by 7a.m. for the McCain/Palin event. They were scheduled to speak at 11 a.m. I am not a morning person… at all. Traffic was incredibly heavy and incredibly slow due to the thousands of supporters who descended on the park. Despite allowing myself 90 minutes to get there from my Woodbridge home, it started to seem like I might not make it in time. There was a parking lot reserved for the media, but no one seemed to know where it was. A police officer finally directed me to a lot that was blocked, unintentionally, by hundreds of McCain/Palin supporters. Stress was setting in, way in. The officer was nice enough to part the sea of supporters and I slowly eased my car through the throng.

Then there was security. Let’s just say the security check was very thorough.

After that it was nearly five hours of standing on a riser elbow to elbow with other photographers and videographers. No food or water (or coffee) was allowed in the event and a bathroom break was out of the question. My spot on the filled to capacity riser would’ve been gobbled up by another photographer. One who probably got there later than me. So I shot crowd pictures to keep my mind off, uh, things.

When the candidates finally took the stage I couldn’t see McCain. McCain stood to the right of Palin I was stage left. Folks back at the office would be very… let’s say, disappointed if I didn’t have McCain in my frame. So now the stress factor really kicks in. Luckily McCain moved and I was able to frame them together.

The 9-11 event at the Pentagon was similar. Print media was to arrive by 6 a.m. Me and multimedia editor Becky Sell settled the anticipated parking problem by hopping on the Metro in Springfield. It would’ve been a better plan without the 400-millimeter lens (heavy), two camera bodies and lots of lenses (heavy). That was just me. Becky had to lug the big video camera bag and a cumbersome tripod (extra heavy).

Once we got through security we were led to the spot we could shoot from. And we waited. Again no food or water (or coffee) allowed, just waiting. While waiting it hits me. If the crowd stands during the ceremony all we’ll see is the back of heads. Once again the stress factor kicks in. The office wants strong, compelling photos and backs and bald spots won’t yield that. Shortly before President Bush arrived the presidential podium was placed in front of a press riser directly in our line of sight. We weren’t going to get a clean view of the president and there was nothing we could do about it. Stress, stress, stress.

We weren’t given access to the memorial during the dedication ceremony out of respect for family members of the victims. We would need to return at seven that evening for the official public opening to get our pictures and video of the memorial itself. The emotional aspect of the day had already taken place. Families saw benches with the names of their loved ones while we were held back. The compelling moments that would make compelling photos were gone. Photographing the general public viewing the memorial was akin to photographing folks in an art gallery. The office was expecting compelling, emotional photographs, but it just wasn’t happening.

When all was said and done I worked a 16-hour day. Becky’s day was much longer because she had to produce a video of the event for the next day.

Now I’m not complaining. This isn’t a rant. It’s just a clarification. I do enjoy the opportunity to see, firsthand, these high profile events, but there is nothing glamorous in covering them.

- Peter Cihelka

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