When You’re Sitting Next to a President Chapter 2
My chicken phone clucked as I stepped from the US Capitol into the bright sunshine of a perfect summer evening.
On the line was Thomasz (Americanized to Thomas) Pompowski, and he told me he was a reporter for FAKT News, out of Warsaw, Poland.
I’m ADHD. The noise from the street, Thomas’ soft voice, and my cheap chicken clucking flip phone all combined to create a feeling I wasn’t hearing him correctly.
“We are sponsoring the visit of Lech Walesa, former President of Poland, and we need a photographer.” Thomas paused. That was the easy part. “But we need a photographer who can upload the photos as they’re taken, in full resolution, so we can publish them immediately in our newspaper. Our deadline is measured in minutes. Seconds, even.”
Growing up with my dad, who started Gatty Communications, and my mom — who founded the photo wing of that business that I was now working under — they had a rule. It was the golden rule, and it wasn’t “do unto others”. It was simple: Yes, you can do what the client is asking Yes, you know how. Yes, you have experience doing it. OF COURSE YOU DO. Get the job. Once you have the job, figure that **** out. There’s bills to pay.
And that’s how I faced Thomas. I wanted the job — it was exactly the type of assignment my mom and I dreamed of. We wanted to use the internet as a platform for live distribution of photos. We were close to figuring it out. Could we nail it down before Walesa’s visit?
“Of course I can do that, ” I told Thomas, “When is the visit?”
Sweat pooled under my arms. Suddenly the perfect summer evening seemed hot and oppressive. My heart raced.
Thomas booked the job, and the clock started a relentless tick.
Thinking about it, I did have everything I needed to pull the the job off. Almost. I already knew how to shoot clean, eliminating the need for post production in Photoshop. Flickr had become THE photo sharing platform, and I figured if I could upload the images to my Flickr feed, I’d be golden.
I spent a few nights working on a snippet of a program that would monitor photos from a designated folder on my computer and upload those images directly to my Flickr feed. I’d already purchased a transmitter that sent the photos from my camera to my computer. That transmitter created a folder on my computer to hold the images it sent. So…if the code monitored that image folder, and uploaded new pics to the Flickr feed, I’d have something no one else had: when I clicked a photo, it would upload to Flickr. Or at least upload when I had an internet connection.
I achieved Internet access by plugging the chicken phone into the the computer and using it as a modem. Something new — but available.
After a few days of tweaking the code, it worked perfectly. I was ready.
The day started outside the Polish Embassy, where Walesa met World War II Veterans. Then a motorcade took us to Congress, where the former president was received by US Senator Hillary Clinton. He made his rounds of important members of Congress, with me in tow, until finally motoring off to the White House for a face to face and press briefing with President George W. Bush.
As were were travelling from Capitol Hill to the White House, I was sandwiched in the black SUV between Walesa and his head of security. By sandwiched, I mean: My shoulder was hitting Walesa’s shoulder, and my opposite hip was digging into the head of security’s gun. I sat in the SUV, ramrod straight — and had been threatened by Thomas within an inch of my life to REMAIN SILENT.
I couldn’t remain silent. If you know me, you know that’s just impossible.
My mom had photographed Walesa when he came to visit George H. W. Bush when both were president of their countries. A photo she’d taken of Walesa hung directly inside her foyer. That’s all I could think of as I tried to keep my lips from moving.
My lips began to move.
“Mr. President,” they said, with a will of their own, “I just want to say: my mom photographed you when you were in office and visited Bush Senior. She has that photo hanging in her home. She adores you.”
Walesa turned a bit, and looked at me. An eyebrow raised. Pause.
Very long pause. I squirmed. The gun next to me dug into my hip. The head of security stared straight ahead, the SUV reflecting in his mirrored aviators. He did not smile.
More pause. Then:
“So, your mom is a photographer, too?”
“Yes, we work in the business together.”
“Really? Family is important. You’ve already met my son. It’s only family I really trust to have around me.”
“I’ve met your son?”
“Yes — you’re sitting next to him.” With that he laughed. And, he continued talking. He shared stories about his son, and the conversation — now with his son talking animatedly about being responsible for his well being — didn’t wrap until we were climbing out of the SUV and heading into the security check point for the White House. Then, we entered the Oval Office, me trying to be a fly on the wall, and Walesa shook George W. Bush’s hand. After a few moments, the Polish president said, “you know, I met your father when he was President.”
“Yes?” Bush said,
“Yes,” Walesa replied, “And this young man’s mother took our picture.”
With that, he pointed me out. I was speechless, for once in my life, and smiled shyly. The conversation continued, and I kept shooting.
The day finally wrapped when Walesa was interviewed on Fox News by Greta Van Susteren. As I drove home, after a twelve hour, stress filled day, my chicken phone pinged.
Thomas emailed me a photo of the front page of FAKT News. It showed the printed paper, and above the fold was the picture I’d taken of Clinton greeting Walesa in her office.
The paper was already heading to distribution. I’d just finished shooting, 4,450 miles away.
I’d never felt more proud. Or content. Or accomplished.
I also decided, right then, behind the wheel of my 1972 beater car: instant turn around of great photos was my niche. That’s how I’d differentiate our business from every other photography firm.
And, I thought, they’d never get me to shut up on a shoot. That head of security was smoking hot.
It was also, however, the very beginning of something else.
It was the start of becoming infamous with the entire Bush family. And the secret service.
…To be continued.