Luke Sharrett is a Washington, D.C. based contract press photographer for the New York Times. He covers politics inside the beltway at the White House, Capitol Hill and wherever else the campaign trail takes him. When not photographing political events, he can be found eating cheesesteaks, doing pushups, and watching trains.
The big day started with a 4am wake up call. Because I was assigned to be in the White House travel pool on Inauguration Day, I got to sleep in. My co-workers at the New York Times had to be at the U.S. Capitol by four, thus dictating an even earlier wake up call. This was my first inauguration “inside the bubble,” but not my first altogether. In 2008 I road-tripped from Western Kentucky with friends and classmates from my photojournalism classes to cover President Barack Obama’s first inauguration. We awoke long before the crack of dawn and stuffed ourselves into overloaded subway cars like sardines. By the time we got to the National Mall we couldn’t get any closer to the Capitol than the Washington Monument.
Fearing another challenging commute into downtown, I hurriedly dressed, slung my gear over my shoulder, and set off for the nearest Metro stop inside the Beltway. Upon descending underground into the Metro system I was surprised to see a nearly completely empty Metro train pull into the station. Metro was running trains every two minutes, but because of a much smaller than expected turnout, they were largely empty. It was a stark contrast compared to four years ago when millions descended on the Washington area, stretching its infrastructure to the breaking point.
I arrived downtown in less time than the same commute requires at rush hour. My next goal was to navigate a number of security checkpoints that ringed the White House in concentric circles. With a lanyard ladened with a sickening number of credentials, I passed through what seemed like countless concrete barriers, road blocks, security checkpoints manned by city cops and Secret Service agents. After an EOD sweep and one last trip through the magnetometers, I was finally where I needed to be to cover the days festivities.
My editor at The New York Times had asked me to stick with President Obama throughout the whole day. Our first event was a photo spray of The President and his family arriving for a church service at St John’s, an Episcopal Church one block North of the White House on Lafayette Park. As I waited with other photojournalists I photographed cabinet secretaries and other important folks arriving through the side door for the service. While not a spectacular photo-op by any measure, this was the world’s first chance to see who First Lady Michelle Obama was wearing. Speedily transmitting the photos was of the essence, as fashionistas and industry bloggers the world round waited breathlessly for photos.
After church we returned to the White House and formed up with the motorcade to travel to the Hill for a re-enactment swearing-in on the West front of the U.S. Capitol. Military personnel stood at attention saluting along the parade route as we traveled down Pennsylvania Avenue to the Capitol. During the re-enactment swearing-in the White House travel pool held in a Senate hearing room and watched a television feed of the ceremony in real time.
Next the still photographers bundled up and loaded onto flatbed photo trucks from which we would cover the Inaugural parade. There were three trucks (TV, pooled stills, and unilateral stills) that would “dance” and jockey for position in front of the Presidential Limousine for the duration of the parade. No news event in Washington would be complete without a few hours of waiting around in the cold, so we occupied the time with much Instagramming and story sharing. The parade started over an hour late, allowing for nice golden light to break through the clouds and dot the parade route. The highlight of the parade is when The President and First Lady emerge from their limousine and walk a block or two waving to the ecstatic crowds who line Pennsylvania Avenue. All you can do is be prepared and hope the show isn’t blocked by other photo trucks, Secret Service Agents, or government photographers. While we were blocked by any combination of the three, there were thankfully a few moments for us to make semi-clean frames of the First Couple’s walk.
Upon reaching the White House, the photo trucks disbanded and I made my way to the parade media stand in Lafayette Park in front of the White House. From there I transmitted my best photos from the photo truck and tried to keep an eye out for any interesting pictures happening in front of me as the parade meandered by. President Obama, Vice President Biden, and their families watched from a posh reviewing stand enclosed by ballistic glass directly across Pennsylvania Avenue from us. Near the end of the parade I walked to the New York Times DC Bureau and changed into a dark suit to cover The Inaugural Ball that evening.
Once again we loaded the motorcade, this time traveling to the Washington Convention Center for the Inaugural Balls. We held in the buffer for performances by Brad Paisley and the band Fun as we waited for the Inaugural dance between POTUS and FLOTUS. Finally they emerged onto an ornate set and slow danced as Jennifer Hudson sang “Let’s Stay Together” by Al Green. After the First Couple left we scrambled back to the motorcade and I transmitted in hopes of making the late edition of the paper. We got back to the White House around 10:30 and were finally finished for the day.
To end the day right I met up with my wonderful girlfriend and my super-talented New York Times colleagues for a late late dinner and a beer. I couldn’t have asked for a better way to finish my year as a contract photographer for the NYT than to have a front seat to history with a camera in hand. I’m now back at Western Kentucky University finishing my last undergrad semester, but am so grateful for the love and opportunities afforded to me by mentors Doug Mills and Stephen Crowley and all the photo editors in New York. You guys and gals are the best of the best. Thank you for affording the opportunity of a lifetime to someone who never deserved it in the first place.