I Shot the President(s) Pt. 2
Pt. 2 of my first assignment for AP
We got as much sleep as we could, but Mali is a hard place to sleep during the day. Between the sounds of traffic, construction, and the school alarm playing Fure Elise every hour, I don’t know why we bothered.
Bleary-eyed and tired, we gathered our things and headed to the airport around noon. Instead of taking a taxi we hired 2 Power Ks ‘to shuttle us around the city that day. They’re slower than cars, but more nimble and can get through traffic jams easier. Plus, mine was driven by the brother of the guy who taught me Bambara, so it was a nice to keep the business ‘in-the-family’ so to speak.
We arrived at the airport with over an hour to spare, and were immediately informed the Presidents’ plane would be arriving half an hour late. We began waiting in the shade as other journalists began to trickle in. Eric Feferberg showed up, fresh from Gao the night before. Eric is big name in the news-photography game, and was without a doubt the most senior photographer there. It was equal parts intimidating and encouraging to be shooting next so someone on his level.
With time to kill we wandered down the tarmac to a Dutch military cargo plane that was being unloaded on the tarmac. I don’t know what kind of plane it was, but there was a jeep driving out the back of it, so I was impressed. Plus, it had a rubber duck in the window:
Then this thing shows up:
That’s a big airplane. It’s is one of the 2 (now 1) C-17 Globemasters currently operating in Mali. It’s American, based out of McChord Field, in Washington. The Dutch plane was unloading jeeps; this monster was unloading tanks and big-rigs.
On a whim I introduced myself to the crew. They were surprisingly welcoming, and excited to meet an American among the sea of european journalists. We took pictures as they offloaded the plane, and once they were done the crew were happy to let us inside. The cockpit is ridiculous.
After wasting some time there, we wandered back over to the red carpet. Before long the Presidents’ plane landed and taxied up to the red carpet, the chaos that ensued was pandemonium: more fit for a paparazzi mob than a bunch of press photographers. Had it been just the larger wire-outlets, I think it would have been somewhat civil, but the Malian media has no sense whatsoever of how to act professional in a situation like this. In that situation rules=out the window. If you’re the only photographer without a photo, you’re screwed.
It immediately devolved into shoving past other photographers and and throwing yourself into walls of security guards. Thankfully, in the madness, I managed to get a solid photo of the presidents side by side on the runway (first photo), and AP bought it. The rest of my images from the walkway looked something like this (which I like more than the one AP):
All in all, the walk lasted around 60 seconds. It was over in the blink of an eye. The presidents were led straight into their cars and whisked away to a press conference. I took a gamble and decided to file my photos early, guessing nobody would care about pictures of a press conference. They would want photos of the Presidents arriving right away, and they’d want photos of the speech at Independence Plaza later. So we jogged out to the edge of the airport, hopped onto our motos and sped off. It was a lot of fun, zipping through traffic on a Power-K (an experience verboten to a Peace Corps Volunteer) in a rush to file photos on time. The gamble paid off, and AP ran a photo right away.
After filing, we headed to Monument de L’independance. We were there a few hours early, and managed to talk our way through security to the front of the speaking podium. We thought we were pretty slick, but the end result was we ended up baking in the sun for 2 hours before a million other press photographers showed up and tried to sit in front of us. The majority of which were Malians wielding handycams and cell phones. It went from this:
in a matter of seconds. Eventually, thankfully, security had enough and cleared away the crowd. They recognized us from earlier and allowed us to keep out spots (being able to yell at security in Bambara has its perks, I guess). I got some pretty solid frames, including a few that made it up on AP’s The Big Story. This one ran everywhere:
After the speech, Hollande did a walk-around on the way to his motorcade, and the Malians went insane. The party went on long after he left. I have some video of the streets afterwards, which I’ll put up at some point in the future. We repeated the filing process from the afternoon: jog to our waiting motos, zip over to a hotel with good wifi, file as fast as possible. When all was said and done we were exhausted, sunburned, dehydrated, and extremely satisfied. Most of all was a feeling of relief. My first assignment for associated press had been high-profile and time-sensitive, and I’d pulled it off. The photos weren’t award-winning, but they were on par with anyone anyone else had produced. If one thing was in-order, it was a cold beer.
George and I met up Exodus, a bar in the hippodrome, to drink some beer and watch the end of the African Cup of Nation’s Quarterfinals. The bar was quiet– us and five other Malians drinking beer around a tiny T.V. Mali won in penalty kicks, and we settled our tab and walked out. The street that leads to exodus is quiet, and the moment we stepped out we could hear celebration in the air. Car horns and screams of jubilation echoed from every direction at once. As we walked onto the main street the celebrations came into full view. Every car as far as the eye could see was flashing its lights and honking its horn. Motorcycles did burnouts in the dirt and mobs of people clogged the streets waving flags. Gangs of kids stood in oncoming traffic waving flags, leaping out of the way at the last moment. The cars did not slow down; it was a miracle anyone wasn’t killed. I tried taking photos, but it was too dark. This is the best I got:
The insanity continued around us for a long time. It was as if Mali had finally gotten a break. After over a year of war, coup d’etat , and occupation, things looked like they might be going their way. As I knelt to record some video a gang of kids draped a Malian flag around my shoulders and danced in a circle around me, a fitting end to an awesome day.