WASHINGTON, D.C.--January 20, 2009--Photography made its own statement at the Inauguration of Barack Obama today at the Washington Mall and became a key player in the journey getting there.
An estimated one in five people who gathered at the Mall carried some sort of picture-taking device--which translated into nearly 400,000 active DSLRs, point and shoots, compacts, blackberries, cell phones and videos cameras all clicking, snapping and focusing to document history. Like flair, cameras were out in the open, particularly because of the no camera bag rule. No doubt by tonight, as the crowds begin to defrost in their homes from the day's bitter cold, thousands of the tokens of snapped history are making their way onto Facebook, Twitter, Flickr or other popular social networking sites. More than any other recent president, Obama has captured the hearts of this country's youth, making it the first inauguration where its photos will generously buoy the image catalogs of those sites.
But why did citizens, who had to worry about staying warm, waiting long in lines and securing the right vantage point to the Capitol, still bother to use their own cameras rather than depend on the press to provide them with pages of photos in upcoming days?
People wanted to document history for themselves. This day was personal to them.
The documentation began before the sun rose. At 6:30 am, as metro riders in Virginia huddled together on platforms waiting for the already sardine-like packed cars to pick them up, commuters snapped shots of their families on the chilly, dark platforms. Some even captured the subway cars packed with excited riders. For one woman who travelled from California to see Obama being sworn in, "every minute of this day counts." Using her Canon prosumer model Powershot she began to capture history, especially for the grandchildren. Professional news camera crews stood shoulder to shoulder with riders handling DSLRs around their necks and point and shoots in their hands.
Other citizens chose to walk to the Mall. Hundreds streamed into D.C. from Virginia on foot with photo equipment in tow. Even though it was a bitter cold morning, especially atop the bridge walkways, shooters stopped, focused and shot images of the Washington Memorial and Capitol from the Memorial and 14th Street bridges.
But these were just the warm-up shots to what proved to be a lottery day of photo opportunities. At the Mall, where people had no more than a few inches of personal space, shooters participated in a graceful photographic dance. Unspoken but understood, and perhaps mimicking the harmony of the day, snappers of all ages, sexes and ethnicities, practiced letting their neighbors lean a little on them to position to the correct angle at the jumbotrons which televised the whole ceremony. Raising their arms--like Obama would soon-- they snapped. Then those photographers would let their neighbors follow suit with patience and the chaotic synchronization would repeat.
"I take my own pictures because I want my own memories captured. Not ones in a newspaper or magazine," says Yolande Melbourne a teacher from Maryland, who carried two cameras with a variety of lenses with her to her spot by the Washington Memorial. "In a way, it's a way to know I was there," she says, adding that they will be uploaded later to her Facebook page. Melbourne schlepped two Canons: a Powershot A720IS and EOS 30D. Why two? "One I use for video, the other for stills. While she prefers the 30D, the point and shoot suits the "no elbow room" situation that presented itself at the Mall. "Sometimes you get better shots with it because it's easier to operate in a crowd like this."
Mario Frandt, a truck driver from Virginia, shot hundreds of images and video clips with his Fujifilm Finepix 200HD. His images, however, were not going on Facebook. "These are for my grandchildren. I'm taking as many as I can for them," he says.
Jackie Roberts trekked in from Georgia and says it would be silly not to shoot with her Sony digicam here. "I am capturing history. I want this history for myself," she says. Mitch, a 20-something from Michigan agrees, "I always like to have my own copy. My own version. My own memory."
Mostly prosumer models were hanging around the necks of citizens to capture the iconic moments of the day. But that didn't rule out the tons of cellphone cameras and blackberries taking the place of compacts. Still, digital was the king at this show. And because of the large numbers of eyes that had to focus on each of the "not so high" LCD screens for each area of the Mall, a new use for digital cameras was utilized. People used their devices to take in what they couldn't, that is if they weren't tall enough, by taking photos of the screen to see what was up there at each particular moment in the schedule. Citizens also "jury rigged eyes" by raising their hands over their heads and tilting their LCDs just enough so they were able to see the monitors via their own viewfinders.
Meanwhile, there were times when cameras had no place. Crowds took down their extended arms, seemingly on cue, during the benediction and into the thick of Obama's speech.
Many walked back to their hotels or homes at the ceremony's conclusion and stopped at the Jefferson Memorial to shoot one last photo. After one mother snapped a photo of her young son with a pink digicam she said, "See, you can be president if you want to."