THE PEACEFUL TRANSFER OF POWER: EYEWITNESS TO AMERICA’S CHANGE, JAN. 20, 2009
By William Woody
Note: No matter who the President of the United States happens to be, the opportunity to attend a presidential inauguration in Washington D.C. is an opportunity of a life time. It is a reminder of our strong and beautiful Democracy.
It was just past 1 a.m. when I first saw the United States Capitol building aglow at night, and I realized the events of the young day would sear into my mind for the rest of my life.
Working for months to secure press access to the inauguration of America’s first black president was a long and difficult process, but it was about to pay off.
I awoke Jan. 20, 2009 at 12 a.m. to start my journey to the National Mall from my friend’s house in Fairfax Virginia.
Riding the subway at that hour were a mixture of Obama fans, swing shift workers, homeless people and some who had obviously just left the bar.
The city was still asleep. As I walked towards the National Mall there was complete silence. The Lincoln memorial was vacant, as was the Vietnam Memorial Wall. The homes lining the streets were dark; a mixture of capitol and D.C. police in full tactical gear were out roaming with K-9s.
When I saw the Capitol building dressed in flags I began to walk faster. Hauling 70 pounds of photography gear through the cold D.C. night to reach the inaugural press check-in scheduled at 2 a.m. Miss it, and I would be out in the masses.
An unprecedented bout of press requests were approved for Barack Obama’s first inauguration. I was representing several Wick Communications’ newspapers and the Montrose Daily Press.
After passing through an extensive security entrance I found my designated place on the west side of the Capitol building in high rise scaffolding overlooking the inaugural podium.
It was about 3 a.m. It was very, very cold.
President Obama was the first U.S. president whom I have documented from primary to the White House. I photographed him several times over a nine-year period.
Months earlier at the 2008 Democratic National Convention in Denver, the hot press ticket was Obama’s speech at Invesco stadium. I was able to get press access to the central camera stand directly in front of the stage on the 50-yard-line. It was the best seat in the house. To my left, photographers from the Washington Post and Reuters, to my right were photo staffs with the Associated Press, The Denver Post and New York Times.
I remember thinking, “wow, the Montrose Daily Press is here too.”
In front of a crowd of more than 80,000, Obama delivered his address to the nation. Towards the end of his speech I stopped shooting to look around. People were crying uncontrollably. Obama’s ability to tap into emotions, whether at a small rally or before an entire nation, was something to witness. And I will never forget the faces I photographed from his rallies and campaign stops over the years.
I knew following his speech in Denver he would win the presidency. So it was after the DNC that I began planning my coverage of his inauguration.
Back in D.C. on that cold January morning I spent hours checking and re-checking my equipment, making sure my camera batteries were warm, and tearing through many bags of hand warmers. When I paused to look up, I saw the first light of dawn begin to pour over the Capitol building. Then to my right I noticed the National Mall begin to fill with spectators.
The cold played havoc on my gear. The first battery I put into my camera died after 11 frames. I only brought two back-up batteries for the two cameras I was operating.
Over the next few hours I photographed invitees as they made their way their seats around the podium. There were former presidents, Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush and his family and Bill and Hilary Clinton, along with Members of Congress and the Supreme Court and dozens of VIPs. They were all bundled up in heavy coats and hats. We all were.
The inaugural ceremony began at 11 a.m. The Mall at that time was full with an estimated 1.8 million spectators. The temperature was about 28 degrees. The wind chill pushed it down to the single digits.
To my left was the photographer from The Guardian newspaper of London. To my right, to my surprise, was Heinz Kluetmeier, the legendary German sports photographer from Sports Illustrated. Kluetmeier, a hero of mine, is famous for his “Miracle on Ice” picture of the U.S. Hockey team celebrating their historic Olympic win over the Russians.
Kluetmeier even took my picture that day, I’m glad he never charged me his day rate.
I got to see many of my heroes of photojournalism in action that day. I felt humbled to have worked beside them, even if it was only for a day.
I remember smiling and saying to myself, “how in the hell is the Montrose Daily Press this close to five living presidents.” The press access I received was normally reserved for large-market media companies. I was lucky, but considering the amount of work I put in, I was also humbled.
Obama’s speech that day is something I will never forget. Being so close to the podium I remember not hearing a single thing he said. His every moment, his every word, was documented in the deafening sound of thousands of camera shutters flickering non-stop throughout his entire speech.
Hours after I had filed hundreds of photos throughout the Wick network, I got to sit back with my feet up, eat Chinese food and watch his speech before America on a C-Span rerun.
I will never forget that day, the cold, or the 2,200 images I recorded. And I will be forever grateful to my superiors at Wick Communications and the team of the Montrose Daily Press who helped present my coverage to the readers.
And as we welcome the 45th president to the White House this weekend let’s all pause to reflect what a great country we live in. No other country respects the transfer of power like the United States of America.
Note: William Woody is a 25-year news veteran currently living in Grand Junction. Follow him on Instagram and Twitter at: wwoodyCO