Large political events like inaugurations are typically chaos. No matter how much planning, credentialing or organizing the communications teams do, something will always go off the rails. As a photojournalist, it’s important to be able to find peace within that chaos in order to focus and see the day unfold in a unique way. You learn this the more often you photograph these things.
The inauguration of Maryland Gov. Wes Moore was a long day. One of the first events was Moore’s visit to the Kunta Kinte-Alex Haley Memorial at the City Dock in Annapolis. In the past, this spot was where enslaved people were sold and traded in the Colonial city. Moore and Lt. Gov. Aruna Miller laid a wreath of flowers onto the memorial statue of author Alex Haley, who wrote a novel based on his family history, “Roots: The Saga of an American Family,” about a young man, Kunta Kinte, who is enslaved and brought to “Naplis.” There was no shortage of symbolism in Moore’s presence at the site — the state’s first Black governor acknowledging the historic significance of his election in a country built by enslaved laborers.
Photographing this was pretty difficult. It was an intimate moment with a small group of attendees, so I didn’t want to be intrusive or call attention to myself, which I’m especially careful about during sensitive situations. A photojournalist is a fly on the wall. The event was supposed to have limited media, but there were a decent amount of cameras there and movement was very, very limited, if not impossible. I chose to sit on the ground in the front so I didn’t block the view of attendees — as did a lot of other photographers. I’m 6 feet tall, so getting up was out of the question. How was I supposed to make unique frames without moving my body next to 10 other photojournalists in the same spot?
This is where the light, point of view and composition come into play. With politicians, I’m always looking for a unique viewpoint that isn’t just a straight-on shot. When it’s someone talking at a podium, the frames can get repetitive. It’s important to look for little moments that stand out. This requires a lot of patience and good reflexes, because these moments are just that — moments. They happen sporadically, and seeing them is when the training and experience comes in.
The lighting was pretty harsh — lots of contrast with the shadows across faces — and the way people were positioned did not help. There was a flag pole with the American flag high in the sky that was several yards behind Moore. I wondered if I’d be able to get it in the background of my frame. Based on my position, I knew I could most likely do it by getting as low as possible on the ground and shooting upward with my long lens. I didn’t want the flag to be in focus and visually compete with Moore, so I opened up my aperture and blurred it out. Using a long lens adds compression to an image and allows things far away to appear closer than they are.
I got the frame, but the light was not in my favor — I needed Moore to turn his head to the left instead of the right. All I could do was just wait. Like I said, I’m 6 feet tall, so being contorted on the ground, waiting for the exact moment he turned his face towards the light was NOT comfortable, but it paid off because he did. The luck of the photojournalism gods was bestowed upon me, and the wind picked up too, blowing the flag out behind him. I’m not sure if anyone else got that shot, but I didn’t see anyone else contorted like a pretzel either.
Another series of frames from inauguration day that I’d like to shed some light on, pun intended, are the ones of Moore and his family walking from the City Dock to the State House. The light was pretty bright and harsh as he and his family started walking away from the wreath-laying ceremony. There were also a ton of other photojournalists trying to get their own shots, all walking backward up the hill. It’s as chaotic as it sounds. People were tripping and stepping all over each other. I knew that I didn’t want to fight for my shot after sitting pretzel-like for over an hour, so I ran ahead and waited until they got to the shaded part of the street. I saw some musicians playing music and I had a gut feeling the family was going to stop and enjoy it.
At that moment, I turned around and saw Dawn Flythe Moore embrace her husband, his eyes closed, his face full of emotion. It was a very powerful and intense moment that didn’t go unnoticed. Their children, Mia and James, teared up as well. Their parents wiped away their tears and embraced their children while music was playing. I took as many frames as I could without being intrusive. I didn’t need many to capture the power of the moment.
The human condition is what inspired me to become a photojournalist. Documenting happiness, sadness and everything in-between is a privilege. Empathy, the ability to feel the emotions and put yourself in the shoes of your subjects, is a powerful tool. It changes the way you see and photograph. As journalists, we are trained to be disconnected in our reporting in an effort to curb bias. This is why so many of us are desensitized to things we cover. However, I don’t always agree with that stance. You can be unbiased and still feel for people — their happiness, and their pain. It’s the foundation for powerful imagery.