For a newspaper photographer, photographing an event with a sitting head of state has all the charm of going through airport security on top of waiting for the cable guy to show up.
Mikhail Gorbachev, the last Soviet Communist president, was meeting with president Ronald Reagan and speaking at Stanford University in 1990. The heads of state of the two most powerful countries in the world were at the same place at the same time.
Security was extremely tight, to say the least. To be at a photo-op, the press had to show up four hours early, in this case 7am, go through a single metal detector set up specifically for the press with the sensitivity turned WAY up so everyone who passed through set the thing off, and then wait in a roped off pen for a chance to see president Gorbachev walk out one door 30 yards to another door and disappear. 30 seconds from start to finish. This was my assignment for the day. I was to shoot the picture, and race back to the paper and get it in the three-star late edition. Originally, Gorbachev was to stop at another roped off area next to the one we were herded into and speak with some children from an area school, but the school bus was stuck in the traffic created by Stanford security, so their roped off pen was empty.
The absence of the school kids was a minor problem for the photographers; the president was going to walk by without stopping. We weren’t going to get a photo of him with giggling pre-teens, one of which was sure to give him a bouquet of flowers or a hand-made pseudo-Russian gift of some kind. But we would get a photo. It was a major problem for the writers, radio reporters and TV reporters, none of whom spoke Russian, so they couldn’t even yell out questions as he walked past, like reporters used to do when Reagan walked out of the White House to a waiting helicopter and pretended he couldn’t hear. They had no chance of getting anything but video of a man with a port-wine stain on his head traverse a small patch of ground and enter another building. You could smell the panic.
Being a well-rounded man of the world, I dabble in a few foreign languages. When I say dabble, I mean I try to learn an obscure phrase in an obscure language, and use it at inappropriate times. In the late eighties I had a few friends who spoke Russian, and I got the translations of a few key phrases, one of which I had been polishing the pronunciation and accent. The phrase, and I’m writing it phonetically here, is: pozhalta vstanchee blizche ya bohlshe nye bollen.
A little background before we move on; the dynamics between photographers and newspaper reporters can be a very symbiotic, win-win experience, TV reporters, somewhat less, but with radio reporters, it can be worse than the Arab-Israeli conflict. Radio reporters have this nasty habit of shoving microphones into the faces of people that press photographers want to take pictures of, and there are very view situations where a microphone helps the composition of a good news portrait.
One radio reporter, I’ll call him Slappy, was particularly angst ridden about the lack of school children. He was now reduced to holding his microphone up and recording the sound of a man walking out one door and through another. Slappy wasn’t even going to get close enough to Gorbachev’s face to shove a microphone in, and even if he could, he didn’t speak Russian.
Slappy got on his two-way radio back to the radio station to tell his dispatcher the bad news. The dispatcher told him to learn some Russian quick and try and yell out a question. The back and forth between Slappy and his dispatcher was a classic journalistic conflict between a seasoned reporter and an assignment editor who had never left the building for anything more important than getting a cup of coffee, let alone a breaking news story. After the dust-up had died down, Slappy did what all good reporters do; he tried to learn some Russian.
Enter me with my freshly polished phrase. I told him I knew a little Russian, just enough to get someone’s attention. He jumped at the chance to learn it, as one of the State Dept. handlers had just come out of the closely watched door to tell us that President Gorbachev was going to be here in about 10 minutes. In State Dept. time, that’s about 20 minutes to half an hour.
I went over the phrase slowly several times for Slappy, but the odd sounding Cyrillic vowels would not sink in. He finally wrote down, in his own phonetic style what he thought it should sound like. This seemed to have done it; he pronounced it almost perfectly, at least to my ears.
The much-watched door opened slightly, then closed, and finally flew open. The
President was coming. Several Russian security people and US Secret Service agents came out first. Photographers and reporters jostled for position at the front of our roped off pen we had come to see as home these past four hours. I decided to play kind of a free-safety position, as I was taller than most people there, and I could move and shoot from several angles.
As I readied my cameras, Slappy was standing right next to me repeating the precious Russian words over and over again to himself. He stopped halfway through his mantra, and in one of those “ah shit’ moments of clarity asked: “What does this mean?” I told him it meant “Please rub up against me, for I am no longer infected”. He said, “ I can’t say that” I told him “ Suit yourself, it’s the only thing I know how to say in Russian”.
He started to get mad, but we could see just inside the doorway was Gorbachev himself.
The press surged into the rope, only to be quickly shoved back by the security details. Reporters yelled out questions in English, only to be ignored by the president, not in a Reagan can’t hear you over the helicopter noise way, but a sincere, "I have no idea what you are saying”, kind of way.
When Gorbachev was about 25 feet from the dreaded second door, I could hear from my right the first part of my Russian non sequitur; “Puhzhalsta vstanche bleechy ya bolchy…..” I started to laugh slightly, while still shooting pictures. What a maroon, this guy is actually using that stupid phrase. The cadre of men that follow Gorbachev; his translator, the guy who carries the case with the Soviet version of the nuclear launch codes, and another guy carrying a huge 1980’s Soviet version of what must have been a satellite phone, all began to snicker, but continued to look straight ahead and not at the press pen.
It occurred to me that I had better get behind Slappy, in case Gorbachev himself reacts to what he was hearing, and maybe even stop his quick-march to the ominous second door. While the entourage didn’t break step or look to the right or left, Gorby started laughing and looked incredulously at Slappy, obviously thinking he was the product of inferior Western schooling.
My free-safety position behind Slappy put me get in just the right position to get Gorbachev with a big bemused smile on his face that hadn’t been seen by most people in the West as of yet. If you look closely at the photo, you can see the other men in line with the president barely holding their laughter. He didn’t stop, but did slow down a little to see where the strange proposition was coming from. He then continued through the second door.
I had my picture and I knew it. It's bad luck to talk about how good your photo was until the film is processed, but I still knew it was a good one. I worked my way back through security, past a line of Zil limousines, the Soviet version of Cadillac or Lincoln. Finally back at my car, I drove the 40 miles back to San Francisco and got the photo in the three-star.
John Storey, another Examiner photographer was inside the door that Gorbachev disappeared into, waiting to shoot him at a podium giving a speech. I knew my photo was going to be the slam-dunk winner between the two. What chance would his photo have over a smiling, bemused commie president? No chance at all, EXCEPT if Gorbachev were to step back from the podium and raise his clasped hands like a boxer who just managed to win a fight by negotiation, without throwing a single punch.
I was screwed, John’s photo knocked mine off the front page in the next and final edition of the paper. Seven hours of work for barely a roll of film and one photo in one edition of the paper that is only seen by afternoon BART riders. I searched the newsroom later that day to find a few copies of that precious three-star edition. I found six, one with a round coffee cup stain, but I was keeping it.
As for Slappy, he wasn’t really mad at me once it was all over. His report was made up of the noise of the press yelling and his telling about how he said something in Russian to the president as he walked by, and getting a polite reaction. I’m sure his assignment editor was happy.