Although this job affords you a lot of great access to scenes and situations unavailable to the general public, that access is not universal. A general rule of thumb, however, is that any time there is a special "media" section, your access will be greatly limited. I shared former Herald photographer Rich Dickin's frustration when then-Secretary of Energy Stephen Chu visited Hanford and got to live the magic of the media pen at the Waste Treatment Plant nearly four years later.
That fresh air and roaming space was like yard time compared to the media rooms at the courthouses, though.
Before I revisit Behind the Fold's whine country, there are a couple benefits to separate media rooms. You do have a guaranteed spot for crowded trials and hearings and you're free to talk above a whisper in the soundproof room. That relative anonymity was a big help when David Webster called himself to the stand, allowing me to scribble notes and concentrate on photographing instead of devoting precious brain power to hiding my incredulous reactions to his outlandish testimony.
There were no such benefits during my last two court assignments, however. First was the guilty plea and sentencing for David Godinez for hitting and killing Jared Carr as Carr stopped along Old Inland Empire Highway during a bike ride. The courtroom was packed with supporters of both Carr and Godinez, so I suppose the guaranteed spot was OK, but during an emotional hearing, I can't think of a worse spot than where the media room is in Benton County Superior Court.
As usual in that room, you have to wait for people to turn sideways or leave the actual court area to get decent photos. Here's Godinez talking with his lawyer:
And here's one of Carr's supporters offering condolences to Carr's sister Sara Humbert:
Carr's father Gary is wiping tears as Prosecutor Andy Miller reads statements about Jared to the court. See if you can spot him:
And defense attorney Mia Mendoza talks with Godinez's family after sentencing:
I ended up turning in this photo of Carr's widow Kelley meeting with Miller after sentencing:
It all looks pretty business-as-usual and none of the photos convey how emotional the courtroom was that day. Even Mendoza teared up while addressing the judge, but you can't tell from the back of her head.
Franklin County Superior Court's media room offers a slightly better side angle and I photographed Joseph Hart's sentencing hearing a few days later. Hart was given a life sentence for killing his roommate Rodger Lincoln almost two years ago, but there was little drama since that was the only possible sentence for the third-striker. There was some emotion as Lincoln's sister Linda wept, but despite being right in front of me, she was at a weird angle:
Hart also showed little emotion through the process:
The whole thing was over pretty quickly and I silently hoped Linda would hug the guy sitting right in front of me. This was the best that I got:
And after making sure the woman I photographed was Linda, I popped back in the courtroom to see attorney Scott Johnson shaking hands with Hart's father:
It was much more matter-of-fact than Godinez's hearing, but these photos also fall short in visually reporting from the courtroom. Some of you may be thinking that this is a fair trade off for allowing the emotional loved ones some protection from tear-hungry vultures in the media. There's an argument there and some media members likely would get in the face of a grieving person at some point.
There's a big benefit to being in the same room, however, as it gives you a chance to show up early and maybe build some rapport with the people in court. In the media room, all you are is a silent photographer behind smoky glass. In Franklin County, you're only a couple feet away physically, but miles away from creating some interpersonal connection.
As I caught up with the man with the rattlesnake T-shirt, he was very quick and curt to tell me he didn't want to be identified. That's surely within his right and I don't really fault him. While having a chance to introduce myself before court started may not have changed anything, it also could have made a big difference. It's difficult to not appear opportunistic or exploitative when you literally have to chase people out of the courtroom.
Leaving early enough to catch them on the way out could feel like a gotcha trap to them and it's not a realistic option for me if all three TV stations are there. Both rooms are dark and cramped enough that photographs in there don't convey just how jammed it is to have four people and three large television cameras and tripods Tetris-ed inside.
Looking back a few months gives my argument some supporting evidence, though, when you consider how open Judy Hebert's supporters were during Tashia Stuart's verdict. I was right in front of them, but able to make enough of a connection to make them comfortable with me photographing their emotional reactions:
Maybe I'm somewhat at fault, too timid to challenge the established court-approved shooting areas in situations where such a fight may be worth picking. Unfortunately for these two recent situations, there won't be any accurate visual record of what happened.
For breathtaking access...
Check out Natalia Avseenk's naked swim with beluga whales. It's NSFW (Not Safe For Work, for the acronym-challenged), but well worth a look.
For more Russian photo goodness, Elena Shumilova has some gorgeous photos of her children with animals on the farm that transcend the need-to-know nature of most family photos.
Back home, Daniel Berman has a nice set of portraits from Seattle Elvis International. I especially like the low-key, rim-lit profile of Chris Mathews. Thanks for sharing, Daniel. Thankyouverymuch.
And finally, I'm totally geeking out over Polaroid's Socialmatic and its ability to instantly print your hip snaps. Just take my money, Polaroid.