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whaChu talkin' 'bout, Steven?

The Tri-Cities market is small enough that we seldom experience media swarms. And though there is competition between the Herald, three TV stations, Northwest Public Radio and KONA radio at the stories we all cover, for the most part, it’s respectful. There’s no blatant attempts to ruin other people’s shots or interrupt interviews, and rarely is there a subject juicy enough to whip the media into a piranha-like frenzy.

"Juicy" is perhaps a strange description of Energy Secretary Steven Chu, but his two-day stay in the Tri-Cities attracted national attention in addition to our local media. This contributed to very different experiences for Herald photographer Richard Dickin and myself.

I covered Chu's first stop at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory on Monday, Aug. 10. The plan was for him to address a crowd of around 300 PNNL staff before touring some of the labs.

The first bad omen of the day was forgetting my iPod Touch at home, which I really regretted during the two hour delay — bad omen number two.

The invading stick army was relieved, I’m sure.

When he finally arrived, Chu addressed a full PNNL auditorium and outlined his vision for U.S. energy research, development and policy. While his speech was interesting, the photos weren’t much more than standard podium plus Powerpoint snaps:

When it came time for Chu’s tour, I was nervous for something terrible to complete the trifecta. Also, since I’m not used to photographing people with security details, I started off quite timidly, not sure of how close I was going to be allowed. My worst fear was to somehow disturb the tour and get myself kicked out.

Of course, as it always goes when you really don’t want to make an ass of yourself, I ended up knocking a wall phone off its hook as I tried to squeeze between a security guard and the wall. But when the security guard calmly returned it to the cradle and didn’t touch his earpiece while staring me down, I took it as a good sign that things weren’t as strict as I had feared. Also, Staci West and Karen Blasdel of PNNL were very helpful with identifying the scientists and letting me know where I could go.

From then on, it was smooth sailing with great, up-close access:

Some sciencey surroundings to work with:

A little outdoors time:

And a sweet room that looked like a set for the control center in a spy movie:

It was easy to make enough photos for the photo gallery, so I took the time to shoot something funky for my own sake (something I should really push myself to do more):

And the wind and light cooperated with me as Chu prepared to leave:

It had gone pretty much perfectly aside from the delay, but I was disappointed that I didn’t get a chance to actually meet him, and the closest I got to having my picture taken with him was when I worked my own shadow into a frame:

Even worse was wasting the joke I had prepared in case Chu mentioned any interest in photography, which almost everybody does. “That’s crazy!” I would’ve said. “Because I spend my weekends trapping atoms with lasers!” — referring to his work that earned him part of the 1997 Nobel Prize in Physics.

It would have been uproarious.

But that disappointment paled in comparison to what Herald photographer Richard Dickin had to deal with the following day during Chu’s tour of the vitrification plant at Hanford.

"About the only access we had was that we could see them," he said. “We could see them at a distance through assorted equipment — porta-johns, safety tape, construction equipment. They couldn't have done a better job of hiding these guys from us."

Also in attendance were Washington’s two U.S. Senators, Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell, as well as Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire and Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski.

As the group toured around, local media was concentrated on a platform in the middle of the construction yard:

In addition to the distance and isolation, there was the added frustration of three people who had special access. A photographer shooting for Time Magazine, one from Bechtel National and a videographer were all free to roam with the group.

"We couldn’t actually tell who Chu was from our vantage point," he said about the group's movement around the fringes of the local media's sight lines. "By the time we could tell who it was, the other photographers were in the way."

Fed up, Rich yelled at the photographer to get out of they way, earning him a dirty look:

All these hoops and hurdles led up to what was supposed to be the photo opportunity for local media — when Chu and the rest of the dignitaries went to the roof of the vitrification plant for a view of the facility:

Can you pick him out of the helmet tops?

Sure, he was able to get serviceable shots even around all the nonsense, but the lack of access definitely shows. We ended up having to use photos supplied by the Department of Energy and Bechtel National to beef up the photo gallery, which is pretty ridiculous when we had a photographer there. It’s a slap in the face to give such poor treatment to the local media who cover Hanford news year round while providing preferential treatment to the photographer shooting for Time.

Either everybody should have to stay on the platform, or nobody does.

It’s interesting how different the two days turned out, especially since Herald reporter Annette Cary figured the Hanford trip would be the more exciting photo assignment. It just goes to show that in this business, you never quite know what to expect. Access is a harsh mistress. And just like the opposite sex, you can figure out a lot about it, but you'll never fully understand.


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