Waiting For Barack
24 hours in Prague mark a change in security policy
It was Apr. 2, early in the evening when I received the confirmation via email: an accreditation by the Czech President’s office for the visit of U.S. President Barack Obama with Czech President Vaclav Klaus on Palm Sunday, Apr. 5.
There was only one catch: I could only go as a photographer for the Welcoming Ceremony at the castle, also a chance for getting closer to the man. For Obama’s long-expected speech on his vision of peace and non-proliferation at Hradčany Square, I had to take a pass.
My train journey from Vienna to Prague on Saturday evening was uneventful, and the city itself did not seem to be ‘under siege,’ as in June 2006 when former U.S. President George W. Bush came to Vienna.
But that changed the next morning, just hours ahead of the presidents’ meeting. Following advice from the hotel staff, I took public transport to the castle. When I boarded the No. 12 tram near my hotel at about 6:00, every American in the city seemed to be going the same way.
It was a chilly morning of about 8°C, and the sun seemed unwilling to rise, the air was damp and misty. I chose to take a brisk walk up to the castle, as I was still well ahead of time; this would give me time to eat some of my breakfast of some ham and cheese, as well as fruits and orange juice, packed by the hotel.
Security was tight; every few hundred meters I encountered another police patrol on foot. But mostly, they were only checking cars, so I breezed by.
At the press entrance my passport and press ID was thoroughly scrutinized, and I was ticked off the list, and sent to the accreditation desk. It was now 6:30, and the official ceremony was not due to start for two hours.
We were led inside, to wait on a staircase adjoining the courtyard. Another security check, all pleasant. There were not many foreign journalists and photographers present – instructions and announcements were all in Czech. Standing near me was an Italian photographer, Rossano Maniscalchi, based in the Czech Republic, Italy and the United States, primarily known for portrait and art and fashion photography. We exchange stories while the crowd was increasing by the minute. Over 200 photographers and television teams were accredited, so there would be some muscling later on in to ensure the best position, I reckoned.
"There is only so much you can do," Rossano commented, and for things to go right, he added, "you always need some luck." I was actually a print journalist, I admitted. But he dismissed the comment: Through photography, he said, "you get to see events from a different perspective."
It was just about 8:00 when we were admitted into the courtyard, and the photographers and TV cameras positioned themselves to the left and right of the gate. A stage had been erected up front, where Obama would eventually deliver his address – still scheduled for 10:00. The timetable appeared to be back on track. It was still chilly and no sun had broken through yet. Light conditions were poor. I wiped my hands on my trousers; sweat would make them even colder.
The podium for the presidents and their wives was placed to the left, flanked by guards holding the Czech and U.S. flags. Soon after we took our positions, three corps of guards entered and stood at attention on the right, while the circular red carpet was checked once again; U.S. presidential security huddled with their Czech counterparts while a band kept the crowd distracted on the main square.
Eventually, the Czech officials entered the square, thick in conversation while aides came and went. No action. At 8:45 we still were waiting – by now the whole ceremony should have been over.
Suddenly the news reached us: Obama was about to leave the hotel, and was now scheduled to arrive at the Prague Castle at about 9:00.
"He is notorious for being late," an American camera man muttered next to me. "I’ve been following his trip across Europe so far, and he was late almost everywhere."
I made final checks on my camera and adjusted my position. What is a 40-minute delay at such an historic moment? Although, my frozen hands made holding the camera a challenge.
Suddenly, the gates were opened to the square, and the Czech President Vaclav Klaus and his wife entered the courtyard from the other side. There was frenzy among the Czech reporters, but he remained at the gate with flowers, awaiting the U.S. President.
Nine o’clock on the dot, the presidential motorcades pulled in front of the palace gate. Hidden from the crowd outside, the cheering was modest when Barack and Michelle Obama exited the vehicle. Not so the media.
This is the moment we had been waiting for. Both couples stood beside the gate as the military bands performed the national anthems. Obama looked serious but seemed totally at ease, even light-hearted, as they circled the courtyard reviewing the honor guards. Obama waved and smiled, Klaus nodded, the band continued playing some peculiar marches.
In 10 minutes, the ceremony was over and the heads of states made their way into the palace; I was positioned to the left side of the gate, and both presidents, led by Klaus, took a second to glance at the press to the right, and then to the left, before entering the building.
Some moments later, Barack Obama emerged, unshielded by the security guards, and passed me by, just three meters away. There he was, as remarkable, while yet as ordinary, in life as on film.
I thought about Rossano’s words: So much of life is luck. I braced myself, focused and caught the moment on camera.