Sochi photo coverage takes 'patience, planning, logistics'
Harry Walker, photo director at McClatchy-Tribune Information Services, has a unique vantage point overseeing MCT's visual coverage of the Olympic Games.
Raised in Savannah, Ga., Walker graduated from Morehouse College in 1980. He started his photojournalism career at The Columbus Dispatch, where he worked from 1988 until 1992. Before joining MCT, he worked as features and weekend photo editor at the Kansas City Star. He has served numerous organizations, with stints as a member of the National Association of Black Journalists' Visual Task Force and as chairperson of the National Press Photographers Association's Best of Photojournalism contest.
What follows is an edited version of our conversation about MCT's ongoing Olympics photo coverage:
Me: So, Harry, you are nine hours ahead of Eastern Standard Time. How is that an advantage or disadvantage for your MCT photographic reports?
Walker: Having the nine-hour time advantage allows you to cover more events than in the past. For example, a hockey game that starts at 9 p.m. in Sochi can be covered and you can still deliver photos to clients in plenty of time for publication. Each of our photographers covers three events daily, or two events that consume a lot of time.
On the other hand, communication with people at the Washington office and with loved ones has been a challenge. When you are nine hours ahead, it is never a good time to communicate. When I have a free moment before event coverage in Sochi starts, everyone is asleep or the office is closed. When they are functioning on the East Coast, I am on deadline and then ending my day. My average day here at the Olympic Games starts around 10 a.m. and ends around 2:30 a.m.
Me: What has been your highlight so far?
Walker: As a veteran of many Olympics, I am not easily impressed. I did find the Olympic Park on Sochi/Adler to be well-planned. This is the first Winter Olympics I have covered where you can actually walk to all of the venues. There is a transportation system, but when you're on deadline moving from one event to another, sometimes you can walk to the next venue faster than waiting for a bus. This has proven to be very useful.
I have enjoyed shooting ice dancing and figure skating. Many of the photo positions are very good thanks to a wise system of allocating the coveted floor photo positions in the field of play. Tickets are distributed to all of the National Olympic Committees, which ensures each country gets a share of the available photo positions. This eliminated the situation we faced in Vancouver, where the floor positions were available on a first-come, first-served basis. Some people would literally spend the night in line to secure one of the 50 floor photo positions. If you wanted one of them, you had to spend hours waiting in line before the event started, which would also reduce the number of other events you could cover.
Me: What has it been like in Sochi? Are the criticisms about Russia's lack of preparedness accurate? Are the concerns about the hotels and the venue on point, or overblown?
Walker: It depends whom you speak with. I thought I had problems until I heard first-hand about some of the other issues. I myself have a good room, but I do not have any television or reliable Internet. The television I quickly learned to live without, but the Internet is a major problem. For the first few days, I could not see a Wi-Fi signal, and even now it is not dependable. It works for a while, then goes down -- sometimes for hours or all night. This forces me to stay at event venues or the Main Press Center later each night to use the Internet. Most of my communications, planning and report reviews require the Internet -- and the same goes for any entertainment or news. Try living without television or Internet for a week -- it will make you realize how connected you really are and what an important role the Web plays in your life. All of my calls to the U.S. are done via Skype -- I need the Web for that to happen.
One additional issue is that my cellphone does not work at my housing complex, though it seems to work everywhere else. This makes me even more cut off without the Internet.
I did speak with other photographers who had no light bulbs, doorknobs or in some cases, working electrical outlets. Keep in mind you need electrical outlets to charge batteries for cameras, use laptops, charge phones, etc.
Me: What is working at the Olympics in terms of photographic coverage?
Walker: It has been a very pleasant experience. I have worked mostly in Olympic Park in the city and allowed my two colleagues -- Chuck Myers of MCT and Brian Cassella of the Chicago Tribune -- to handle the photo events in the mountains.
Only a few photo assignments have been ticketed due to high demand. The remainder have been open to everyone. Most of the time, it is easy to move around the venue for various photo positions. During a photo meeting of all photographers one day before the games started, it was stated that 750 photographers had been credentialed. I challenge this due to the number of empty lockers and the amount of desk space. Two days ago, a member of my staff misplaced his photo credential and needed to get a temporary one. The replacement credential was No. 377 -- these credentials are normally issued in sequential order for security and management purposes.
Why is the number of photographers at the Winter Games nowhere near the number that was stated at the meeting? I believe distance and the cost of travel were major influences. Security issues may have deterred many as well.
But overall, it’s been a very positive experience covering the games.
Me: How many people are working on your team and contributing to your report? How many editors do you have, and how many photographic reporters?
Walker: MCT has a very small team covering the games. This is a result of the economic realities of the newspaper industry. MCT has three photographers and four writers, with no office space in the Main Press Center. This is the third Olympic Games where we have used this model, and it seems to work well for us. Communication is done via planning emails nightly and throughout the day, and text messaging also proves very valuable. MCT photographers are moving in excess of 200 photos daily, and we also have access to coverage from our image partners -- the San Jose Mercury News, Colorado Springs Gazette and Minneapolis Star-Tribune. These image partners file images to our Washington, D.C., photo desk for posting to the wire. The three MCT photographers on site, shoot, edit and move photos live on the wire from each venue, ensuring fast and timely delivery of content to subscribers.
Me: Is there anything new in terms of photographic technology that has impressed you?
Walker: Not that I am aware of. Many are using a VLAN -- a virtual local area network -- to transmit photos from cameras for editing at venues or the Main Press Center. But this is common for many high-profile events. The large agencies are using robotic cameras, but not as much as during the Summer Games in London.
Me: Has there been any interference from Russian officials or the International Olympic Committee regarding what you can or cannot document?
Walker: I am not aware of the local media situation and cannot comment on it, but I have not had any situations where Russian officials have limited access to what I have available to photograph. I have assigned photos in the towns of Sochi and Adler and heard no reports of access being limited. Working in and around Olympic venues and sites has been as the same as in past Olympics. Security is very high as compared to past games, however.
Me: Given the heavy security restrictions and the threat of terrorism, are you subject to photographic limitations?
Walker: Security personnel record all entry into and out of buses and venues electronically. Thus all movement is tracked. You also have your normal airport-style security checkpoints when you enter the Olympic parks in both the mountain and Sochi Olympic parks.
Security is definitely very tight. There are lots of undercover security personnel about -- you can spot them easily at times, though I am sure there are others we don’t notice. For the first time since I have been covering the Olympics, I needed a passport to secure my accreditation. In the past, the Olympic accreditation you received before traveling to the games served as your visa and passport. Going into Russia, you needed your passport every step of the way. You needed it to get your photo armband for floor positions, your hotel room and many other items that seemed surprising since you were already in the Olympic credentialing system.
Me: Have you made any special preparations to cover a terrorist event, should one occur? If so, what are they?
Walker: MCT has a plan in the event of an attack. Without going into too much detail, we all have phones that work world-wide, have a designated place to meet and have a request with the State Department for overseas travel should the U.S. put an evacuation plan into effect.
Me: How does this compare to the 2002 Winter Games when you were the assistant photo chief in Salt Lake City?
Walker: Many of the same systems are in place. The ticketing process seems smoother. Individuals and smaller organizations have a better opportunity to get coveted floor photographer positions than in the past. There are many volunteers at each venue to assist with everything from information to tours of the buildings.
With hockey, a high-demand sport, a system of assigned seating around the glass and in elevated photo positions has been implemented. The photo managers have done a great job negotiating photo positions. There are 60 photo positions for photographers along the glass on the ice, in addition to dozens more overhead.
Me: Have weather challenges made your photographic coverage problematic? If so, how have you overcome these challenges?
Walker: The weather in Sochi is the news of the day. It was warm at the last Winter Olympics in Vancouver, but Sochi is much warmer -- it has routinely been in the upper 50s or low 60s since my arrival. Naturally it’s colder in the mountains, but it’s like a spring heat wave in the city at the Olympic Park.
All the weather challenges have been in the mountains, where there is a lack of snow due to the warm weather. Not only is it not snowing, but the snow on the ground is melting. I personally am fighting off a cold. It is warm outside but very chilly inside. I wear moderate winter clothing because the temperatures inside a venue like the Alder Long Track Speed Racing facility can be as much as 20 degrees lower than outside.
Me: What have been your most valuable lessons learned so far?
Walker: Patience, planning and logistics. Working with venue photo managers has been pleasant. They are eager to assist you in getting a good photo position. Convey your needs and they try to accommodate you, and they seem to remember who you are the next time you come back to the venue. I wonder if it is because of the reduced number of photographers at the games or because I am the only African-American photographing the games. I guess I'm easy to pick out of the crowd -- it’s funny that people ask me a lot about Shani Davis, the only African-American long track speed skater in the games.