Year in Review: Witnessing history elbow to elbow

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Some 50 years in the making, the story of the St. Croix Crossing bridge culminated with a ribbon-cutting ceremony at 10 a.m. Wednesday, Aug. 2, 2017 under a cloudless blue sky.

A fleeting thought crossed my mind as our convoy of three busses curled around the bend and out onto the virgin stretch of white concrete suspended high above the river by a miracle of engineering.

I thought to myself, “This would be a perfect spot for a terrorist to make a name for himself. Thousands of people, governors and congressmen, honorees who had spent their lives fighting to get this marvel of engineering and political will constructed, all in one place, all at one time, in a completely exposed celebration.” And then the thought was gone.

It was a perfect day. Many would say well deserved given the years of tumult it had taken to get to this day. It struck me as an event worthy of national attention that had graciously been left in the hands of those closest to the story to direct and celebrate.

The powers that be had chosen the eastbound ramp running up from the Minnesota side to stage the ceremony. A row of those heavy concrete dividers split the ramp in half. On one side, a small “stage” had been constructed blocking one lane. A row of important looking folding chairs occupied the back of the stage while several stern-looking law enforcement officers quashed any ideas I had of mounting the stage.

Big events like this are usually strictly orchestrated. The public is located in a specific area and the press is provided with preferential access. “Credentials” allow us to get up close to the important folks for purposes of photos, video and interviews.

After stepping off of the bus, I headed to the press sign-in area, signed in, and climbed over the concrete barriers using the steps provided. On the other side, I found myself elbow-to-elbow with my press comrades trying to see over the top of the nearly 5-foot tall barriers. Even though we were close to the podium and stage, you could barely see over the top making for a difficult photo opportunity at best.

I should add at this point, that the stage faced west back toward the Minnesota shore. That meant that all of the guests of honor including the governors would be backlit by what was rapidly becoming a formidable sun. I call that challenging lighting condition, the witness protection affect. It is like when someone fails to add a picture of themselves to their Linkedin or Facebook profile, or they missed the yearbook photo session and they substitute that generic black outline of a person. That’s what we had to work with from the preferential location.

I decided to try the other side, the public side it turns out, anyone was welcome to stake their claim to a square foot of that brand new concrete.

With two camera bodies slung around my neck and a bag on my hip, I steadily worked my way up close to the stage. The lighting wasn’t any better, but I was a lot closer. I finally settled in about 10 feet from the stage just off the left front corner. As a professional in these kinds of situations, you try to anticipate how and where the event will unfold and pick the best possible spot, a spot that will give you options and flexibility in case the show doesn’t unfold as anticipated, which usually happens. I remember looking back at the crowd which stretched for what seemed like a mile or more back toward the Minnesota side overflowing both lanes and the shoulders of the ramp all the way back up into the grassy hills on both sides of the highway. It felt like they had underestimated how many folks would show up for the occasion.

Forty rows of folding chairs stretched across the public side of the ramp, in theory, reserved for elderly folks and some of the special guests invited for the occasion. With 20 minutes to go before the speaking began, I recognized Doris Erler and her sister, Helen Josephson, along with family members sitting shaded by umbrellas in the front row of chairs. I had written a story about Doris and her sister. They had been present many years before at the opening of the lift bridge in Stillwater. I reconnected with Doris, grabbed a few photos of her with her family and headed back to my spot closer to the stage.

With ten minutes to go before the program began, I was locked in, literally. Immediately behind me were an older gentleman accompanying a young woman holding a small dog in her arms. Occasionally the dog would rest his paws on my camera bag. To my right, maybe 18 inches away from my head was a network cameraman with his tripod mounted television camera. There were at least three people in front of me in a space that had room for one person. You get the idea, it was tight, very tight. And it was getting hotter.

Again, typically in that situation, I would be surrounded by other professional journalists and photographers who even though we all want the best shot, practice an etiquette that allows all of us an equal shot to get the shot.

That was not the case here. This was more like the school Christmas concert where half the parents thrust their iPads and iPhones into the airspace above them ignorant of the folks trying to watch the concert behind them.

As the program began, my field of vision filled with iPads and cellphones while several other cameras clocked me from behind. I know the dog was not happy. I shot the majority of the event with my camera held high overhead blasting a much flash as I could into the witness protection program while guessing as to what I was actually capturing in the frame.

In that moment, I remember thinking how much covering these kinds of events has changed. It was frustrating, but it wasn’t right or wrong. It is the way of the world now. Every moment big and small, we fully live in, first hand, capturing it almost indiscriminately. What we do with all that unedited information, what we learn from those billions of moments of story remains unclear to me.

After tracking down a few special photos after the program concluded and taking a moment to soak it all in, a magnificent bridge on a historic day, I missed all three of the busses that could have taken me home. Instead, I caught a ride with then State Sen. Sheila Harsdorf, back across the river to another engagement, but that is a story for another day...