Tuesday, July 29, 2008

#13 - Statehouse Daze

"A Place to Grow". - Iowa Tourism Slogan, from the mid-1980's

In January 1983, my dream came true. After only a couple years of diligent stringing, I earned my first full-time staff photography job. During the interview, the division manager said the position would be somewhere in the "Central Plains States", strangely reluctant to divulge its actual location, but it could have been in Siberia for all I cared -- I was a Newspictures Bureau Manager for United Press International now, and that's all that mattered to me! So I stuffed most of my possessions into my red Dodge Omni hatchback, aimed it West, and changed my life forever. To celebrate the 25th anniversary of my favorite appointment, I journeyed back to the Heartland and this special place of my career roots -- Des Moines, Iowa.

Living and working in Iowa's Capital required some adjustments. Suddenly, the farm market report and crazy pesticide ads became the hot topics of conversation, giant pork tenderloin sandwiches became a major part of my diet (note: I highly recommend Porky's Diner in Des Moines -- they serve a full menu page complete with over a dozen variations of this tasty treat!), and the State Legislature became the focus of my daily news-photo report. Whether it was in session or not, the lawmakers and the "Statehouse" (as it was called in Iowa) dominated our bureau's attention and time.

As someone unfamiliar with the process, regularly covering the Statehouse beat offered many challenges. For starters, the building and working conditions were a newsphotographer's nightmare. Darker than a cave with limited shooting positions and an "all quiet" rule enforced at all times, making photos here meant working the balcony (my personal favorite choice) or the floor with fast and long glass (I relied on a 300mm F2.8 lens almost exclusively) with the motor drive turned off -- only single framing was allowed to avoid any unnecessary noise. Plus, consider this: most legislative activities and actions are difficult, if not impossible, to visually represent -- sure, there are debates and discussions but try story-matching the new gas tax bill! So I quickly discovered Statehouse duty involved lots of waiting, watching, and wondering . . . sometimes when the session will end!

But despite the obstacles and the odds, documenting the Statehouse can have its moments. I'll never forget the outspoken legislator fearlessly flashing her sign perfectly expressing all of the chamber's sentiments; or the weary, wounded Senate page struggling to stay awake during a late night session; not to mention, the enthusiasm and joy for the Governor and his wife after the birth of their newest family member; and finally, the hope, promise, and personal property buried with the Capitol Centennial Celebration time capsule (hidden in 1984, to be unearthed in 2084).

Walking these same steps today over a quarter century later seemed vaguely familiar but surprisingly foreign. Even the site of the time capsule felt wrong, as if it had been magically transported to a different spot. But listening and looking inside its chambers and halls, I can still hear the rhetoric, the voices, the excitement, and I can still see the power, the faces, the yawns. Maybe I'm hallucinating, maybe reminiscing, or maybe I'm just reliving my Statehouse Daze.