Ron Levy, a freelance photographer from Soldotna, prepares to photograph a ceremony honoring the Dalai Lama at the Capitol in Washington, D.C., last month.
Photo courtesy Ron Levy
His hopes resting on the slimmest of chances, local freelance photographer Ron Levy boarded an Oct. 15 red-eye out of Anchorage bound for Washington, D.C., in a quest for shots of the visiting Dalai Lama, who was in the nation's capital to receive the United States Congressional Gold Medal from President George Bush the next day.
Tenzin Gyatso is the charismatic 14th Dalai Lama, leader of the exiled Tibetan government in India, and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989. He is the first Dalai Lama to visit the west.
"It started with an e-mail from the International Campaign for Tibet (ICT) notifying me that the Dalai Lama was getting the gold medal in a week. It was just a bulk e-mail," Levy said.
Levy had photographed the Dalai Lama once before, in April on Maui, but didn't think his chances of getting close to him in Washington, D.C. were very good, nor did he have an immediate client for the pictures.
"I thought, 'I don't want to go all the way there unless it's a good job,'" he said.
What followed, he said, was a "very complicated exercise in patience, diplomacy and credential logistics" that wouldn't win him approval to get close until about 10 minutes before the ceremony.
Levy knew access to the ceremony in the Senate rotunda would be tight, considering who was to receive the nation's highest civilian award. A rotunda spot might not be possible, but he thought the ICT could get him access to the west lawn where a celebration would happen before and after the event. That, at least, was something.
Calling "every connection I could think of" led him to a friend who suggested the Zuma Press Inc. in California a good choice, it turned out.
"They had no one in D.C. as their stringer," Levy said.
Zuma officials told him they'd work out the details and try to get him access to the rotunda event if he could get himself to the capital.
"It was time to cut bait and go for it," he said.
Managing to secure bookings to D.C. using accumulated mileage, he then added a leg to New York City, where a three-day photography exhibition was to begin on Oct. 18, just in case the Dalai Lama shots didn't pan out.
Levy knew that the west lawn location would mean crowding about with lots of other photographers, and he'd likely have to forego the money shot the Dalai Lama and President together. Still, there was always a chance.
Once in Washington, D.C., Levy said he spent most of the day trying to get into the Capitol's press gallery. Each time he asked, he was told there were hundreds of photographers trying to get in, and that he had little to no chance of being one of them. Still, he kept asking, gently reminding those supervising the crowd of press photographers that he'd traveled thousands of miles to get there.
As it was, Associated Press and White House photographers had all the choice spots, so even if he were allowed to stay, he wouldn't be getting perfect shots.
"Other photographers were more outspoken, but were still refused access (to the rotunda)," he said. "They were fuming."
It looked as if he'd be one of the unlucky ones, too, when shortly before the ceremony was to begin one supervisor told him there was no chance for him to get in to the rotunda. But he was in the right place at the right time, because a second supervisor arrived to tell the first that there was room for a few just below the raised press gallery.
"After a long pause, he said, 'Stand there, bring a minimum of gear and don't move,'" Levy recalled. "I said, 'I'm there.'"
The problem was "there" was at ground level, meaning he'd be trying to shoot over a mass of heads. Next to him was a shooter for the U.S. Mint, which manufactures the congressional gold medals.
"He told me the problem was that whenever the president stands, everyone stands," Levy said. "I had no hope of getting a shot of the medal."
Levy saw an egg crate belonging to a video news photographer nearby. He gestured asking if he could use it, and was given permission.
"That got me up 12 inches or so, just enough to get over the heads of the crowd," he said. "I did get the shots I came for the President with the Dalai Lama and vice versa, and (Speaker of the House) Nancy Pelosi, and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, Sen. John Boehner, Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel, and a host of others."
Immediately after the ceremony, they were led out onto the west lawn where the Dalai Lama gave a speech, giving Levy a chance to shoot his picture with the capital and other monuments in the background.
Shooting a digital Nikon, Levy got about 650 images in about three hours, including a lot of shots after the speech of people enjoying themselves, the Tibetan flag waving under a blue sky, lots of Buddhist monks, even composer Marvin Hamlisch and ITC President John Ackerly.
Later, he attended another event featuring the Dalai Lama at the Andrew W. Mellon Auditorium.
"I got great shots inside there," he said.
Hopping aboard another plane late that night, he headed for New York and attended the final two days of the exhibition.
He arrived back in Alaska a few days later, his exhaustion intensified by delays on every leg of the return journey, he said.
Levy, 50, has been a professional photographer since the mid-1980s, declaring himself to be such after a getting a full-page shot printed in Alaska Magazine. But it was his coverage of the Exxon Valdez oil spill for Newsweek in 1989 that really boosted his career, he said.
"I've been freelancing since then," he said.
In recent years, he's devoted himself to a personal project on cultures, people and animals around the world that may result in a book, he said. "I'm keeping an eye out for interactions ... indicative of compassion. That's why this took on a personal interest for me."
It's been a motivator for his photography wherever he goes, he said, and he would have been in Washington, D.C., even if he hadn't gotten into the rotunda.
Hal Spence can be reached at email@example.com.
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