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Covering the Wisconsin legislature protests

I had the opportunity a few months back to cover the protests in Madison, Wis., at the state Capitol.  I was asked to write about my experience for the photojournalism website SportsShooter.com. You can read the article on SportsShooter by clicking here but I have added a few additional pictures to the post here.

It was about 8 p.m. on a Thursday night. I was covering a local event for my paper, The Rockford Register Star. That was when my phone rang and my editor asked me if I wanted to go to Wisconsin to cover the protests in Madison the next morning.

I’ve never been one to turn down an opportunity.

To put it lightly, I was excited about this assignment. In my market, it’s not every day that I get to cover national news. So I tried to plan ahead. I had never been to Madison. Where would I be able to park? Would I be able to get out of my parking spot at the end of the day? What if the protests turn into riots? Am I over-thinking this?

At this point, it was about 11:30 p.m. I decided to shoot off an e-mail to one of the photographers that I knew had been covering the protests for The Wisconsin State Journal. Within 10 minutes, I had a phone call from the extremely helpful Michael P. King (thanks again, Mike!). He was able to give me a sense of the scene and actually sent me a map with parking and traffic details, as well as instructions on how to find the press room through all of the chaos.

I was as prepared as I could be. All that was left was to get to sleep.

Fewer than five hours later, I was up and getting ready for the day. I had to meet a reporter at our office early so we could try to make it into Madison before the streets got too crazy.

As we pulled into Madison around 8:30 a.m., the Capitol grounds were relatively quiet. We found a parking garage within two blocks of the square. As we made our way down from the top level of the garage, the “full” light came on. We barely made it. You could see the lines of cars and people start to flow in.

Once we were inside of the Capitol, I felt like I was in a different world. I had no sense of direction. It was hard to make my own visual landmarks because the swarm of people looked so similar in all directions.

MAX GERSH | ROCKFORD REGISTER STAR  People fill the state Capitol Friday, Feb. 18, 2011, in Madison, Wis., to protest Gov. Scott Walker's bill to eliminate collective bargaining rights for state workers. ©2011

MAX GERSH | ROCKFORD REGISTER STAR People fill the state Capitol Friday, Feb. 18, 2011, in Madison, Wis., to protest Gov. Scott Walker's bill to eliminate collective bargaining rights for state workers. ©2011

MAX GERSH | ROCKFORD REGISTER STAR  People line up with signs outside of the Assembly chamber Friday, Feb. 18, 2011, at the state Capitol in Madison, Wis., to protest Gov. Scott Walker's bill to eliminate collective bargaining rights for state workers. ©2011

MAX GERSH | ROCKFORD REGISTER STAR People line up with signs outside of the Assembly chamber Friday, Feb. 18, 2011, at the state Capitol in Madison, Wis., to protest Gov. Scott Walker's bill to eliminate collective bargaining rights for state workers. ©2011

MAX GERSH | ROCKFORD REGISTER STAR  People fill the state Capitol Friday, Feb. 18, 2011, in Madison, Wis., to protest Gov. Scott Walker's bill to eliminate collective bargaining rights for state workers. ©2011

MAX GERSH | ROCKFORD REGISTER STAR People fill the state Capitol Friday, Feb. 18, 2011, in Madison, Wis., to protest Gov. Scott Walker's bill to eliminate collective bargaining rights for state workers. ©2011

After making it to the press room and getting credentialed to access both the Senate and Assembly chambers, I started to wander. I did what any of us would do. I looked for the unique, be it the overall scene or an individual person. However, when I made a picture of someone, I often had no way to get to them to get their name. Believe me. I tried. At one point, I tried to wedge myself into the center of activity, the bottom level underneath the rotunda. It wasn’t happening.

MAX GERSH | ROCKFORD REGISTER STAR  People fill the State Capitol Friday, Feb. 18, 2011, in Madison, Wis., to protest Gov. Scott Walker's bill to eliminate collective bargaining rights for state workers. ©2011

MAX GERSH | ROCKFORD REGISTER STAR People fill the State Capitol Friday, Feb. 18, 2011, in Madison, Wis., to protest Gov. Scott Walker's bill to eliminate collective bargaining rights for state workers. ©2011

While wandering around, going level by level, I noticed a balcony at the top of the rotunda. I wanted up there. I went back to the press room to see if the nice lady that issued me my credential knew if there was a way up there. She said they were going to escort photographers up there at noon so be back before then. If you’re late, tough. So I kept an eye on my watch.

Then came the day’s curve ball. At about 11:45 a.m., the Rev. Jesse Jackson was marching around the square and was about to head into the Capitol. Before he made it in, I went back to the press room (about 11:55 a.m.). The group had left to the rotunda balcony to photograph Jackson from above. I was disappointed but there wasn’t much I could do about it. I went to a cut-across balcony that was blocked off for the press instead. It lined me up directly across from Jackson which allowed me to make some decent frames.

MAX GERSH | ROCKFORD REGISTER STAR  Rev. Jesse Jackson speaks to a crowd of people Friday, Feb. 18, 2011, at the state Capitol in Madison, Wis. ©2011

MAX GERSH | ROCKFORD REGISTER STAR Rev. Jesse Jackson speaks to a crowd of people Friday, Feb. 18, 2011, at the state Capitol in Madison, Wis. ©2011

After Jackson left, that nice lady in the press room found me (and a few other photogs that missed the balcony trip) and ran us up. And up. And up. There were a lot of stairs. As we got out on the balcony, a beam of light shot in through one of the windows and grazed right over the top of the protesters in the center. It made for a nice image.

MAX GERSH | ROCKFORD REGISTER STAR  People fill the state Capitol Friday, Feb. 18, 2011, in Madison, Wis., to protest Gov. Scott Walker's bill to eliminate collective bargaining rights for state workers. ©2011

MAX GERSH | ROCKFORD REGISTER STAR People fill the state Capitol Friday, Feb. 18, 2011, in Madison, Wis., to protest Gov. Scott Walker's bill to eliminate collective bargaining rights for state workers. ©2011

I wandered around a bit more in and around the Capitol grounds. After making a few more pictures, I headed back to the crowded press room to transmit my photos back to my editor. There were so many journalists in there, at times I had to stand and hold my laptop with one arm and edit with the other. Once I finally had my images toned and captioned, I sat the laptop on top of the water cooler in the room because it was taking forever to FTP my images. As it turns out, 60,000 protesters using their cell phones to tweet, take photos and post to Facebook makes my Verizon air card extremely slow. I’d say it took more than half an hour to send 20 pictures.

At about 3 p.m., the reporter and I packed up and headed back to Illinois. It was a new experience for both of us. I was satisfied with the images I made but could see areas for improvement. I guess these will have to do until the next big story.

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