The sirens are blaring 25 feet from my tent. I’ve been in D.C. long enough now that I can tell the difference between the amubulance, fire trucks and cop cars just by listening to the sirens. I’ve refined the skill even more. I can tell the difference between the Washington DC cops, the Secret Service and 15 other law enforcement agencies. Again, just by the sounds of the sirens.
Buried under three sleeping bags and two blankets to ward off the cold, I reach up and rub the sleep from my eyes. Curiously I stick one hand outside of my cocoon to do a temperature check. Just what I thought. Freezing. Freezing, bitter cold. And that’s inside my tent. I shiver involuntarily when I wonder what it’s like outside the nylon hut I call home.
I grab the fleece lined hoodie that I inherited when a friend gave up the chilly nights to move back into his apartment. Over top of that I pull on the lined “shooter’s” vest that I bought last winter in Asheville. Grabbing my hiking boots, I shake them one at a time to get rid of any rats that might have taken up residence in my size 13’s overnight.
Stumbling out of the tent in the frigid, arctic blast of Washington D.C. in January, I reach for the cigarettes and lighter that are in my pocket. Lighting one as I move down the sidewalk towards the “port-a-john” that’s meant to serve over 50 people, I think to myself that one day I’m going try to light a smoke and the flame will freeze.
Heading back to the tent to grab my gear bag, a thought keeps running through my head. “Why don’t I just give it up and get a hotel room?” It’s a legitmate question. One that has become legitimate by the hundreds of Facebook friends who ask it. It’s a question that some of the D.C. cops that are friends ask. It’s a question that I’ve been asked by CNN, CBS, ABC, Reuters, The Washington Examiner and some TV reporter from France.
It’s an easy question to ask; one that’s not so easy to answer. Rather it’s not easy to answer in a way that will be understood by people that aren’t experiencing this version of hell-on-earth. I don’t mean any disrespect to anyone by saying that. Being here in this environment and trying to make it understandable and real to people that have never – and will never – suffer through the pain of almost-frostbitten toes is akin to trying to describe the color blue to a person who’s been blind since birth.
The first and easiest response to the question of why don’t I get a room is money. Motel rooms in the suburbs are roughtly $150.00 a night. And that goes up the closer you get to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Rooms at The Capitol Hilton – a hotel 3 blocks from my tent – start at $300 a night.
The other motivations aren’t so easy to explain, but please bear with me.
Trust. In order for the occupiers to trust me, they have to see me. Because I’ve lived with them, slept with them, ate with them, played with them, worshipped with them, they know me. And because they know me they trust me. I’m allowed to turn the camera on any one of them at any time and capture anyone in their most fragile, private moments. I’m allowed to be in the midst of the mob as they violently storm the convention center or quietly march in front of The White House. Regardless of the time, activity or location, they trust me. They know I want to capture – accurately – what I see.
One example. While the major media photographers were practically shut out from the best vantage points the night of the infamous barn razing, the protestors kept shouting, “Let Jerry through! Make room for Jerry.” The protestors know that while the mainstream photographers come in for a half-hour once a week to exploit what they see, I’m living the movement. I’m in the cold and the street with them.
This trust has led to easy access. While so much of what I can say here would only be repetitive of what I said about trust, the protestors have given me unprecedented access. Access to the group meetings, the action planning committee meetings and anything else that goes on in McPherson Square. More than one time a protestor has come up to me and whispered about an action that was going to be coming down in an hour. While the mainstream media is shut out, I’m included. I’ve earned my stripes. I’ve paid my dues. I respect the protestor’s mission, they respect mine.
Having this unfettered access has led to a few humorous moments though. While I try to maintain a professional “distance” from the protestors as I work, there have been times where the line has blurred.
In November there was an action to Occupy Franklin School. As the protestors moved out with trenchcoats, black clothing and masks I was in front of the column. Walking backwards so that I could get photographs of the front of the column, the protestor’s stopped at the third intersection. Looking at me, one of the organizers asked, “Which way?”. I stopped shooting for a second; looked around to get my bearings and pointed eastward on 13th street. The organizer gave me a thumb’s up and half turned to the column. Waving his hand he yelled, “Follow me…Jerry knows which way to go”.
I smiled to myself as I continued to shoot. The line between photojournalist and activist had been blurred. Something that wouldn’t have happened if I had’ve been in that nice, comfortable $300 a night hotel room with warm showers, hot coffee and internet.
Jerry Nelson is a nationally recognized photojournalist and adventure photographer. His work has appeared in many national, regional and local publications including CNN, USAToday, Upsurge, Earthwalkers and Associated Content and he is a regular contributor to Huffington Post as well as OpEdNews. Nelson travels the country seeking out the people, places and things that make America unique and great. Nelson currently is in Washington D.C. pointing his camera at OccupyDC and freelancing for The Washington Times the second largest paper in the nation’s capital.
CLICK HERE to see more of Nelson’s work or to hire him for a shoot.