Nancy Reagan’s Funeral

(11 March 2016)

Nancy Reagan died on the 6th of March and, as with all high-profile public figures, her death was important news and would remain important news until her funeral was over.

Coverage on the first day of a famous person’s death is multifaceted:

1)  File photos (or filers) are acquired and put out on the wire.  Obviously, for a former First Lady of a well-known US President, those pictures usually show her with Ronald Reagan.  Picking up file photos can get involved and take time.  With someone like Nancy Reagan, we (EPA) had pictures of her from our archives.  However, for the older historic photos, we did not have them in our archives and needed to find a source where we could get the pictures and use them.  The first place we reached out to was the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library Foundation.  They were cooperative and provided images that were in the public domain and therefore could be used for news publication purposes.   However, with celebrities and others (criminals/suspects), sometimes acquiring pictures and the permission to use them can be difficult.  That will be dealt with when the occasion arises.

2)  Going to the person’s house and covering whatever is happening.  The comings and goings   outside the residence, such as flowers being delivered, or the coroner’s investigation, and eventually the hearse leaving the place of death.  A freelance photographer was dispatched to Nancy Reagan’s home in Bel Air to cover that aspect of the story.

3)  In the case of Nancy Reagan, there was also the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley where people could pay their respects.  We had heard that they would lower the US flag to half-staff.  I decided to cover this aspect of the story.  I arrived at the Reagan Library and in respect to Nancy Reagan, they had decided to close the library.  A few visitors that had shown up were being turned back. Not much to photograph but you do want you can.  Also, as with deaths of famous people or tragedies, people start to place flowers and mementos at what are now commonly called ‘makeshift memorials’. In the case of Nancy Reagan, people came by to place wreaths and notes next to and on top of the granite Ronald Reagan Presidential Library marker at the bottom of the hill (all traffic, except for media and officials, was barred from going up to the library at this time).

Then one starts to make preparations for the actual funeral and laying-in-state coverage (or laying-in-repose for Nancy Reagan).

Nancy Reagan had made meticulous plans for her funeral.  Normally, press is allowed quite good access to such stories. However, on this occasion, the Reagan Library decided to limit press coverage.  It was decided that on the two days that the First Lady would lie in repose for public viewing that only a select group of pool photographers would cover.  This is where one or two photographers from agencies and local newspapers cover for everyone.  The pictures are shared and we refer to this as ‘Pool Coverage’. I’ve covered a number of high profile funerals, including US presidents and First Ladies, and this was the first time it was decided that there should be pool coverage for the public viewing.

After much back-and-forth regarding who would be the pool and which news outlets would have access to the pool images and how they were to be distributed, it was arranged.  In a way, this was a relief as it meant that you had continual coverage of the many hours of public viewing without having to commit a photographer or the expense of a freelancer to essentially stake out the lying-in-repose event for two days.  This, however, means that everyone gets the same pictures and an alternative view of the event is not available.

Then there is the main event, the actual funeral.  The Reagan Library limited the number of photographers credentialed and allowed us only to shoot from the riser in the back of the room.  We had to arrive very early in the morning (some 6 hours before the funeral).  As is so often the case with journalism, you do a lot of waiting, especially for the visual media who need to get a position and figure out if it is possible to file photos from the location.  In this case, there were plenty of shooting positions and the internet connection with our connect cards was adequate.

Funerals follow a pattern.  Family, dignitaries and celebrities arrived, mingled and then were seated.  The main VIPs for Nancy’s funeral were former US President George Bush, Laura Bush, Hillary Clinton, Roselyn Carter, and Michelle Obama.  After their arrival, I filed a few quick photos.

The casket was brought in with an honor guard and then speakers took to the podium to recollect stories of the deceased.  When Ronald Reagan Jr went onto the stage, he unexpectedly reached out and touched the casket of his mother.  This happened very fast and, unless you were following him onto the stage with your camera and your finger on the shutter, you would have missed the shot.  Fortunately, I was prepared and made a picture (many of the other photographers missed this photo).  It turned out that this picture of mine was very widely published as it was a very touching moment. I filed this picture and a few others during the ceremony.

Following the speeches, the casket was then taken to the burial plot and dignitaries followed behind.  There was a pool arrangement at the burial site where final farewells were going to be said.  I expected these photos to be the most emotional and telling and therefore the ones to be most widely published.

After Nancy Reagan’s casket was taken to its final resting place next to her husband Ronald Reagan, lightning and thunder started and a heavy downpour ensued.  I looked out at where the casket was then positioned, guarded by a Marine with the rain pouring down.  It was lit with spot lights and the cascading wind-blown rain made for a strange and haunting scene.  An Associated Press photographer and a Reuters photographer were with me and the AP photographer rushed out to photograph a last Marine that was standing in front of the casket. I followed suit, but instead of proceeding into the downpour, I photographed from a covered side-view position.

Even with the hard blowing wind and almost everyone seeking shelter, some library personnel spotted us and yelled for us to leave.  He then entered the riser area and started yelling, ‘All media have to leave NOW. You have to leave NOW.’  He was agitated for some reason.  I speculated it could have been our attempt to photograph the casket in the rain.  It was a strange end to what had been a dignified, somber event.  I feel (with so much animosity towards the media these days) that this library official did not like the press and decided he was going to be loud and disrespectful to us.  We abided by his urgings and proceeded to leave.

It was pouring rain and we used the guest umbrellas, which proved useless as the strong winds blew them inside out.  Eventually we made our way onto the shuttle buses and were driven to our parking area a few miles away.  I liked the three frames I had taken of the Marine standing at attention next to the casket as sheets of rain poured down.  However, considering the belligerent attitude of the library official that shooed away the media, I was concerned to use it without permission.  I contacted my AP colleague who had also taken the photo as well and asked him if he was going to use it.  He said he was requesting permission and would advise me of their answer.

I headed home and stopped for a bite to eat.  I checked our service and saw that we had not received the final farewell pool photos.  I contact my boss and the desk to tell them that we should have received the photos and that they should look into why they had not been sent to us as arranged beforehand.  I then received a text message from my AP colleague saying that permission had been granted to use the casket images we had taken in the rain.

Though our desk never did get the pool images from the last farewell scene, my images of the solitary Marine and rain swept casket as well as Ronald Reagan Jr touching his mother’s casket were some of the most widely published images from the funeral.

It had been a long and exhausting day, but at least I had taken a couple images that I could feel good about.

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