I had the opportunity to go to the Webby Awards with my colleague Helen Popkin
on Tuesday night. You may recognize the Webbys as the award show with
the five-word acceptance speeches. While Helen was filing for press
credentials she was able to get me added to the list as her
photographer so I packed my gear and prepared to engage an aspect of
journalism I'd previously only seen on TV or at a distance here in New
Step one, pick up my credentials. Ah yes, "Wilma" Femia, beautiful. Off to a strong start.
Next, find our spot on the rope. I have no experience in these things but it
seems like the press area was a little overbooked. Pieces of paper hung
on the rope to mark which press outlet should stand where but they were
closer together than the average human is wide, never mind reporter and
photographer, so it was tight all the way through.
Ultimately I took a spot next to the MSNBC sign at the front where people would
pose for photos and Helen moved farther down the line where she could
get some breathing room.
A publicist placed large masking tape crosses on the carpet in front of
us indicating where the guests would stop to be photographed. I had a
good spot indeed. (The other photographers promptly shouted at the
publicist that the crosses were too big and they'd never be able to
sell photos of people standing on giant white Xes. They were replaced
with tiny pieces of tape and in the end the people just stopped
generally in front of us for pictures and didn't really look for a mark
to stand on anyway.)
The photographers who set up at the front
of the line to take pictures for the major newswire services are really
outstanding in their professionalism. Hanging around waiting for celebs
to arrive they chatted about camera gear. One guy held forth that 3200
ISO, while maybe mathematically possible, really isn't visually
different from 1600 ISO and his $8000 camera wasn't really giving him a
full $8000 worth of camera for all the neck ache its weight was giving
him. At this point my text messages to my wife were all along the lines
of, "What the hell am I doing here?" and, "I am WAY out of my league."
the pro photographers were also extremely collegial. As we got closer
to show time, we talked about how we'd stand staggered to stay out of
each other's shots. There was a cursory discussion of "y'know what I
hate when it's crowded like this?" It turns out the biggest offense is
holding your camera with your right elbow out. I had to think the
"elbows down please" discussion was for my benefit as they recognized
me as a stranger to the scene but I felt more appreciative than
As the procession took place we helped each
other get the names of people we didn't recognize. The guy in front of
me wouldn't regularly check, "Did you get the dress?" I assured him I
was all set, and for my part, I made sure not to get in the way. A lot
of media outlets, including msnbc.com, pay good money for the shots
these guys were taking. Making a mess of the real photographic record
because I wanted to play photographer-for-a-day was not something I
wanted on my conscience. Here's an example of what the pros shot.
Looking at the photo above you can almost figure out who took these.
talking shop and camera equipment wish lists one of the guys repeatedly
emphasized the value of a camera with a fast frame repeat rate. I used
the burst feature on my camera and shot about 200 pictures standing
there with them but the value of being able to take even more in a
single push of the button became more clear when I looked at what I'd
taken later in the evening. Seth Meyers (who did an excellent job
hosting the evening and I can't believe I haven't found video of his
monologue yet) was courteous and patient in granting photographs. He
licked his lips for just a split second between smiles and of course,
that's the one I got.
Arianna Huffington was clearly no stranger to red carpets but her smile
definitely suffered from fatigue as she made her way along the row of
I was standing next to a pushy camera man from the CBS Early Show (I say
"pushy" descriptively, not derisively, because the whole scene was very
aggressive and everyone had to get their shots. You don't tell a major
network morning show that you didn't get footage for them because it
was kind of crowded and you didn't want to seem pushy.) and a local WNBC
reporter. Watching the ceremony guests move from stiff nervous poses to
reporter interviews, it began to dawn on me that the photos might
actually be better somewhere away from the photographer area.
much more genuine is Huffington's smile while she's talking to another
human instead of a wall of blinding flashes? Her five-word Webby award
acceptance speech was, "President Obama. Sounds good, right?"
as the picture snappers were beginning to get restless with the caliber
of guest the carpet was offering, Obama Girl and McCain girl arrived.
Attractive women with a fondness for posing and a need for attention
changed the energy in an instant.
what it's worth, I found Obama Girl to be genuine and rather natural.
McCain Girl gave the sort of plasticine impression I get from the hired
guns at car conventions. That said, her physique did border on the
"Girls" would eventually be responsible for what I can only describe as
the non sequitur of the evening. The award ceremony was punctuated with
video clips and other bits of entertainment. The offering from BarelyPolitical.com was The Incredible McCain Girl,
a video in which McCain girl becomes enraged over criticism of her
candidate so she turns into the Hulk and ... well, there's not really
I was finally able to make myself useful when Emily and Ben Huh came
down the line. They said the name of their site over and over, "I Can Has Cheezeburger"
but no one knew what they were saying. It had been a concern of mine
that I wouldn't know who the important people were and would miss the
good photos, but it turns out none of the photographers knew most of
the Web people and even many of the reporters didn't really know who
they were interviewing. One reporter, upon hearing Arianna Huffington
explain her political perspective replied, "Oh, so you're biased?"
Um... duh. Anyway, the way it worked for the photographers was that the
event publicists would pass ahead or just behind the guests to tell us
who they were and how to spell their names. Some of the photographers
had audio recorders built into their cameras and after taking the shots
they'd speak into the back with the spellings or notes like, "They're
on the tip sheet."
By the way, the real revelation to come from the Huhs is that not only do they not own a cat but they're allergic.
As it became clear that I was taking the same but inferior photos as
the real photographers, my attention started to wander and I considered that
next time something like this comes up I should stick to contextual
I don't know if the bystanders knew who was coming but many of them did
end up having their pictures taken with Ludacris when he arrived.
David Byrne, on hand to receive a lifetime achievement award, was
probably the most experienced red carpet walker we saw, and as such he
gave it the least amount of attention. He stopped briefly for cameras,
never quite posing so much as pausing, and then blew past all the
reporters calling for comments. To be fair, the guy already puts so much content online. His current project came up in a lot of the buzz I overheard at the Webbys. He calls it "Playing the Building."
The antithesis of Byrne's carpet sprint was will.i.am's slow crawl. He
took the time to give full, thoughtful answers and explanations to
every reporter who spoke to him. He was there to receive the Artist of
the Year award for his Yes We Can
video. The explanation I heard him giving most often was that he
initially thought the song would be distributed through his label but
because of its political nature they rejected it and YouTube was his
only recourse. I also heard him tell a reporter that his Wikipedia
entry is wrong.
Mike Relm wandered past
the photographers pointing at each one and giving us the Spock eye. I'd
never heard of him. Apparently he's a famous DJ. His award ceremony
story is pretty funny though. He was meant to be the half-time
entertainment, so he gets up on the stage and does some scratching and
mixing and then he realizes that the video that's supposed to accompany
what he's doing isn't playing. While still standing on the stage he's
informed that the video simply is not coming and tough luck. He left
the stage to applause for what he'd done but it was clear he was pretty
gutted at coming clear across the country and getting on stage only to
find out his show was ruined.
Hey, that's what the Zagats of "Survey" fame look like.
The arrival of Ludacris was the highlight of the pre-ceremony hoopla.
Behind the crush of press came a wave or citizen onlookers shouting,
"Luda! Luda!" Even the staid pros broke formation and shot down the
sidewalk. One remarked that his old paparazzi instincts accidentally
kicked in. The impression I got was that this was the money photo op
they'd been waiting for. Ludacris was there to present the Webby to
will.i.am but he was also promoting something called Wemix.
I haven't had a chance to play with it yet but it's a music service
that comes with mashup tools, which sounds like a great idea.
Inside the hall I was allowed to watch the ceremony but didn't have a
table seat. Instead there was food upstairs for press, a giant bowl of
pasta. That was fine with me because I found a way to sneak into the
balcony for these shots. Afterward I went back to the main floor and
sat near the open bar, availing myself of a Macallan 12-year and a
glass of Blantons before the night was up. It was amazing how the
five-word gimmick turned what would have been boring into a compelling
spectacle. What would you say if you only had five words? If these
folks were so great as to be receiving awards, what would they come up
with? CNET has a list of their favorites.
My personal favorite was, "Thank you from the bottom..." because while
he only used five words, he made me credit him mentally with at least
three more. There's a full list of them here.
Above is Zoe Margolis liveblogging the ceremony for The Guardian.
At times I saw her flip-camming and Twittering as well, a real 2.0 kind
of gal. Speaking of Twitter, this was the second event at which I found
Tweetscan to be much more useful than Twitter itself. By scanning
Twitter for "Webby" and "Webbys" I was able to find out that Rachel Zoe
was in the room, and later spotted her. Useless info perhaps, but a
good exercise nonetheless.
I know Stephen Colbert was meant to be the star of the event, and
indeed he managed to be even with only five words ("Me me me me me").
But he didn't walk the red carpet, he sat very far from me and somehow
he disappeared from the event by the time it ended and couldn't be
found in the rush to the exit (and I looked all over the place).
Random note and contest: During a lull on the red carpet I was looking around and saw another celebrity stroll up the street totally unnoticed. By luck I spotted him again after the ceremony and asked his permission for a photo. He checked with his companion and gave his assent. For a my last set of digital die and weird USB LED light MSNBC swag, name this celebrity. First one wins.