Photo by Luis Castro
Background: For the last three administrations, our secure Merlin digital asset management (DAM) system has been chosen for documenting the daily activities of the President of the United States, the Vice-President, and their families. The teams of photographers and photo editors charged with recording the visual history of the Executive Office of the President need a high performing DAM to handle the volume of images and put them to use in many ways, including on websites, as books given to foreign heads of state to commemorate trips to the White House, and for the “Jumbo” prints that decorate the hallways of the White House and are constantly refreshed.
This Merlin DAM system is extremely secure, servers housed in a building patrolled by armed Marines, and on a transition of administrations the outgoing administration’s data has to be migrated to the National Archives, and a fresh new Merlin DAM system built for the incoming administration. For the last two weeks, our Luis Castro has been in Washington doing both tasks, under difficult conditions. As you will see, not only was security extremely tight, but some of his usual contacts were in the National Guard and were called up.
This is the story of his experience:
It seemed like a straightforward task: build a new Merlin DAM. As I found myself discussing the time it would take to set this up, all possible scenarios were brought up before ultimately deciding on 7 days. “Yeah, we should be able to build the server in 7 business days”. Little did I know of all the obstacles that stood in my way as this task began and 7 days turned into 15 days.
Within the first few days, there were constant delays and issues at every juncture of the process. The technicians were optimistic regardless of what issues came up. Their faith and trust in us were what allowed them to not get overwhelmed and stay focused. As each day ended, we kept getting closer and closer to the inauguration. Then it happened, the event that would test what resiliency we had left: the capitol was under siege. Extremists crossed the line and became terrorists to our nation. I will never forget that I was helping set up a Merlin system when the tech I was working with showed me a picture of the events that were happening, and it was so hard believing it was happening. “That has to be Photoshop. How could that even happen?” Shockingly, it was true and that is when the task before us became way more difficult than it would ever be. This was when I began to really worry about our safety being so close to this tragedy.
After the attack on the Capitol, the government began locking down the city. Every day that passed their perimeter got larger and larger. It was surreal walking down the streets of downtown and seeing businesses closed and boarded up. Secret Service, police, and National Guard soldiers on every corner from the Lincoln Memorial to the Capitol with every single bridge in a half-mile radius closed.
Finally, Inauguration day. As I began my mile walk to the Executive offices, I gave a courteous “good morning and thank you for your service”, to the soldier standing at the first security checkpoint as I walked by. He acknowledged my presence and allowed me to proceed. Approximately three blocks later, I arrived at the second checkpoint along with other government employees trying to get to their desks. I proceeded through, giving the security personnel my credentials and a brief explanation of why I was in the area. I was then instructed to proceed and have my belongings checked. The exchange with the security personnel that was searching my bags was pleasant. People around me were in positive and pleasant moods. I could see hope and desire for a new president. On to the third checkpoint. I did have some issues getting in as the president-elect motorcade stopped all movement for a little while. Once this checkpoint was cleared, I could not get through the last one as my allotted time to get there had exceeded by 2 minutes. Security asked me to reach out to my contact and request entry again. As I stood there waiting for approval to enter the building I took in the sights and sound of being where I currently was. A group of soldiers stood at the intersection, I could almost hear their conversations due to the eerie lack of background noise.
“Castro!” The security guard called out. “You’re all set”. I turned and began walking into the Executive offices. Once I met with my contact we settled in and began to work. Shortly after, one of the photo office personnel came in and stated, “anyone available to help hang up some Jumbos?”. Immediately all the personnel around me stood up and expressed their enthusiasm to do so. You could feel the excitement in the staff for what this meant. Officially, a new administration! Which most had been looking forward to for a while. I proceeded to follow my escorts and helped with the newly appointed task. We walked out of the executive offices and into the West Wing. Within the hour we had the main staircase and hallway decorated with the last 48 hours of history, including images from the vigil memorializing victims of COVID-19 the night before.
A few hours later, while waiting for resources to free up, my contact looked up at the news that was on in the background and called my attention to what was happening. The vice-president was coming up the west side of the building we were in. “Would you like to see if perhaps we can get a good picture from the steps?” I immediately grabbed my phone and stated, “Lead the way”. As we headed up the spiral staircase that stood at the end of the hall, we noticed there was a large group of people gathering at the end of the hall. Sure enough, they were all waiting for the first-ever woman Vice President to walk through the door. Within a few minutes the doors opened, staff began to clap with excitement as their phones and cameras all snapped images of this magical moment. “We love you!” was heard being shouted from a few individuals as she proceeded to enter and elegantly address the crowd. The moment was over, and I was able to experience it. I do not remember walking back to the desk we were using in the building. What I can tell you is that for the next few hours, you could see the urgency and giddy-up in everyone’s step on going back to work to accomplish the remaining transitional tasks on their perspective lists.
This by far was one of the longest days I have ever had here in DC. The dark sky and empty streets on my walk back to my hotel seemed different now, after all the events I had taken part in. I was no longer focusing on the empty streets or locked down buildings. As crazy as it seems, I could feel the change in the atmosphere around me. The feeling of amazement continued through even past the Inauguration concert that aired shortly after I settled in. Another day in history, one that will live forever in my life.
Written by Luis Castro