An Unexpected Handshake

By Samuel Masinter ’04

Nelson Mandela loomed so large in history that he seemed out of place sitting quietly on
a couch.

[May 12, 2005] Diane Bondareff, a New York photographer, stood next to me in the lobby of the Waldorf Astoria in Midtown Manhattan. It was May 2005, my first year as a “Green Dean” writer-editor at Amherst, and my first major photo assignment. We were with Jide Zeitlin ’85, chairman-elect of the board of trustees, waiting for an update on the morning’s schedule. Zeitlin asked, “Are you ready?”

Soon I would step into a private elevator, wearing a red wristband that cleared me through three levels of security into Nelson Mandela’s suite. I was filling in for Frank Ward, Amherst’s photographer for almost as long as I’d been alive. I was terrified.


Samuel Masinter ’04 shaking hands with Nelson Mandela

Photo by Diane Bondareff

The suite was filled with people: the State Department’s Diplomatic Security Service; Mandela’s own security; Board Chairman Amos Hostetter ’58 and his family; and then-President Tony Marx, his wife and two young children. It took me a minute to see Mandela, a man who loomed so large in history that he seemed out of place sitting quietly on a couch and smiling as everyone in the room orbited around him.

I started taking pictures of everything. Twice. Three times, just in case. I filled up my first of only three memory cards in just a few minutes. I was changing cards when Marx asked if I “wanted to meet him.” I slung my camera across my back and Marx made the introduction. Mandela smiled. We shook hands. He made small talk. Bondareff took a photo of us.

We were hurried out of the room, escorted through empty hallways and across a street cleared by the NYPD. Black SUVs with flashing red and blue lights surrounded the hotel. Five minutes later I was in the third row of a standing-room-only crowd in St. Bartholomew’s Church, hunched over a camera and hoping the telephoto lens I had would give me the shot I needed. Mandela entered the church to a standing ovation. I watched the entire event through a viewfinder.

Nelson Mandela at his honorary degree ceremony
I’ve never second-guessed an assignment as much as I have that one. The photo could have been sharper. I should have rented a 300 mm lens. I should have brought another memory card. Still, it was the first time I felt comfortable adding “photographer” to my job description. It’s a title I’ve carried with me through the two jobs I’ve had since. Photography has taken me into Air Force bases, malaria research labs, the State Department and movie sets. But nothing will ever live up to an unexpected handshake in a hotel room I was only in because someone else couldn’t be.

Photo at right by Samuel Masinter ’04 who is director of college relations at Smith.