James K. W. Atherton of The Washington Post, considered by many to be the dean of Capitol Hill news photographers, talked with us recently about the Iran-Contra hearings and other topics.

Q: What kind of equipment do you use to cover these hearings?

A: I carry three bodies -- a Leica M2 with a 35, and two Nikons. I carry five Nikon lenses -- a 24mm, 50, 105, an 80-200 zoom and a 300. I usually use the 35 and 50 for general views and huddles, but basically it's a long-lens job. When I shoot the witnesses I use the 300 on a monopod, or the zoom. I try to crop at the camera and that's easier with the zoom.

Another thing: Motors are not permitted. I take all but one of mine off the cameras. Every once in a while I use the motor (it's very quiet) with the 300 so I don't have to take the camera down, wind, and refocus.

Q: Do you have time to shoot anything beforehand?

A: Yes, when the witnesses arrive we can go up to the table and make shots of the preparation. We can also make stuff on the committee members huddling, shuffling papers and getting organized.

Then, when the gavel bangs, we're locked in position until the session is over.

Q: You mean you can't move at all?

A: Well, at first they said that, but the rule has broken down somewhat. I admit I cheat. I'm just very careful how I do it, and don't make waves.

Q: Is this coverage different from the Watergate hearings?

A: Yes. There is a great physical difference. At Watergate, you could cover more with less movement. The current hearings are photographically a nightmare.

At the Watergate hearings we were able to cover the witnesses, and if needed, just turn around and shoot the committee. The two-tiered table we have now makes it difficult to get a clean shot of anyone seated there.

It's crowded with senators and congressmen with all kinds of staff people in between and behind them. It's so cluttered. I told Senator Inouye during the preparations that coverage would be difficult. I said I'd have to send him a note saying "I can hear you, Senator, but I can't see you."

Q: What about the current hearings? What's happening with coverage rules?

A: The Select Committees didn't want a lot of photographers in the room, because we "create a lot of hassle." The committees wanted the stills to pool, but we talked them into allowing 12 photogs to cover. As a matter of fact, it's grown to 14, but that gets pretty crowded. In the Senate Caucus Room we're not allowed in the center. We can only work from the edge of the witness table outward.

The same thing is true for TV. They have a camera lined up with the edge of the witness table and have to work from there.

TV is all pool. You can see this when you switch from station to station and see the exact same thing. At first they were to have six cameras but that was reduced to four. Most of the time they just use two. They're not even coming in for cutaways -- just taking the pool feed.

Q: When Col. North testified, did things change?

A: Some! The big difference was the addition of remote cameras. Rich Lipski {another Post photographer who covered the hearings} took special interest in the remote setups and as a result we had something new and different. We also added positions for large-format cameras.

Some of these were pool, others were set up by individual organizations. The other significant change was that all camera positions in front of North were preassigned. This was for his entire testimony and will be true for all major witnesses.

Q: How long have you covered the Hill?

A: For about 30 years. I was assigned from time to time when I worked for UPI, and occasionally for the Post. I was permanently assigned to the Hill during the Watergate hearings. That's about 14 years.

Q: Any noticeable changes during that time?

A: Yes. The biggest is that the press corps has gotten so big. Many times, the crowd in a hearing room is the press.

There is a shifting -- an ebb and flow. Sometimes there are more still photographers than TV people. When there's something important going on, TV can have 25 different crews covering. That's 50 people, plus reporters and other scribblers.

On the other hand, during the confirmation hearings for {FBI Director William} Webster to be chief of the CIA, there were 25 still photogs and TV was pool. There were three TV cameras in the room to feed everyone, and each outfit would come in from time to time and make cutaways. Pools are becoming a major thing on the Hill.

Q: Is this good or bad?

A: Bad! The coverage is all the same; nothing is different.

Q: Is this the same trend with the stills?

A: No, not yet, because generally there aren't as many stills. Normally you have the wires, The Washington Post and the Washington Times covering. The major news magazines are there most of the time, too.

Q: What about security? Tougher than normal?

A: Very tight. I try to be in the room a good half-hour before the start. We go through the metal detectors and get searched. On the Senate side, you get searched going into the building, then going into the Caucus Room.

People on the coverage list are given an entry card before each session which has to be relinquished when you enter the room.

Q: I've never heard of anything like this.

A: They've never done anything like this before.

Q: Despite your experience and skills, do you find yourself overshooting on this story?

A: You do if you keep missing things. When Elliott Abrams was testifying I had problems. When he'd gesture, I was zoomed in too tight. He was animated and would do things I wanted to photograph. I would watch for the right second to shoot, but get tired, take my camera down, and he'd do what I was waiting for. He did that to me all morning.

Q: How do you prepare yourself mentally for the day's shooting?

A: Every night I listen to the news. Every morning I check the UPI daybook and read the hearing stories in our paper. I try to look at some of the other news so I don't lose track of the rest of the world. I also check the Hill activity lists and the News in Digest from UPI.

Even so, one of the toughest things is to give the editors something new every day. On a story like this you can fall into a pattern of making the same kind of picture over and over. I try to avoid that and so far have been lucky.

The longer these hearings last, the tougher it will be.