Thursday, October 6, 2022
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What It Is Like To Be a White House Press Corps Photographer

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Imagine being tasked with photographing press events featuring some of the most famous people in the world, on a regular basis. Are you confident that you can come away with photographs as strong or better than those of your peers? Can you find the small, personal moments taking place in the chaos to create images that are unique? Christy Bowe is a photographer who has successfully accomplished these tasks for the past three decades.

Christy Bowe is a member of the White House Press Corps and founder of the ImageCatcher News Service. Christy’s photos have been published both nationally and internationally in publications and outlets such as The Washington Post, Time, Newsweek, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Fox News, People, Rolling Stone, Deutsche Presse, La Vie, Scanpix Sweden, GQ Germany, MTV, MSNBC, Wadsworth Publishing, and The Columbia Journalism Review.

In her earliest days at the White House, Christy made a connection with long-time White House reporter, Sarah McClendon. McClendon, who was known for posing sharp, blunt questions at presidential news conferences, had founded her own freelance news service, McClendon News Service, and Christy began shooting for that agency. Under the mentorship of McClendon, Christy learned the ropes at the White House and Capitol Hill and has been a member of the Press Corps since President Clinton’s first inauguration. “When Sarah McClendon was getting older, and it looked like she may be retiring soon, I said, ‘Sarah, I would like to start my own agency. Would you be willing to sponsor me for the credential transition to my own business ?’ Sarah was very good about giving people a hand up. And that’s what she always did and that’s what I tried to do whenever I can as well.”

Christy, who continues to cover the White House and Capitol Hill beat daily, has just published a book of photographs and behind-the-scenes stories, titled, Eyes That Speak. There are photographs and stories covering Presidents Clinton, Bush, Obama, Trump, and Biden as well as photos of other familiar faces such as Justice Brett Kavanaugh, Mitch McConnell, Muhammad Ali, Oprah Winfrey, Bob Dylan, and Mother Teresa. The book is detailed and makes you feel like you are right there alongside Christy as she photographs some of the most recognizable people in the country.

Ricard: When you are shooting the White House press events, how are the spots determined? Is it all first come, first served, or are spots pre-assigned?

Christy: Sometimes yes, at the White House, the spots are assigned. The wire services dominate the spots. They choose first, and then whoever’s in the pool gets priority. Then, the rest of us fill in. There are usually two different escorts. If you get there really early, The White House what’s known as pre-set where you mark your little spot with a step ladder or camera bag and then they clear the room and then you come back in when it’s closer to when the event is happening -maybe a half hour prior, and then you go to your location. And if you did not make pre-set and you come in for the final call, then you get whatever leftover spots there are. When photographing on Capitol Hill, the process often requires requesting a spot that will be chosen for you and marked off with a piece of duct tape with your agency’s name on it.

Ricard: I’m really bad at being assertive in those situations. I’m not good at the whole, “You’re in my spot,” battle. It just makes me uncomfortable. I’m not afraid of anyone. But at the same time, I don’t want to fight anybody just to take a photograph.

Christy: I don’t want to fight people either but I’ve learned in different situations that if you don’t hold your ground that you lose your spot. I remember bringing an intern with me one time to the White House and we were standing waiting for the First Lady to come out. And I was telling him to be really careful, because we were standing there for like an hour, maybe more. We’re talking in a group of like a couple hundred members of the media standing there waiting in the White House East Room. And some photographers will make subtle gestures that really add up. Somebody can be shifting from one foot to another slightly so and then the next thing you know, you’re five people back from where you were. 

Ricard: You’re 100% correct. I’ve been in that situation many times. There’s a slight movement from the shooter next to you, maybe just taking off a jacket…

Christy: …it’s just shifting and sometimes it can be very subtle. 

Ricard: You’re like, wait a minute, how did you get in front of me? It’s masterful the way some people do it. Let’s talk about your coverage of the events at the Capitol on January 6, 2021. What did you expect when you went to cover this event?

Christy: That morning I knew that President Trump was doing a rally but I was not aware of how extreme it was going to be until that morning, I heard on TV and the news, that people were saying that don’t go downtown, that it’s going to be very dangerous. 

Ricard: Now does that make you say, maybe I shouldn’t go, or are you like, all right, let me get down there?

Christy: That means, what time do we leave? This is news happening.

Ricard: What gear are you bringing? 

Christy: When there is a potentially dangerous situation such as a riot of some kind or something like this, I like to be very low key and, and shoot with one camera body using my cell phone now as a backup, because it allows me to move through the crowd easier. And that day, there were very few members of the press corps there compared to what there normally would have been because it was such a kind of a surprise that nobody saw this coming. And because so much happens in Washington, there are so many different kinds of threats on a regular basis that you kind of quit paying attention after a while.

One of the other professional photographers that were loaded down with gear got punched in the face and her cameras were smashed. There were TV cameras that were set on fire. I mean, the media was the enemy in the eyes of some of the people there because of the fake news reputation. Everything was kind of militaristic. As far as the people that were coming through, it was a, get out of our way, this is our place, not yours, kind of attitude. And things just got much more serious and intense as the day went on.

Ricard: Some of your images from that day are disturbing to look at. 

Christy: But there are also the small beautiful moments as well. I lost my precious new iPhone 12 and ended up getting it back from a veteran who refused to take a reward. He’s a former Vietnam vet. And that was such an act of kindness in the middle of the chaos. It was special. 

Christy: Photographing President Bush and his daughters was a nice family moment. He had just won his second term. I had been up all night covering that. It was just a nice family moment there. Things have changed in the world of news photography specifically, that it used to be that the news was a couple of times an evening on broadcast TV. We would take our pictures, process our film, go to the dark room, make a print, take it to the editor, and then it would end up in the paper. And now people are as they are shooting, they are transmitting and it is going around the world to a 24-hour news cycle that is constantly going. 

Ricard: Yeah, it’s amazing how fast it is. A few years ago I would photograph the Friday morning concerts in Rockefeller Center hosted by the Today Show. I would finish shooting the concert at about 9 am and I would get a coffee, and walk to my studio about 10 blocks away. By the time I would sit down and open my laptop, I could log onto Getty Images and copy all the names for my captions because the Getty photographers had already captioned and uploaded everything. Before I had even downloaded my cards. We do need to keep up with the technology and I know you are doing that with the Nikon Z9

Christy: The Z9, is quite an investment but it is a magnificent camera. When President Trump was in office, and we were photographing him in smaller rooms, like the Oval Office or the Roosevelt Room, he would say, ‘I want the cameras to be on silent. I don’t want to hear the shutter.’ On my D5, I would have it on silent and that was much quieter than it was in its normal mode. But with the Z9 there’s a silent mode where you push the shutter and there’s nothing. No sound at all.

I didn’t embrace digital right away. I went down kicking and fighting on that. I didn’t change over until right before September 11th in 2001 because I just was very insecure about not having a negative or something tangible that would hold the image. Just the fact that it was out there and you couldn’t touch it kind of was disturbing to me. 

Ricard: I bought a Nikon D1 very early but I didn’t use it enough. I wish I covered everything I shot digitally as well as on film during those days, but I didn’t. I think the thing that we should have focused on was the fact that we would no longer lose our images. Shooting slide film, you would mail out the original slide to some magazine, and never get it back. And it was a shame how much stuff I lost over the years. We should have embraced digital right away because we were never going to lose our images again. Instead, photographers obsessed over image quality and were wasting time testing if digital or film had better quality. And we were mad at the battery life on the D1. And none of that mattered as much as the fact that we were now going to keep our images. We couldn’t see the value of that at the time.

Ricard: I’m sure your decades of experience in covering events play a role in your consistently producing strong images. But how much of a role does luck play?

Christy: When President Obama was being sworn in for the first time, I had originally not gotten a position. I’m represented by Getty and Zuma press, but I am a small news organization. And then at the last minute, I got this fabulous spot, which I was so grateful that God was listening to me. This was such a historic moment. But I was stressing about it. There is tape on the floor that designates your spot, with your name on it and your news organization written on it. So the guy next to me was from Chicago, and he was all excited and I was kind of stressed because I was saying that I was concerned that Justice Roberts is going to be blocking President Obama’s face. We had to be there about 5 hours before the ceremony. It was freezing cold and it’s awful, but it’s worth it.

I was so worried about missing the shot that I worked on creating a back up plan. So I went down maybe 12 feet from where my position was, and talked to the TV guy and said, ‘Look, I’m not going to shake the stand or anything but if I need to, do you mind if I shoot over your shoulder if there’s an emergency and I’m blocked?’ And he said, ‘Sure.’ And that’s exactly what happened.

So going back to the guy next to me, we both got the shot when Vice President Biden was sworn in by Justice Stevens. The guy turns to me and he goes, ‘See you’re worrying too much.’ Just as he says that there’s nothing to worry about, we can see Biden, fine. I said, ‘Yeah, but Justice Stevens is short. Justice Roberts is a different story,’ And then sure enough, when President Obama stood up to take the oath of office, I was completely blocked. All I could see was his ear. That was it. 

So I ran down to my plan B, and that’s my big takeaway from this -always have a plan B. My fingers were so numb, I wasn’t even sure I was pressing the shutter. It was that cold. And then I kept thinking to myself, there’s only, 47 words here and then this moment is gone forever. But luckily, I have the picture

Ricard: You caught Obama’s smile…

Christy: When I got back to my position, the guy was in tears next to me. He said, ‘I have nothing. I couldn’t get any pictures from this at all.’ So that was very sad.

Ricard: In the book, you talk about being scolded by the Dalai Lama.

Christy: I have photographed him several times. This particular day, he was getting the Congressional Gold Medal at the Capitol, and I had not put in for my spot there when I should have. So I was lucky I was in there at all. But sadly, one of the things that happens at a lot of these important events, is everybody has a cell phone. They hold that up in their air and then you have all these cell phones that are blocking our shots as professional photographers. So I was very frustrated. I went outside the Capitol waiting for him to come out, thinking I could get some shots of him exiting the lobby. So I’m standing there waiting, and they had everybody stand down, where you could not move until he came through. And as he came through where I was, somebody had an umbrella over him that completely blocked him again. So I was extremely frustrated. And then the Capitol Hill police said, we had to stand here and wait. And meanwhile, I’m seeing my competitors, other photographers for competing news services, they’re behind me running to the stage where he is walking, and they’re getting the shots. And I said, wait a minute, this is not cool.

So I just thought they’re all running by me, so I’m going too. I don’t recommend doing this and I have not done that since. But in this one particular incident, I turned around and ran down to the stage. I did not realize that behind me, were like seven other photographers that were behind me. I reached the stage. I’d say it’s maybe eight people deep. And there was one opening there where there was only one person in front of me. So I run and get behind this woman photographer, and all the other seven photographers who are behind me bump into the back of me, and I knock into her. And she turns around and goes, ‘What the hell are you doing?’ And then the Dalai Lama comes to the edge of the stage. And he points to her and myself and he waves his finger. And he goes, ‘You two stop fighting.’ And then he just kind of smiled, which was nice. We could see he was just kidding around. So that was kind of an interesting moment there. And I have that picture in my book of him looking at me waving his finger.

Later he was on a different stage at the Capitol sitting in a chair while people were performing in his honor. And then I just looked at him and did the Namaste sign like, can’t we just put that behind us? He turned around and erupted in laughter and gave me a big Namaste back and allowed me a wonderful photo opportunity.

I remember several years later having a nice opportunity to share the wealth of a really good position.  I was photographing a press appearance by Whoppi Goldberg and there was plenty of space down in front near me. I had walked away to visit a friend in another part of the press area.Because there were no dignitaries, security was very relaxed. On my way back to my position, I saw a few aspiring photographers, and said, come on down here with me and get a better angle for a few minutes, and they were thrilled because it was six feet away from the stage. It pays to pay it forward. Be kind to people.

Ricard: I admire photojournalists who expose truths even when those truths are ugly or uncomfortable, but I’m more comfortable photographing the nice moments like you are describing here. I must say I do enjoy it when they get a picture of Biden’s notes though. There’s something very funny about the fact that politicians still don’t realize how good the resolution of our cameras and lenses are these days. A speaker simply cannot hold their notes and then flip it around so that it is visible to us for even a split second. Somebody is going to get that shot.

Christy: I have covered five US presidents. The thread that runs through all of them is that these people are human beings sitting behind that famous desk. Sometimes we as news photographers need to take pictures that maybe aren’t the most complimentary. But a lot of times we do have a choice when we’re editing whether or not we put out something that maybe isn’t the best of that person. I try not to do that. And I know a lot of other photographers who don’t either. Although I was not there that time, but as an example, I see something like Joe Biden’s foot get caught in his bicycle pedal – I always try to remember that there is a human being on the other side of my lens and that could have been any one of us…

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