DC at Night

DC at Night

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Shooting the President and the First Lady


It was one of Charles Dharapak's rare days off from his dream job, so he decided to do some shopping for his family. Instead of going to his regular Target, he traveled to the Target on Route 1 in Alexandria. After completing his shopping, he sat down in the food area in the front of the store.

He saw the group of buffed men and women enter. One of that group recognized him from previous dealings.

"What are you doing here?" the man asked

"Just waiting for someone," Dharapak responded.

The man left, joining the group which was carefully surveiling all parts of the store.

A short time later, Dharapak saw a woman entering. She was wearing a fashionable, brightly colored blouse. Her eyes were concealed by sunglasses and she wore a grey, Nike baseball cap. She was the reason why he was there.

Dharapak remained seated; he did not follow the woman as she shopped. He looked at the checkout lines, making sure he could see all of them clearly. He knew he would have to act quickly. Finally, the woman finished her shopping. She checked out and headed toward the exit.. Dharapak moved into position. As unobtrusively as he could, he aimed his camera and began clicking. He followed the woman out of the store, his camera at the ready. He watched as she and the entourage loaded up her possessions in a pair of SUVs and drove off. Finally, Dharapak smiled.  He knew he had an exclusive. He alone had captured pictures of First Lady Michelle Obama shopping at a DC-area Target.

But how had Dharapak, the Associated Press pool photographer for the White House, know to be at that Target at that time? Ask that question and he responds, "I like to think of myself as a journalist before I am a photographer. And journalists have sources."

Dharapak, who has been named this year's Still Photographer of the Year, appeared at an Inside Media program at the Newseum to describe in detail what it is like recording the official comings and goings of President Barack Obama and his wife Michelle on a daily basis.

As one of a group of  about a dozen photographers who are assigned regularly to the White House,   Dharapak travels with the President in motocades and on Air Force One. Those doing the job have a name for their situation - they call it life in "the bubble."

While the photographers relish their duty of capturing photos to document history, they are always looking for something a little more. "Sometimes, you'll get some real moments when you just don't get the president or the candidate, you get a glimpse of a real person," Dharapak said.

One of his favorite shots is one of President Obama reacting as he dropped his Blackberry phone on the tarmac after exiting Air Force One. "If I told you that was the 1st time I had seen him drop it, I would be lying," Dharapak said with a chuckle. "But this was serendipity. I was looking at the president and I saw his expression. I saw something (the falling phone) out of the corner on my eye and I began shooting. That's the type of image I really enjoy. It happens to all us."

How would Dharapak describe his work in the simplest terms? "You have to keep your eyes on the president at all times. My job is to keep my eyes on the president," Dharpak says.

Of course, while there is a sense of comraderie among the news photographers assigned to the White House, there is a sense of competition, too. "You have to be respectful of your colleagues, but you have to be mindful of the game. We have our favorite spots to shoot from. We say it's a game of inches. You don't want to be the guy that at the end of the day is the one who didn't get the photograph," he added.

Dharapak accompanied his talk with a series of photographs which he explained. One of the most interesting was a shot of Obama hugging and paying homage to noted writer Maya Angelou after he bestowed the American Medal of Freedom upon her. Dharapak credited the fact that he keeps a 5-foot ladder handy for just such instances for being able to capture that moving shot. "I anticipated the moment that was going to happen. I knew it would be hard to shoot straight on because of all the people taking pictures with their  iPhones and iPads. I got the picture because I had the altitude," he said with a laugh.

While there are great perks to working as a White House photographer, such as flying on Air Force One (and no, taxpayers don't pay that tab; news organizations pick up the costs), there are some down sides. Of course, there is the pressure to accurately record history daily. Then there is the actual press room in the White House. "If I had to describe it, it's like working in a submarine," Dharapak said. "We coined the phrase Still Country for our space." Then there is the constant need to keep abreast of the news and the people who make it. "We're not just taking pictures," he noted. "You have to learn the players and you have to keep up with the news."

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
Dharapak's talk served as an official kickoff to the Newseum's new exhibition entitled The Eyes of History 2012 which opened Sept. 28. Many of Dharaback's pictures are included. It will remain on view until March 29.

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