Thursday, January 21, 2016
Photo-shoots don't usually make me nervous, but standing three feet away from President Obama, I must admit, gave me a few jitters. I was at the White House to photograph the signing of the Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention Act, a bill designed to stem the tide of 22 veteran suicides per day in the US. The bill had been pushed through in large part by my long-time client, the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans Association (IAVA), and this was the culmination of all their efforts.
It was gratifying for me as well, as I'd photographed throughout the journey to make the bill a reality. I'd sat in on IAVA strategy sessions, walked the halls of Congress with their people, and photographed the backroom meetings with members of the House and Senate. I'd also met Susan and Richard Selke, parents of Clay Hunt for whom the bill is named. Clay was a decorated Marine and former IAVA staffer who took his own life in 2011. The Selkes agreed to lobby for the bill, and endured countless meetings and press interviews where they told and retold their painful personal story.
I've photographed at the White House a few times over the years, but not nearly enough to achieve the cool, casual demeanor of the White House press corps. I tried not to gawk too much as I was led through the front door and into the East Room, already filling up with media and guests. I was taking my place in the tight area roped off for still photographers when an IAVA staffer pulled me into the VIP. I would get a similar position to the White House staff photographer: the President and First Lady would be striding by just inches in front of my lens.
So I cranked my shutter speed up a few notches to avoid any jitter-induced blur issues, checked my exposures...and then the President and First Lady strode by inches in front of my lens. After that, well a press conference is a press conference, a real cake walk for a photographer. The trick I’ve found during these high security DC events is often figuring out where to be before things begin, because once you’re placed you don’t have much freedom to move (unless you enjoy getting tackled by the Secret Service). Did you realize too late that the guy signing the bill is a lefty and that you need to move over a couple of feet to get his face? Too bad, there are already three wire photographers in that spot!
After the press conference, I headed to the Willard Hotel to photograph a celebratory post-signing reception. I watched the Selkes as Paul Rieckhoff, head of the IAVA, and Robert McDonald, the new VA secretary, spoke about their son. The emotion on their face, and the more powerful emotions I saw them fighting back. I am hoping this act they worked so hard to promote will save many lives.