Story Behind the Photos: Bush Sr. Blows the High Five

Digging through my archive is a lot of fun, and also reminds me of many experiences I’ve had over the past twenty years. Perhaps I’m feeling my own mortality? Nah. Just kidding.

Years ago, when I first decided photography was my deal, I ran into a friend of my dad’s. This guy was was from the Midwest, but felt more like Texas. Heavy accent. Heavy laugh. Former FBI agent. A GREAT guy. He always called me by my first AND middle name because we both shared same first AND middle names.

“Daniel XXXX,” he said. “I went to school with a guy who I think is a pretty big deal over at Time magazine.” “This buddy of mine lives in Washington, and I think he’s a top dog.” “I’m gonna call him for you.”

A few weeks later I was on a plane headed for Washington. Leica and Nikon FM2 in my carry on bag. The unknown waiting for me.

My dad’s friend was correct. His buddy was a big deal, had been for a long time, and more importantly, was one of the nicest people I have ever met in my photography career. It was instant access.

We hit the ground running.

“Drop your bags, we are on our way to The White House,” he said.

“You mean the place where the president lives?”
I said unsure if he was trying to freak me out. He wasn’t.

Over the following days we lived the lives of Washington DC photojournalists, during a time when this was a freakin great thing. I met tons of other photographers, all people I was in awe of, walking the streets in their tan jackets, Leicas around the neck, cigs dangling from lips.

We ambushed Ross Perot on the street, right after he announced his running for President. And NOBODY had these images! I banged and jostled with camera people and other snappers as we all pounced on the diminutive Perot(I also found this shot in my archive).

I felt like I’d landed in a movie about photojournalism and I was the unknown star.(Start crying now.)

We hit event after event, made the rounds into political offices, etc. I shook hand after hand, took copious notes and tried not to screw anything up. I think I even wore a shirt with a collar.

“I’ve got to go shoot the Navel Academy Graduation ceremony,” my new friend said. “And I got you a credential to stand on the bleachers in the back.”

Awesome. And then I realized my longest lens was around the 50mm length. “Don’t sweat it, I’ve got something for you,” my friend said as he produced a HUGE lens, Canon but with a NIKON mount.

Up early, stuck in traffic, battling for position and bingo things were set. He worked the entire area while I acted the part of sniper, using the long lens to pick off little moments here and there. I kept the wide angle around my neck, knowing the hat toss was coming.

Jets seared the sky.

Bush Sr. was doing the meet and greet handshake with each and every person graduating and I happened to snap the ONE TIME someone tried to high five him. As you can see, it didn’t work out.

And suddenly the hats were up.

We kept working the scene as the event ended. I was able to leave the bleachers and move around, long lens tucked under my arm, wide angle in my hand. I graduated from college but it was nothing like this.

For me, this time in Washington was decisive. This time was representative of a period I enjoyed, a time when the industry was still cloaked in a lifestyle I admired and strived to live.

I knew this was what I wanted to do with my life.

The industry has changed. My friend is still there. And photography is still what I want to do with my life.

This trip also inspired me to give back to younger photographers starting out. I can’t offer them Washington, but I can offer them my own version of it, and for this reason I try to teach three or four times a year. Being with my friend, for a four or five day intensive period was like getting on the photo-expressway and merging right into the fast lane, foot crushed to the floor. I learned so much, so fast it was remarkable, and came away with many images I still enjoy today.

The Pack


Snappers descend on an anti-abortion doll, San Diego political convention, late 1990’s.

This photo says a lot about a lot of things, but I’m going to narrow it down to just a few. Perhaps one or two are relevant.

I used to love covering events. Big news events, political conventions(which is where this image was made)football games, protests, etc. I loved the thrill of the action, the packs of roving photographers, the idea of covering something considered news.

But today I’m a different person, and a different photographer. Now, I search out other kinds of work.

Working around a pack is a strange experience, especially now when the pack is so much larger than it has ever been. The switch, for me, was flipped when I covered the political convention in downtown Los Angeles a few years back(Upcoming Post!). Johnny Law was out in FULL FORCE, out of control in many ways, clubbing civilians, gassing and shooting rubber bullets for no particular reason. It was exciting in some ways but there were so many other photographers, camera people, etc, that in some ways the most difficult part was cropping out all the other snappers. I realized I was losing interest in working around other photographers.

At one point the LAPD was arresting a young woman who was carrying a pocket sized video camera who screamed, “I’m a filmmaker.” Her protest did nothing, but it did make we wonder what level of filmmaker she was, why she didn’t have a credential and why she was getting arrested? Again, the police were way overboard on how they responded to the crowd, but her plea made me realize the days of really earning a credential, really learning the craft were probably in transition. This is magnified ten-fold today, when it seems EVERYONE with a DSLR is a director of photography or cinematographer or filmmaker or producer overnight, and the internet as final destination-no quality bar- has also added to this mess.

As the years went on this reality became more and more evident. At the Super Bowl it seemed there were as many people on the field as there were in the stands(And this was the Super Bowl I covered years ago). If you have ever covered the Super Bowl then you will know the guy with Pentax K1000, 50mm and monopod that has a credential and prime spot. Seemingly everywhere I went everyone had a camera and was a “journalist” or “filmmaker” of some sort. In theory, doesn’t this democratize the process? Isn’t that supposed to be a good thing? Then why isn’t it?

I found myself looking for quiet, space, solitude and my own stories. When I would encounter even a single other photographer I would head in another direction.

There were exceptions. I worked in Sicily, five times, and each time with at least one other photographer, sometimes two or three, but we were doing it because we were friends and because we were sharing cars, sharing gas money, etc. And, what we were covering was large enough we all had our own working space.

Sometimes when you work in a pack the people you are photographing will do things they would never do simply because they are getting so much attention. This can even happen when you are working solo, but in that case it is easy to just stop shooting. Getting a pack to stop is nearly impossible. When it comes to a big news event, these packs can really create a whirlwind of their own news.(Check the articles about Lebanon from a few years ago.)

The only downside to not working these events is that I have several friends in this picture, and I do miss being around them in the field. But, I see them “off the field” so it works out.

All I know for sure is that I’m a “quiet” photographer. I think there is an upside and a downside to this. The upside is peace of mind, and quiet reflective moments on MY negatives, moments that ONLY exist for me and no one else in the world. Think about this. When I work on stories, I’m the only one there, and nobody else on the entire planet has what I have. The downside, depending on your point of view, is the lack of interest in quiet moments. Loud places tend to get more attention, but even so, when I look at my future, I see more quiet, less noise.

I think the real signature photographers don’t work in a pack, never have, never will. And I’m not referring to myself here, just others of more important historical significance. Their work requires more time and a different concentration applied in a different direction than the news photographer. Think AM vs FM radio waves. Great news photography is a fantastic thing, but again, I think a very small percentage of those in the pack are doing great news work. Maybe it comes down to motive?

I keep waiting to see signature work from Haiti that shows me a relationship between photographer and community but I have yet to see it….and I’ve been searching. Granted, it’s early days and it’s difficult to do, and perhaps I should not expect this from pack made imagery. I’ve seen work that is clearly “better” than others, but still superficial, probably due to the need to get things out as fast as humanly possible. I keep waiting for the portrait level of intimacy, and not portraits of maimed or bloodied people. I keep waiting for relationship and story telling that comes with speaking the language-even with translator-and a simplification that relays the entire picture in one image, but again, this isn’t typically what the pack provides. I’m sure it will come. The good news is that Haiti is at saturation level in the news, which has led to some great things.

What I’ve seen FAR too much of is the dead, burning rubble, heavily manipulated images of smoke and mangled bodies and tilted overly complex imagery that seems to puzzle readers but seems to be the favored snap of the modern journalism world, especially young photographers and younger photo-editors. And I see reportage from photographers who are there for a few days, fill up their drives, and have already moved on to other stories. I’m not sure what the point is other than to say, “I was in Haiti” at gatherings where a statement like that holds water. And granted, there are plenty of places where it does.(It is precisely these places that I pronounce myself a wedding photographer and watch people scatter. Just a little game I play to satisfy my juvenile tendencies.)

Or contest time, when we all know that Haiti will dominate the winning portfolios. Again, motive comes into my mind. Pack areas tend to provide contest winning material. The suburbs don’t.

I’m sure at some point in my life, I’ll be around a pack once again. I’ll say hello to my friends and then go the other way, searching for my cherished solitude.