What It’s Like to Work in the White House Photo Office

Chuck Kennedy is a former White House Photographer and worked as Assistant Director of the White House Photo Office during the Obama Administration.

How is it to work as an assistant director and official White House photographer on the day to day?

My title was Assistant Director of the White House Photo Office, from February 2009 to January 2017.

On a typical day, I’d get in about 8:30 in the morning and check again the day’s schedule of events for the President and First Lady. I’d usually confer with my colleagues and assign the assignments for the day. How late I stayed each day just depended on the nature of events that were taking place.

I’d usually work a full day five or six days every week. Occasionally, it was more. On foreign trips, it could be eight or nine days straight.

My colleagues and I would rotate weeks to determine who would be on call during any given week at night/weekend. That gave us a some flexibility to predict, on a calendar, when things might get messy schedule-wise. Or who was working holidays. While random in some ways, certain patterns emerged. Like who always seemed to attend a funeral, or travel to particular states. For big events, like a State Arrival, we’d all be covering different aspects.

Event-wise, the subjects coming through the White House included the best and brightest of world leaders, artists, performers, athletes, or administration staff. Perhaps a kid who had written a letter that caught the President or First Lady’s attention. Fantastic talents like Mick Jagger, Adele, Beyonce, Bruce Springsteen, BB King—and that’s just from the music sector! Pretty incredible.

A Marine Sentry posted outside the entrance to the West Wing of the White House. (Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy)
President Barack Obama delivers a statement regarding the Paris Agreement on climate change, in the Rose Garden of the White House, Oct. 5, 2016. (Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy)

Do you have a sense of moral obligation regarding your images, knowing that over time opinions of presidents can change?

Personally, I always wanted to give 100 percent to this endeavor. I had two motivating factors. First: Trust in the people for whom you are serving and collaborating with. Second: The demands of recording history.

Our mandate for the Photo Office was to build the richest and most complete photographic record for future researchers of history (and for the First Family, I suppose). There will be a desire for those historians looking back on different parts of Obama’s presidency—maybe his first hundred days, or the process to pass the Affordable Care Act, or the First Lady’s work with child nutrition, education or military families.

Less glamorous photographically speaking are simple things, like knowing the joy of an 8×10 print for a person that meets the president. You feel a responsibility for that, too. That could be a transformational personal moment to someone. You don’t want to mess those things up.

I feel really good about my work and the work of the Obama administration and our Photo Office to record this sliver of time. Our photos were relevant, and honest… sometimes extraordinary.

President Barack Obama delivers remarks to highlight the impact a sequester will have on jobs and middle class families, at Newport News Shipbuilding, in Newport News, Virginia, 2013. (Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy)

When did you start using a Fujifilm X-Pro2 and why?

In my pre-digital years, I usually had a Leica M film camera in addition to Canon SLRs. I suppose I wanted to be able to replicate in digital that small and quiet form factor. Something compact with a decent fast prime lens or two. It would compliment the Canon 5DmkIII, which I needed for flash and longer lenses.

I was skeptical about APS-C sensors delivering the quality I expected and need to print up to 20×30 inch prints. Also, I survived the early digital transition where you had enormous and loud SLRs with small sensors. I really hated having to use wider zoom lenses cropped back to where I wanted to be focal length-wise to begin with.

President Obama, stands in the “door of no return” on Senegal’s Gorée Island, where captive Africans were led as slaves onto ships bound to America. (Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy)
Final preparations for the State Arrival ceremony honoring Prime Minister Matteo Renzi of Italy and his wife, Mrs. Agnese Landini, outside the Diplomatic Reception Room on the South Lawn of the White House, Oct. 18, 2016. (Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy)

Not sure how the X-Pro2 made it on my radar, but Fujifilm was generous enough to send me a body and couple of lenses for a trial. I liked the weight and loved the 23mm f/1.4 lens. I also found the electronic shutter indispensable in certain situations, like in a TV interview, performance, or some private meetings. The absolute silence let me shoot as much as I wanted compared to a shutter clicking where I would really self-limit the number of frames I’d shoot.

Also, I like some of the Fujifilm color models that I can apply to the RAW files. Reminds me of the Fuji films I used to use. I was skeptical of electronic viewfinders, too. But now I really like it—especially the magnification for critical manual focus. Good for tired eyes.

In summer 2016, I bought an X-Pro2 and couple of lenses for myself and really like the results so far. I’m very curious about the new medium format Fujifilm.

Advance staff works by the President’s motorcade during the United States Air Force Academy commencement ceremony at Falcon Stadium, in Colorado Springs, Colorado, June 2, 2016. (Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy)
Invictus athletes listening to stage program during the Opening Ceremonies of the 2016 Invictus Games at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in Orlando, Florida, May 8, 2016. The Invictus Games is an international adaptive sporting event for wounded, injured, and ill service members and veterans. (Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy)
First Lady Michelle Obama joined by Prince Harry, President George W. Bush and Morgan Freeman listen to Invictus athlete stories during the Opening Ceremonies of the 2016 Invictus Games at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in Orlando, Florida, May 8, 2016. The Invictus Games is an international adaptive sporting event for wounded, injured, and ill service members and veterans. (Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy)

How do you keep your inspiration, creativity and stamina for eight years straight?

I think this is a challenge for any photographer. No matter what the subject, we strive to refine a style, vision, or technique. Otherwise, why bother!

On campus—White House events and meetings are usually in the same rooms, and the event lighting generally doesn’t vary a great deal. You find angles or times of day that work better in all those situations and go to those first to make sure you have something serviceable before looking elsewhere in the scene for something unusual.

I also relied upon remote cameras frequently for places a photographer would be in the way or couldn’t physically be. One remote that I was very happy with I shot on the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s speech at the Lincoln Memorial. To do it, I clamped a radio-triggered Canon 5DMkIII to a 17-foot-tall painter’s pole and raised it like a periscope to get the angle I wanted of the President, First Lady, and former presidents Clinton and Carter walking out to the crowd.

Let me tell you, I was feeling like a circus performer spinning plates on a stick. I’m surprised I didn’t kill a camera on marble, really. That was in 2013.

Another way of thinking outside the box, as it were, the elevator photo. Coming or going in/out of hotels, offices, convention centers was always a tour of the least glamorous sides of buildings. Dumpsters and loading docks. In this case, we were at a black-tie event in 2009, and in a huge meeting space that could accommodate this enormous elevator which could accommodate all the traveling staff and Secret Service.

This was a rare case where not being in the bubble and watching from the other side made for a fun moment when the doors closed. I’ll have to go back and look at the sequence to see if can guess which shoe belonged to President Obama.

The elevator door closes on Secret Service, staff, and others departing from the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute’s 32nd Annual Awards Gala dinner at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in Washington, D.C. on Sept. 16, 2009. (Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy)

I adore and respect the President and First Lady, the Biden family as well. They were all very generous to us as official photographers to grant us access to be watchful and creative. I’m grateful for them ignoring us while working.

President Barack Obama meets with hosts during a fundraiser in New York, N.Y., March 11, 2014. (Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy)

Personally, I always felt like working at the White House was like a small town. There are so many talents and personalities working to a common set of goals that it’s hard not to be equally impressed by a carpenter, florist, painter, gardener, chef, butler, Secret Service agent, or member of the military.

Honestly, in 8 years I was humbled by how many different skills intermeshed to make things go seamlessly. So, you know, you hustle, do your part for the team and watch everyone else’s back. That keeps you invested and enthused.

I’ll add, a lot of our best work was printed and on rotating display around the White House complex, and you know that your audience ranges from the President to the custodian—I wanted and appreciated them all to stop sometimes for a moment to view a photo. That keeps you motivated, too.

President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama depart the 4th quarter toast with White House staff on the South Lawn of the White House, Oct. 14, 2016. (Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy)
President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama sing songs with Girl Scouts during the White House Campout, as part of “Let’s Move! Outside” on the South Lawn. 2015. (Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy)

Driving home after a day of work to get back to your family and friends must feel quite strange, how did you separate your personal life from the job?

You know, for eight years you are mentally looking ahead to the next day, or week, or trip—constantly trying to anticipate staffing needs or the potential for a problem.

Certainly on weekends or a day off, you’re hoping that the Cyclops red LED on a brick of a Blackberry doesn’t start blinking. But you know, I think to be effective at work you also need to have a life. I can’t tell you the number of times—like any parent jumping straight from work to shuttling one of my kids to a fencing or Tae Kwon Do practice, or cook a dinner—you just get good at juggling.

You also hope for (and I in fact have) a very supportive and forgiving spouse. I didn’t really try to separate work/life. I considered both my families.

Fall foliage illuminated by television lighting on the North Lawn of the White House, Nov. 8, 2016. (Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy)

My commute was about six miles through the heart of Rock Creek National Park located in Washington DC. Windows down and some loud music in the car was a nice way to decompress on the way home.

Certainly there were extraordinary, surreal extremes. Like flying from Washington to Johannesburg and back for the funeral of Nelson Mandela. Leaving home at 6am on a Monday, attending the memorial service in a brutal rain and then walking in my front door about 48 hours later in time to catch my youngest son before school on his birthday. Without a magnificent blue and white Air Force 747, it wouldn’t have been possible.

President Barack Obama boards Air Force One at Joint Base Andrews, Maryland for departure en route to South Bend, Indiana, June 1, 2016. (Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy)

How did you select images for your portfolio?

I haven’t done a deep-dive retrospective edit. I routinely tagged favorites while editing each day in PhotoMechanic to mark those selects while prepping files for the photo archive. Really, most everything here had been released in some form or from public events. I just wanted to put it in one place as I re-enter the world.

President Barack Obama pauses after adjusting a wreath placed in the Hall of Remembrance during his visit to the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem, March 22, 2013. Standing behind the President, from left, are: Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau; Israeli President Shimon Peres; Israeli Prime Minster Benjamin Netanyahu; and Avner Shalev, Chairman of the Yad Vashem Directorate. (Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy)
One of the stairways in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, adjacent to the White House. Constructed between 1871 and 1888, the building provides offices for much of the White House Staff. (Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy)

What is your best memory of this part of your life?

Countless, really. Camaraderie, teamwork, people, adventure, a common good. Maybe a good meal here and there!

President Barack Obama, First Lady Michelle Obama, and former Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton walk past the statue of President Lincoln to participate in the ceremony on the 50th anniversary of the historic March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. August 28, 2013. (Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy)
President Barack Obama walks to Marine One on the South Lawn of the White House for departure en route to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, Aug. 26, 2016. (Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy)

What are your career plans after this long term assignment?

This is the million-dollar question. I’ve joked that I can think of some things I don’t want to do (I’d like to avoid work confined by red velvet ropes). Seriously though, I’d like to be able use my documentary and portrait skills, storytelling to support initiatives and ideals that the Obama administration worked towards—like fighting climate change and environmental protection protection, education accessibility, childhood nutrition… Going on tour with Adele or Beyonce would be fun, too!

I have a love of travel, having gotten to accompany the Obamas or Bidens to more than 40 countries. Maybe some day I can set foot on that 7th continent.

President Barack Obama walks from the Oval Office to Marine One as he travels to New York May 14, 2012. (Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy)

Where can we see more of your work?

On my website at www.chuckkennedydc.com, and on Instagram at the same name (@chuckkennedydc), but you need to request access.

About the Author: Samuel Zeller is a Swiss photographer and editor of FujiFeed. To see more interviews like this one or learn more about FujiFeed, click here or follow them on Instagram. This interview was also published here.

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