Photographers and Mad Dogs

A Conversation with President
William Jefferson Clinton

Exclusive to The Digital Journalist

President Bill Clinton

After eight years of tagging along with President Clinton, constantly running to keep up, suffering persistent jet-lag and sleep deprivation - all while sharing in the excitement and the crises of his administration, we wanted to ask some questions of him about what it is like to be photographed day-in and day-out, and how he views the photojournalists who cover him.

TDJ: When you are walking down a street like you did in Hanoi, and you see the mass confusion and chaos around you with security pushing the photographers in a free for all as they try to get their shots, what goes through your mind ? Are we like mad "photo dogs" or are you concerned about us?

THE PRESIDENT: It is true that events with crowds can be fairly chaotic. The emotion of the crowds, particularly in places far away from America like Vietnam and Ghana, is overpowering. I do my best to make contact with as many people as I can, because I know they have often waited for hours and hours. Generally, I am so focused on greeting the crowds that I am not necessarily aware of where the press is at all times.

The Secret Service and their foreign counterparts have a very difficult job in those situations, and I try to always defer to their judgment. The agents seem to recognize most of the White House press corps, and work together so that the press can do their job and the Service can do theirs. The newspapers and magazines had some beautiful photos of my trip to Vietnam, so I know the photographers are out there, struggling to do their jobs.

TDJ: Photographers' lenses are always on you. Have you grown comfortable with your every move being closely watched?

THE PRESIDENT : After years and years of living in the public eye, I have definitely grown accustomed to being photographed. At first, it can seem odd to have photographers only a few feet in front of the podium when I would give speeches. While I've grown used to being photographed, at times I am still keenly aware of their presence - for example, when I'm exhausted and struggling to stay awake or taking that drive off the first tee.

TDJ: When "behind the scenes" access is granted, as it has been to photographers like Diana Walker and David Kennerly, are you comfortable with their being there, or is this just something that has to be endured?

THE PRESIDENT: Diana and David are wonderful photographers. Their magnificent work has created some of the most vivid images of my presidency. I'm comfortable with photographers that are granted special access because I know that they will give the public a more intimate feel for the work of my administration and the beautiful White House where I work and live.

Sharon Farmer and her entire team of official White House photographers do a terrific job as well. They have really become a part of our family - spending hours and hours with us on the road, at Camp David for holidays, and in the Oval Office during a regular working day. Often, it is their job to capture the moments that no one else sees for the history books.

TDJ: How do you view the photographers as opposed to the rest of the press?

THE PRESIDENT: Still photographers play a very unique roll in the coverage of the presidency. What many people fail to recognize is that the images captured by still photographers become our national history more so than television footage or news articles. As we reflect back on events in our recent history, certain images remain indelible: the lone student ahead of the tank in Tiananmen Square, the young Vietnamese girl running on a country dirt road, the hand-shake between Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Chairman Yasser Arafat on the South Lawn of the White House.

TDJ: Do you think photographers are fair in their portrayal of you?

THE PRESIDENT: Photographers are generally very fair. It is an old adage that photographs do not lie, and one that is generally true. However, the choices that photographers and their editors make are often enormously important. On any given day, there are virtually thousands of photographs taken at the White House - some sad, some joyful, some serious, some not so serious --, but only one or two end up in the New York Times or Washington Post.

As an example, the Times and Post ran very different photographs on the front page after a particularly full day in Hanoi, Vietnam. One showed me delivering a serious speech at the local university in a stark Communist setting; the other had a shot of me on the street virtually surrounded by an enthusiastic throng of young Vietnamese people. They each conveyed a very different aspect of the trip - the first very much about the past and Vietnam's history, the other much more focused on the future. Each of those visions is very important, but each also captures a very different vision of what Vietnam is all about today.

TDJ : Are you going to miss being constantly followed by a press pool, and specifically, the photographers?

THE PRESIDENT: I am looking forward to stepping out of the spotlight and taking a break. But I will miss travelling with members of the White House Press Corps - many of whom I've come to know very well over the last eight years. I will definitely miss the photographers -they spend more time travelling with me than practically any one else. I think I work pretty hard, but if anyone outpaces me day in and day out, it's the photogs. They deserve a little break too.

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