Travels With Barack
October 2008

by Dirck Halstead

Four years ago Time photographer Callie Shell met Barack Obama backstage when she was covering presidential candidate John Kerry. She sent her editor more photographs of Obama than Kerry. When asked why, she said, "I do not know. I just have a feeling about him. I think he will be important down the road." Her first photo essay on Obama was two and half years ago. She has stuck with him ever since.

Assigned by Time to cover the campaign, she has brought a unique perspective to her work, cultivated by eight years of "living inside the bubble" as Vice President Al Gore's official photographer.

In the fall of 1992, Callie found herself out of work when The Pittsburgh Press folded due to a union strike. She had come to the Press following stints at USA Today and The Tennessean in Nashville. As she was pondering what to do, she got a call from a staffer with Tipper Gore. She invited Callie to photograph the last weeks of the campaign. They could not pay her but she could have the rights to her photographs. She was asked back to cover the inauguration and the first hundred days.

Those six weeks turned into eight years at the White House. Tipper told her, "You have the one job in the White House where nobody knows what you do, so make it what you want!"

If that sounds glamorous, the reality for a White House staff photographer boils down to long days and longer nights, "especially when you have a boss who likes to work all night when writing a speech," she says. Not only did she have to be on virtual full-time alert, to capture those historic moments, but she also had to shoot thousands of handshakes. "I used to fall asleep at my plate during the rare dinners out with my husband." In January 2001, she was invited to become a Time magazine contract photographer, assigned to the Howard Dean campaign.

Time magazine's Chief Picture Editor, Alice Gabriner, compares Callie to the magazine's long-time White House photographer, Diana Walker. "Like Diana, Callie is incredibly confident. That is a necessary quality to ask people to do behind-the-scenes photography. You have to be able to hold your own around powerful people. On top of that, she is just this incredible photographer, who has sensitivity and the ability to see people as they really are. She knows when to be quiet and be that fly on the wall. It's never about Callie, but about her subjects."

What is it like covering Obama? "He is very gracious, funny and intelligent. He doesn't seem to mind me. If he does he and his staff have hid it well," Callie says. "In some ways the atmosphere on the Obama plane seems a bit more relaxed than Gore's. Maybe it is because the press seems less hostile. Maybe it is due to the fact that I do not work for the candidate and I get to leave the bubble."

Callie admits that eight years as a White House staffer has sensitized her to the problems the candidate's staff have to deal with. "I sometimes think about it way too much: 'Am I getting in the way?' … 'Do they need a break from my camera?' However, the White House taught me patience. It taught me to stand quietly for hours, to let things evolve, let people forget about you - hard at six feet tall. The moment will happen. You just have to wait."

"When I was covering the vice president, rarely did anyone see or comment on my photographs. I would pretend I was shooting for a publication to push myself. Now, when on assignment for Time, I get hives at times worrying my photographs are not up to par. The campaign has given me a lot of access. I know I am lucky to witness what I do. I want others to share these moments through my photographs."

On the Obama campaign she relishes the freedom to shoot what she wants. "I like the behind-the-scene moments but you cannot ignore the open events. They are part of the campaign. The best part about traveling with the team of press photographers on the plane is seeing what they captured. We can all stand in the same place and see totally different."

She likes the down time, when she can relax a bit or get away to her house in Charleston, S.C., with her husband, Vincent Musi, a National Geographic photographer, and her son, Hunter.

Earlier this spring she was asked to shoot a cover of Obama for Time. A past election cover of Kerry by David Burnett was mentioned as what the magazine wanted. She admits to having been nervous about it. "I don't do portraits, and hate to ask people to look into my lens. I had spent two years trying to get Obama to forget about me. We were on the campaign bus bumping down some rough roads, and the light was nice. I asked Barack to look up. He saw how uncomfortable I was and started to laugh. 'You are miserable doing this aren't you?' We were both laughing, and that's how I got the cover."

Callie's son, Hunter, has grown up knowing that both his parents are photojournalists. He knows that his father works for the "yellow magazine," based on National Geographic's trademark yellow edge, and his mother works for the "red magazine."

Now 7 years old, Hunter has met Barack Obama and is "into" what his mother does for a living, and thinks she is very cool.

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© Dirck Halstead
Editor and Publisher of The Digital Journalist

Dirck Halstead was Time magazine's Senior White House Photographer for 29 years. He now is the Publisher and Editor of The Digital Journalist, the monthly online magazine for visual journalism, and a Senior Fellow at the Center For American History at the University of Texas in Austin. His new book, MOMENTS IN TIME, published by Harry N. Abrams, is in bookstores, and available from