Photographer on 25 Years of Covering White House

George Stuteville
for National Geographic News
October 23, 2002
In a world where so much of history is a blur of videotaped action,
Time photojournalist Diana Walker is a master of the

Since 1976, when she first wandered into the crowded White House Press Briefing Room and elbowed a place among other photographers, Walker claimed a clear line of vision on the American Presidency, capturing images one at a time. Public & Private, a new book published by the National Geographic Society, contains 135 of these photographs.

In an interview with National Geographic News, Walker talked about her career, which began as a hobby squeezed in between being a mother and working in a Georgetown dress shop near the White House.

How did you get your start?

I did not aspire to political photography. Although photography had been my hobby since childhood, I never went to school to learn how to take pictures. I was a drama major when I graduated from Briarcliff College. I was married and had two children when I started taking pictures of other people's children for Christmas cards. I did book jackets, portraits, and bar mitzvahs—anything people wanted. I loved photographing people. I started going off on assignments with friends of mine who were freelance journalists. I became a freelancer for the Village Voice.

Then I got hired by the Washington Monthly. Although the Monthly was published on a shoestring, and I was paid only $25 per picture, the magazine got me credentials to shoot in Congress and the White House. This was a wonderful start. I would go to the White House, shoot some, learn a lot from watching what the drill was, and leave.

When did you get your first big break?

I gradually built a portfolio by visiting picture editors in New York. Eventually I went to see Time, People, and Fortune. My work with Time grew, and I went on contract with them in 1979. They sent me to photograph First Lady Rosalynn Carter in 1980 when she visited all the states holding primary elections. The President was not traveling because of the Iranian hostage crisis.

It was a wonderful way to break into White House photography. And from the start, my editors asked me from time to time to request behind-the-scenes opportunities, but mostly I was doing normal press coverage.

How do you capture private, revealing moments in public settings?

That is what you have to do. It is like you always have two missions. You cannot miss the action. If there is a treaty being signed, you have to get it on film. Sometimes, you don't have time to plan a shot. You have to work from where you wind up.

You have to look. Often it isn't the person speaking whose image is important. So, you watch the reaction on the face of the person the President is talking about or you watch how the President responds when someone is talking about him. I have always tried in my photographs to show the human responses, something a little more than what is obvious in the photo ops in front of the lights and mikes.

How do you get behind-the-scenes opportunities at the White House?

If you work for Time magazine, a lot of doors open for you. Longevity at the White House helps, too. People were familiar with me because I had been photographing for Time through several administrations.

Can you talk about the experience of working with some of the Presidents?

President Clinton was quite self-conscious in public. In private, he was totally unself-conscious—absolutely wonderful for me to photograph. He and Mrs. Clinton understood the importance, power, and usefulness of behind-the-scenes photography. They were very accepting of my presence. They did their level best to forget I was there.

I found Nancy Reagan to be a warm person and I observed her kindness and humanness. Her staff allowed me to be the only camera in the room when she entertained Mrs. Gorbachev for the first time, an image which appears in my book.

With Ronald Reagan, it was "what you see is what you get." He was a delight because of his charm and humor. George Bush [Senior] never seemed too comfortable with cameras, but he was such a pleasure to be around, especially in his off-stage moments with his family.

Your book is full of shots of Presidents caught in moments of laughter. Do you wait for those instances?

I don't think I am watching for laughter, but I certainly love it when I see it. Maybe humor finds humor. It is a question of always watching the moments that show you the most of the sort of personality of who you are looking at, whether it is laughter or tears.

Does watching powerful people from behind the lens give you special insight into their character or personality?

When I am there, anything can happen. The press office cannot control human activity or what people can do. I am free to watch. These people are not actors, contrary to what people may believe. I believe how they act in these private moments is pretty close to normal. Of course, they know there is a journalist taking their picture and that may alter their behaviors. However, I believe this is the closest a journalist can get to what is "real."

Do you have a sense of observing history in the making as you take pictures?

The history is very important. Of course, there is the public moment of a handshake, as in the famous pictures of former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestine Chairman Yasser Arafat. But I was able to be behind the scenes. The public wondered whether these men actually talked to one another. With our exclusive photographs, I was able to shoot what really happened, images of the two leaders side by side on a couch in private meetings. This was history, and I was thrilled Time could be there. I believe this is better information than can be imparted in a staged photo shoot.

Have you ever missed a shot?

Oh yes! And how. I have missed shots, and forgotten to put film in my camera. Once I was in the White House and I had a telephoto lens on the President's face when all of sudden, I heard a gasp and looked quickly to see Mrs. Reagan's chair had gone over backwards and she was on the floor. I missed that shot. We all win a few and lose a few. You have to have a sympathetic editor to let you get through something like that.

Does it take a lot of guts to shoot a picture so potentially revealing?

It is not courage, but it is the freedom an editor instills in you to do something like that. It is important work when you can reveal people away from lights, microphones, journalists, crowds, and everything they face. If you can see them in the privacy of their office or home, a holding room, a limo; if you can see them when they are not onstage, I believe you see more of their character, their humanness. That is all I am looking for. That is what I am trying to find for you to see.

How important is an editor to what you do? Isn't a photographer something of a maverick?

I think I worked for the best editors in the whole world at Time. Their picture judgment is wonderful, and they know the constraints we work under in the White House. They have the greatest integrity. I never had to worry how they handled a picture, that they would take it out of context or be anything but fair to people.

Can you describe what it is like to work behind the scenes?

I am there to be a fly on the wall. They don't become my friends. I don't want to talk to them or have them feel they have to converse with me. I even tried not to allow myself to have eye contact. I was in the room to photograph the President relating to other people, not to me. Whenever a President spoke to me, it was almost distressing because that was not what I was in the room for. My whole approach was to be as unobtrusive, quiet, and as invisible as I could be. Sometimes you get only 90 seconds or so to be behind the scenes.

Do you ask people to pose?

When I'm doing a portrait, in a situation I have control over, I may make suggestions. When I'm chasing after a President with my colleagues, we just get what we are able to see. Behind the scenes, I would never speak to my subject or suggest what they do. I simply watched whatever unfolded before me. People sometimes ask me how I "got the President to do that," and I'm amazed that they think I interact like that. No, I'm there to see what happens, what's real, period. I don't even ask to turn a light on.

Have you ever heard a President talking about a secret or sensitive subject?

My position always has been that I don't share what I hear when I'm on the inside with any journalist. My job is to be a photojournalist doing a picture essay. I don't go into a room with a pencil, taking notes. I have a camera. I specifically see and don't hear. I of course have a sense of the atmosphere in the room, I do hear a word or two and have a sense of what's happening, but I am trying to make an image, and that takes all my thought—not the content of an overheard conversation.

What is your next project?

Although I decided to leave the White House beat on January 20, 2001, I remain a contract photographer for Time. I felt I had gone as far as I could go as a presidential photographer, and I wanted to see if I could shoot away from the ropes and the press pens. I also wanted to put together this book of my White House years; more than half of the pictures in the book have not been published before. Now I can't wait to get back to taking pictures.

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