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 freeze-frame.

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.

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