The Story Behind the Photograph...

Love him or hate him, this is the first photograph of Barack Obama to be acquired by the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. I took this picture in the heat of his battle with Hillary Clinton for the Democratic Party nomination three years ago. I thought that today, with the fight over the budget and the debt ceiling in full force it would be an interesting image to revisit.

Then Senator Barack Obama came to the Dean Dome in Chapel Hill, North Carolina to speak. The Dean Dome is at most three miles from my house and it seemed ridiculous to not go and hear him speak and try to get a few pictures at the same time. I went to his website and added “/media” to the end of the URL – a trick I had learned from some public advocacy work I had done on behalf of children – and voila, I landed at the Obama campaign’s portal to request media credentials for his events.

Two days later, I lined up in a torrential downpour outside the Dean Dome along with a handful of other photographers. We queued up at a side gate and were eventually ushered inside where we were patted down, wanded with hand-held metal detectors and had bomb-sniffing dogs check all of our camera gear and bags before finally being let inside the Dean Dome for a three hour wait until the candidate eventually arrived.

By the time Senator Obama entered the Dean Dome, the 22,000+ capacity crowd had been whipped into a frenzy of excitement and anticipation. Obama delivered his trademark speech, dotted with “Yes we can” and other refrains that fed the crowd’s enthusiasm.

As a photographer, as an artist, I had the access of a photojournalist without the pressure of delivering for an Editor or readers. Instead of looking for the perfect shot to capture Senator Obama at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, I looked to create images of the President that captured some critical part of his essence. I wanted to capture images that made a statement, at least to me, about who he was as a person and as a politician.

Senator Obama spoke for more than an hour. It was the first time I had seen him in person. And the first time I had watched him speak for more than a few minutes. As his speech progressed, I was increasingly drawn to his hands and fingers. A lot of his strength appeared to be concentrated in and emanate from his hands. President Clinton would make a fist and lay his thumb on top of a slightly bent index finger as if he were consciously preventing himself from pointing. But here was a candidate not only using his hands with force, but unabashedly pointing with strength and purpose into his audience. I was intrigued and made an instant decision to focus on his finger and make his face slightly out of focus – this, I felt, would guide us to contemplate the strength in his hands.

I created a range of images that day… the curator at the DuSable Museum of African American History wanted to curate an exhibit of those images and there was interest from a museum in Nairobi, Kenya in having the exhibit travel to their museum as well. Funding for DuSable exhibit wasn’t approved and both exhibits fell by the wayside. That said, the Smithsonian acquired a range of my images, this one among them  - and the DuSable acquired two of my prints of the man who by then had become our next President.

Not bad for an evening at the Dean Dome punctuated by hour’s worth of shooting.


The Smithsonian—Permanent collection


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