Jeff Chiu on Dramamine, Access, and Punch Lines

Jeff Chiu

Jeff Chiu has been a photographer with the Associated Press in San Francisco since October 2003. He spent five weeks on the campaign trail with John Kerry. Prior to joining the AP he was a staff photographer at the San Francisco Examiner. He spoke with Campaign Desk from California as part of our continuing series of interviews with reporters and commentators covering the election.

Susan Q. Stranahan: The print media has complained about a lack of access to Kerry during this campaign. From a photographer’s standpoint, was access an issue?

Jeff Chiu: Because this was my first time covering a campaign, I can’t compare it to other campaigns. I would say the access I had was fine, if not predictable. Most days we photographed a lot of entrances and exits to his car, plane and destinations. At the events we were usually allowed closer to the stage as members of the traveling press. On the Kerry plane, I was allowed to take photos in his area only at approved times, for about a minute at a time, and usually no more than once a week. I’d make pictures when he walked to the media area, but only if I thought it would make an interesting photo. I will say that the magazine photographers had better access than the wires, but they are serving different needs and it wasn’t an issue with me.

SQS: What were you looking for when you photographed Kerry?

JC: It varied by situation. In general, I was just trying to make photos, different photos, which may serve all the different stories going out everyday, whether it’s Kerry’s mood or expression, or to a lesser degree in the way I composed and shot the picture.

SQS: You must have watched Kerry deliver scores of speeches, standing in front of flags and banners. Did it ever get boring, and if so, what did you do to get something creative?

JC: I wouldn’t say it was ever really boring, but it did get redundant at times. But that’s where the challenge is to try and make something different, or at least that’s the goal. I don’t know how creative my pictures got, but I would always try shooting with a different perspective, but keeping in mind that the photos must remain easy-to-read and clean — I mean this is a presidential candidate, so I didn’t want to shoot anything too abstract. Sometimes the photos worked, sometimes they didn’t. I didn’t always move them to the wire, but you do these things to try and stay fresh. I did get pretty good at knowing his speeches and when the jokes were coming.

SQS: What was the most difficult photograph you had to shoot?

JC: There weren’t many situations that made it difficult to shoot photos during my stretch of the coverage. I switched out with AP photographer Gerald Herbert before the Kerry bus tour on the Fourth of July weekend, so I didn’t have the pleasure or misfortune, however you look at it, of shooting within a large group of photographers. But it also meant that I was not there when he announced [John] Edwards as his VP pick, which made for good photos and was a very important news event.

Off the top of my head, the most difficult photos I shot were when Kerry paid his respects to [the late Ronald] Reagan in Simi Valley because it was an emotional time for those who were there, and I try not to make a scene.

Shooting [Kerry] on his boat in Nantucket was somewhat difficult technically. We were trying to make pictures from what felt like a mile away, the boats rocking back and forth, and I passed on the Dramamine. It felt paparazzi-ish.

SQS: Describe the gear you carried with you and the technology you relied on to transmit your photos.

JC: I traveled as light as possible. Had my computer with me almost all the time when I was working; two camera bodies; two flashes; 16-35 mm lens; 70-200 mm lens, spare batteries and rain covers for the cameras. At first I’d bring the 300 mm lens, but it was just extra weight. After a while, I only carried it if I thought I needed it.

Except for a few occasions when we were rushed or in a bad [wireless] coverage area, the technology made it really easy for me to get my photos out. Soapbox, the company that provided wireless [Internet] service, was great, and they were at all the events, so I’d get my photos to the editors in New York without any problems. If we were on the move, the aircard I was using or my cell phone also made it easy to get photos out — although slower — from the bus or plane before takeoff.

SQS: If you could imagine the most exciting photograph of John Kerry that you could shoot, what would it be?

JC: Him being sworn in as our next president, but that is not a reflection of the Associated Press or any of its members. It’s just one photographer’s opinion.

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Susan Q. Stranahan wrote for CJR.