Obama Press Pool: An insider's glimpse

11 September 2016

Region: Headquarters

In a US Presidential election year The RPS's Chief Executive Dr Michael Pritchard asked photographer Jeffrey Warner to give an insider's glimpse in to the press pool which covers Obama's every move...

Honolulu, Hawaii: During the 2015-2016 Holiday season, I as a stringer for Reuters, partnered with White House media correspondents from the nation’s top media/news agencies. Our purpose was to document generally what President Obama (and family) did during his Hawaii Holiday vacation and be there in the unlikely case that something serious happened.

While it was interesting to be a member of the motorcade (and especially to see the logistics involved), interacting with these correspondents who travel the world with Obama was intriguing, indeed. Jiving with Secret Service agents, hearing soldiers’ war stories, as well as wining and dining one evening at a posh restaurant while the President dined on another floor was amongst some of the activities.

Mostly though, this job entailed long hours  — loitering in coffee shops (well, we did buy stuff) or wherever else we were stationed — while Obama went about his Holiday plans.

I was not assigned as an official photographer and therefore was limited to quickly getting whatever images I could and without crossing the professional and personal boundaries of the official photographers and reporters.

Still, it was indeed a pretty cool experience. The following is a brief photo blog-glimpse into this rarely seen world...

© Jeffrey Warner / Photographing Obama: AN insider's glimpse1. Although Obama here was responding to an inquiry about what flavor of icy treat he’d recently consumed, I am fairly certain that he was actually going to say something to me about the groovy gray fedora hat that I was wearing.

I was far too occupied with my valiant attempt at grabbing a photograph from over the heads of swarming onlookers… 

© Jeffrey Warner / Photographing Obama: AN insider's glimpse2. Here was our (the correspondents’) paddy wagon…It was nowhere near as exotic as the pretty much missile-proof shiny black suburban in which the President stylishly rolled…

© Jeffrey Warner / Photographing Obama: AN insider's glimpse3. Secret Service: Yeah; there is no way that anybody is getting anywhere near our school bus or the President without first being security “swept” by one of these fellas.

The pin on his left collar is essentially for identification/security clearance — meaning, he doesn’t need to be ‘swept.’ They work hard to acquire this pin, a rite of passage of sorts.

My experience with these guys was that they were/are down to Earth. But don’t be fooled here by the appearance of hometown Jim. These fellas don’t mess around and could quickly twist you up like a pretzel.

At one stop, I didn’t have my press pass properly showing. One agent who didn’t know me firmly grabbed my arm and gave it just a little firm, semi-paralyzing, tweak (on a pressure point) before another agent who did know me intercepted him.

At dinner one evening I asked an agent more specifically about his training and was simply told: “Yeah; we know some pretty cool stuff…”

© Jeffrey Warner / Photographing Obama: AN insider's glimpse4. The “sweep:” While we were checked-over with the wand, all of our media equipment was being sniffed by a canine investigator. It was a time for talking and joking a bit, but not really…

© Jeffrey Warner / Photographing Obama: AN insider's glimpse5. Perched inside of the bus, we waited along the roadside for the President’s motorcade. Figuring out in which vehicle the President is sitting is a guessing game of sorts, but the correspondents seemed to have it down…

© Jeffrey Warner / Photographing Obama: AN insider's glimpse6. While the correspondents were fairly laid back, the atmosphere changed to more serious business as the President’s motorcade approached. 

The media staff readied their cameras prior to an ensuing clack-clacking of shutters clicking as the motorcade smoothly cruised by us. Once this ended (perhaps the only excitement of the day, until the next motorcade approach), we often quite briskly joined the black-vehicle parade.

For obvious reasons, the President’s activities were for us on a need-to-know basis…

© Jeffrey Warner / Photographing Obama: AN insider's glimpse7. There certainly were no gaps in security throughout the residential area that President Obama and family were staying, or anywhere we went for this matter.

As we traveled around the island it was interesting to observe how well in advance everything had been meticulously planned, such as the coordination with local police in terms of overall security and highway logistics… 

© Jeffrey Warner / Photographing Obama: AN insider's glimpse8. This gig may seem exotic to some people, but it mostly entailed a lot of lounging.

The correspondents seemed to relish this time, for it served as a seemingly much needed respite from their regular organized chaos schedule. They had time to catch with themselves, with each other, and with backed-up media workflow…

© Jeffrey Warner / Photographing Obama: AN insider's glimpse9. Apparently it’s not common that Obama makes a statement to the press or provide a ‘photo op’ during his vacations (perhaps because, well, he’s on vacation).

However, on this day as part of his Hawaii Holiday routine, Obama stopped to get an icy treat from a local shop. He also interacted briefly with us correspondents and the public.

This was quite an occurrence for local Hawaii people, and also seemingly a security challenge for Secret Service staff.

One correspondent who has covered several presidencies during his career said that some presidents welcome the press to join in holiday vacation activities, while other presidents aren’t so open and media friendly.

Apparently, Obama is the latter of the two paradigms. Interesting…

© Jeffrey Warner / Photographing Obama: AN insider's glimpse10. When it really comes down to life, regardless of societal position, people are people, yeah? We all have hopes, dreams, histories, friends and families. It is largely environment that affects our behavior…

© Jeffrey Warner / Photographing Obama: AN insider's glimpse11. While President Obama munched his icy treat with friends and family, a crowd of admirers eagerly awaited his attention…

© Jeffrey Warner / Photographing Obama: AN insider's glimpse12. President Obama after eating his snow cone sauntered over to the other side of the parking lot to meet and greet the group of adoring supporters.

Obama seemed to not really want to do this, but he did so anyway and handled it smoothly.

It was interesting to observe Obama walk, his body mannerisms, and the way that he interacts with people. 

I have been near to people such as George W. Bush, Hilary Clinton, high-ranking military officers and politicians, as well as other famous people. However, President Obama, especially in-person, has this uniquely magical persona. It was likewise quite interesting to see people react to his presence…

© Jeffrey Warner / Photographing Obama: AN insider's glimpse13. Back to business…prior to getting into the armored suburban. That guy in the blue never left Obama’s side.

I wanted to photograph the nearby suburban that was packed full of Secret Service soldiers dressed in black and armed to the point that the sight of them would probably make Rambo reconsider taking any awry action. 

However, when I turned around to take the photograph, the rock-faced security personnel seemed not too welcoming of my decision. I refrained…

© Jeffrey Warner / Photographing Obama: AN insider's glimpse14. But ya know, at the end of a loooong day, sometimes the lil’ surprises, those perks that come along with the job, are what keep us going…

© Jeffrey Warner / Photographing Obama: AN insider's glimpse

All images: © Jeffrey Warner 

Jeffrey Warner is a photojournalist who has since 2010 been living in Chiang Mai, Thailand. There, he has been dedicated to concentrating chiefly on the societal impacts of modern economic development. As an environmental context, Jeffrey has been focusing on the regions marginalized peoples, primarily northern Thailands indigenous, ethnic hill tribe,communities. He has also worked with Burmese migrants on the Thai-Burma border.  Jeffrey has authored two books about this. His website is www.jeffsjournalism.com.