DC Spotlight EXCLUSIVE – Meet Lawrence Jackson: The Man Behind the White House Photos
My new favorite [photograph] is the one of a little girl hugging the president. It’s such a quiet moment, and the girl has this look on her face that says, ‘I trust you. I love you.’ It’s such a sweet moment on her part, and you see the back of the president’s head. When I look at it, it always puts me at ease.
– Lawrence Jackson, White House photographer in the Obama administration
Nothing could have prepared White House photographer Lawrence Jackson for the sense of awe he would experience during his first day on the job capturing the historic moments of President Barack Obama’s administration. Hired during the president’s first year in office, Jackson, a former White House photojournalist for the Associated Press, recalls running into a group of his colleagues from the wire service as he approached the White House to begin his new post. As the group surrounded and congratulated Jackson, the 43-year-old, who was suddenly seeing life for the first time from behind the White House doors, felt the immediate change in the trajectory of his career. He was now a member of the institution he had once covered.
“Just as I was about to walk into the White House doors, a couple of my friends…saw me walking in and they grabbed me and shook my hand and it was kind of surreal, because I was working from the other side of the rope,” said Jackson, who had worked as a photographer covering President George W. Bush’s administration the previous six years. “Working for the AP, I was always covering the president for years, and now, I’m working on the other side of the rope. I’m working for the president, and that’s kind of intriguing. There is a distinct difference to be inside the velvet ropes than outside.”
Though Jackson recalled the elation of first telling his wife of the news of his job, it was, however, his mother who put the new position into a proper perspective. “My mom, she’s the type of mother that, she has four kids and everything is equal. So ‘Hey mom, I got the job at the White House.’ ‘Oh that’s nice. Did you know your brother is doing this and that…?’ So she kind of …plays it even. She was very happy.”
In the nearly four years since that day, Jackson has traveled the world alongside the president, shooting photographs in the shadows of Egypt’s Great Pyramids, preserving the moment the First Family stood holding hands before the statue of Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil and capturing images of Obama’s motorcade from atop the Great Wall of China.
“There have been a lot of nice moments, but I think what happens is you have a collection of moments that overall make it a great experience,” said Jackson about his time in the Obama administration. “Ever since I was hired, I’ve gone to places around the world and in the United States as well, that I’ve never been to before and probably would never have a chance to go.”
Jackson’s unlikely career began at age 14 when his mother purchased his first camera, a Pentax K-1000 that he still has to this day. Camera in hand, Jackson shot photos for his high school newspaper and yearbook initially. When he later enrolled at James Madison University, he thought surely his future would not be behind the camera, but instead in front of the cameras as a broadcaster.
“When I went to college, I was originally planning on being in front of the camera doing newscasts or sportscasts, but I quickly realized I did not like being in front of the camera, and I started working for the college newspaper,” remembered Jackson. “The thrill of seeing my pictures coming out of the paper every week just rolled into a career.”
His career began with three photography internships at newspapers following college, the final one taking place at the Virginian-Pilot, located in Norfolk, Virginia, not far from Jackson’s hometown of Richmond. The internship continued and became a full-time paying job, which he would hold for 10 years. After a decade at the Virginian-Pilot, however, Jackson felt it was time to take his career to greater heights.
“The Pilot was a great, great newspaper. I can’t tell you enough about the people there, but I felt like I wanted to do something else,” said Jackson. “I applied to work with the AP when they had an opening in the Boston bureau. I worked there for almost two years covering World Cup soccer, Super Bowls and just having a great time. Then, I wanted to move back to the Virginia area, so I took the transfer to the AP office in Washington, D.C. and after seven years there — completely happy — this opportunity opened up at the White House and so I took it.”
Since his appointment, Jackson, an African American, has made his mark on the White House and the presidency of Barack Obama through his work. According to Jackson, he considers it a privilege to be photographing the first African American president of the United States.
“It’s very special,” Jackson said. “I really just try to document what I see of this president and his job and things around the administration personally as well to the best of my ability and let time and history sort out the details,” he said. “It’s very important that everyone, from the chief photographer on down, realize that what we’re doing is historic.”
During his time in the White House, Jackson has watched the Obamas’ children (Sasha and Malia) grow up, while witnessing, through the lens of his camera, the physical effect the presidency has had on Obama himself.
“When I was looking through pictures, I was just kind of startled at just how big [the daughters] have gotten and I guess, the first year in office he (the president) had less grey hair,” Jackson joked. “Other than that, I think covering the First Family has been a true pleasure. They’re warm, considerate, thoughtful and they really go out of their way to put people at ease.”
Jackson has a keen appreciation and respect for the president on a personal level and he clearly indicated that the man in the office, not particularly the office itself, swayed his decision to leave his job at the AP to work in the White House. “It is an honor to work for this White House,” Jackson said smiling. “I tell people all the time that if anyone else had won the presidency, I would have kept the job at the AP, because I was happy at the AP. Because of this president, I felt if I had the chance to work for the president’s administration, I would take it. And it’s been a great ride.”
As Jackson reviews his White House portfolio of photos, it is the less conspicuous moments that he remembers most fondly. “My new favorite [photograph] is the one of a little girl hugging the president,” he added. “It’s such a quiet moment, and the girl has this look on her face that says, ‘I trust you. I love you.’ It’s such a sweet moment on her part, and you see the back of the president’s head. When I look at it, it always puts me at ease.”
It is those moments and historic photos that make the job so appealing and rewarding for Jackson. He said by putting himself in the shoes of the people who come out to see the president, his enjoyment of the job is renewed at each event.
“Underneath the [history] is experiencing the travel, the people that you meet…in a rope line who are excited to meet the president. Their excitement gets me excited, because it’s not every day that you get to meet the president of the United States and shake his hand,” said Jackson. “You want to take a great photo of someone with the president. I do my best because I know that that person will put that picture up on the wall or they’re going to show it to all their friends, so I take personal pride to make sure that it’s a good picture. It’s a once in a lifetime chance.”
When he reflects on the historical significance of the job, his modesty is evident, but his determination to be good at the position at hand is more apparent. “There are a lot of other talented photographers who could be doing what I’m doing, but I was one of the lucky ones to get the job,” added Jackson. “I can’t stand or sit there and think about the importance of the pictures, because you’re in the midst of it. I guess that’s always the case when you’re in the middle of something. You’re not thinking about the effect or the impact, you’re thinking about trying to do your job and take the best picture possible.”
Jackson said that as a child, “I just wanted to take pictures, and if I could pay my rent and pay for my car, I’d be completely happy…” He added with a smile, “I would take this job for free, because I love taking pictures.”