Photos of presidential speeches to be captured in real time

May 31, 2011

The White House and news photographers have agreed to a new plan for shooting presidential speeches.

Out: staged, after-the-fact photo ops. In: a single photojournalist, who will be permitted to snap the president’s picture as he addresses the nation.

The agreement, hammered out quietly last week between the White House’s press office and the White House Correspondents’ Association, ends the long-standing but little-known practice of presidents posing for news photos after making important announcements. The images were then passed off in newspapers and on Web sites as photos taken during the speech rather than the re-creations they actually were.

Some journalists questioned the practice after President Obama announced late in the evening on May 1 that U.S. forces had killed Osama bin Laden. Photos of the president that were published soon after seemed to show him in mid-speech — but were, in fact, staged just after it to accommodate news photographers who were banned from the East Room during the actual event.

That won’t happen again, the two sides now say.

Instead, news photographers will now be permitted to designate a single representative to act as a “pool” for the entire press corps. The photos taken by the pool representative will be made available to all news organizations. Reporters use a similar pool system for presidential events in which space is limited.

“We’ve come to an excellent solution, and everyone is very pleased,” said New York Times photographer Doug Mills, who negotiated on behalf of journalists with the White House press staff. “We will have still photos taken during the actual address by a news photographer.”

The agreement resolves one of the issues surrounding media access during speeches: The potential disruption posed by hundreds of shutter clicks. The White House has long been concerned that camera noise, as well as photographers jostling for position in a cramped space, could disrupt an important presidential address. The pool photographer will use a shutter silencer, known as a blimp, to minimize noise.

Press photographers sought broader access to the president’s speeches, but Ron Sachs, president of the White House News Photographers Association, said, “Having a pool photographer is better than none at all.”

Paul Farhi is The Washington Post's media reporter.
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