ANTALYA, Turkey — The White House press corps that followed President Obama here to the Group of 20 Summit fought for access to as many of the events as possible. But the reporters were shut out of the probably the most important moment — Obama's informal chat with Russian President Vladimir Putin on the sidelines of the meetings Sunday.
Obama aides said the meeting was impromptu, and it was captured for posterity not by news photographers but rather by chief White House photographer Pete Souza. Obama's National Security Adviser Susan E. Rice and a Russian aide, perhaps an interpreter, are also leaning in to hear the president speak.
As dramatic as the moment looks from Souza's capture, however, another angle reveals just how impromptu the meeting was. A summit videographer roaming the room for a live feed on closed-circuit television captured a different angle. It showed a conference center employee attending to a coffee station as two of the world's most powerful leaders huddled to talk about how to solve the world's most pressing crisis — the Syrian civil war and reign of terror from the Islamic State. A man who appears to be Putin's bodyguard stands watch over him lest he direct any coffee grinds in Putin's direction.
As the videographer roamed the room, it was clear that the high-level dialogue was happening in a crowded lounge area where world leaders — including Saudi King Salman in official robes, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe — milled about. Another frame showed Souza snapping away as Peter Selfridge, the U.S. chief of protocol, and other staff waited for the informal bilateral meeting to break up.
As the two presidents continued to talk, White House aides realized the meeting was being aired by the videographer, and at least one of the aides appeared to use his body to block the camera from recording the scene. In an official readout of the meeting, the White House said the talks lasted 35 minutes and that the two leaders agreed on the need for "a Syrian-led and Syrian-owned political transition." An official account from the Kremlin pegged it at 20 minutes and said the two sides disagreed on tactics.
White House aides said the value in an informal discussion is that leaders tend to be more frank, without having to rely on official talking points, as they usually do when large teams of aides are involved in a formal bilateral meeting.
But for the White House press corps, which is used to at least getting a quick glimpse of official presidential meetings, the lack of access was frustrating — especially when it was later revealed that a Russian state news agency photographer also was in the room. In the end, it was important to know Obama and Putin actually spoke face to face, but with the world's problems on the line, it doesn't hurt to know where they met and under what circumstances.