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A Never Been Done Before Gets Done at the Inauguration

Historic Obama Swearing-In

As a grizzled old, former news photographer, I often think there is nothing new left to be done when it comes to covering Washington. So many smart and creative people have poured over every nook and cranny of this town it seems as if there is always someone ready to jump up and shout “been there, done that”. All too often we are left with images that are just more of the same old, same old.

My friend and colleague, D.C.-based photographer Chuck Kennedy, proved that if you look hard enough and are diligent long enough, new things are indeed always possible. Doing it in the midst of a massively historic Presidential Inauguration makes it all the sweeter. How fitting that an event of this magnitude is documented with a groundbreaking image such as this.

Kennedy, a photographer for the McLatchy-Tribune News Services, finagled his way into placing a remotely fired camera at the foot of the Inaugural podium, providing a never before seen perspective of a Presidential swearing-in. It’s a photograph that will certainly go down in history as an image of record from one of the most significant events in American politics.

The image shows Obama with his hand on the Lincoln bible, held by his wife Michelle as daughters Malia and Sasha proudly look on. The dome of the US Capitol stands magnificently in the background against a beautiful wintery blue sky.

What makes this image special, besides the unique camera position and angle, is that the closeness of the camera conveys an intimacy that no other pictures from the Inauguration captured. The fact that little Sasha is standing on a small riser so that she can be seen from the main camera platform adds a refreshing sense of innocence to a solemn and dignified event. It’s a very personal view into the beaming faces of our new, history defining first family.

It is a moment that personifies a moment so many in our country thought they would never live to see.

Kennedy said he started working on obtaining permission just after Obama made his acceptance speech on election night in Chicago, after “seeing how crazy that event was”.

He began quietly lobbying the Senate Press Photographers Gallery and the Joint Congressional Inaugural Committee, the groups who control media access to the event.

“When the stand was being built, Chuck went out and did test photos to show how dramatic the images could be”, McLatchy -Tribune Photo Service managing editor George Bridges said in an interview with NewsPhotographer Magazine. “He took photos from previous inaugurations showing that there is a lot of equipment there (speakers, mikes, teleprompters) so a camera there would not be a distraction.”

As a final touch Kennedy enlisted the aide of Chief White House photographer Pete Souza, who cleared the idea with the first family and convinced Obama Press Secretary Robert Gibbs to support it.

Kennedy Camera Setup

The now infamous rig. Photograph by Chuck Kennedy

One of the main objections to the camera placement was the possibility of distracting camera noise interfering with the audio of Obama taking the Oath of Office. To counter any noise objections Kennedy fashioned a home-made camera “blimp” out of a Pelican case. The camera was sealed inside the case and the heavily padded foam liner kept any shutter noise contained. A hole was cut into the side of the case to accommodate a 16-35mm lens.

Kennedy chose a Canon 5D Mark II camera for the job. The camera was outfitted with a Canon WFT-E4 transmitter and was hard-wired with ethernet cable to a DSL line at his camera position. This allowed for immediate image transmission back to the McClatchy-Tribune bureau. Kennedy also hard wired the remote trigger to avoid the possiblity of RF interference preventing the camera from firing. The cable run was about 250 feet to Kennedy’s elevated position behind the platform and was done a week in advance.

The camera itself was supposed to be mounted the night before, but due to inclement weather the White House delayed setting up the podium until early the next morning. Kennedy arrived at the event site at 4:15 am and gained access to the stage around 5:30am to begin setup.

Chuck Kennedy installing remote camera at 5:30am.

The camera was mounted via a Bogen Magic Arm to a metal plate that was screwed into the floor. He powered the camera with an AC adapter out of fear the cold weather would sap the batteries before the event began.

Kennedy says he “had no idea the image would receive so much play”. As part of the arrangement for the exclusive access, the image had to be “pooled” or shared with other media outlets, including the international wire services such as the Associated Press, Getty and Reuters.

“My wife went onto the Newseum website this morning and counted 124 newspapers that ran the image on the front page”, he said. “I’ve never made a picture that got this much attention.”

Congratulations Chuck, you’ve done something all photographers strive for, but few actually accomplish. You’ve gained photographic immortality through the eyes of history.

The Newseum is a great resource and includes a section that displays the front page of every major newspaper in the world. I’ve included a few front pages below to show some of the different ways the image was used. All of these front page images came from the Newseum site.


The Midland Daily Times liked the image so much they turned the newspaper on it’s side to run it.

A sampling of front pages from Honolulu to North Carolina:

Some papers chose a rather extreme crop to make the image fit the entire front page from top to bottom:

  • January 22, 2009 - 6:50 am

    Abigail Seymour - What a great story, Greg, thanks for sharing it! And Chuck’s moxie and talent are so cool. Indeed, that shot was the cover of our paper yesterday (in Greensboro, NC), and I immediately marveled at the angle and intimacy of it. I never thought I’d get to find out the backstory, so thanks so much for sharing. Love your work, too.

  • January 22, 2009 - 9:32 am

    john waire - awesome shot!…and great plug for the new 5D MII. what a moment.

  • January 22, 2009 - 10:05 am

    greg - Hi Abigail – thanks for the note. I actually saw the front page of the Greensboro News Record when I was going through the pages on the Newseum website. I almost used it in the front page collage. It was a very nicely designed page.

  • January 22, 2009 - 10:17 am

    greg - Hi John – I do think it’s a great plug for the new 5D. Those full page blow ups look pretty nice, even though a pretty extreme crop on the image.

  • January 22, 2009 - 11:28 am

    Hijack: A Never Been Done Before Gets Done at the Inauguration « J Sandifer - […] 22, 2009 by jsandifer My friend Greg Gibson posted this and I had to pass it on.  Of all the photo stories of the inauguration this one has to […]

  • January 22, 2009 - 11:35 am

    J Sandifer - Great post Greg! This has to be my favorite photo related story of the inaugural and this picture just takes you there. It will certainly go down as one of the more important images taken of Obama…way to go Chuck!

  • January 22, 2009 - 11:47 am

    Tasithoughts - I was deeply moved by this photo considering the significance of this moment. Thank you for giving us the background of what it took to make this phot possible. It has actually added even more context that has made it even more meaningful. It is certainly now part of what will become part of our national iconic historical treasures of one of the great pivotal events of our history.

  • January 22, 2009 - 12:53 pm

    Armin - What an incredible moment & capture! Thanks for sharing Chuck’s talent with us Greg, this is great work! I’ll be sure to tell everyone about it this weekend!

  • January 22, 2009 - 1:04 pm

    Susan Solo - This is such an incredible behind-the-scenes look at how that unique image was made. I love finding out those kind of details. Thanks for sharing!

  • January 22, 2009 - 2:33 pm

    Michael - Excellent article and a job well done!

    Best Wishes,

  • January 22, 2009 - 3:45 pm

    Kristin - LOVE THIS!

  • January 22, 2009 - 3:57 pm

    Alyson - WOW. This is some great info and an amazing feat for Chuck! I am not sure what is more impressive – the image or the fact that he got through all the red tape to get it done! Outstanding!

  • January 22, 2009 - 8:47 pm

    Lynn@C+L - Amazing story & amazing image! Thanks for sharing!

  • January 22, 2009 - 9:02 pm

    Rita Wiebner - Thanks for sharing Greg! I heard rumor of this shot on Twitter, then I saw someone else post the link to your article here – what a fantastic image!

  • January 24, 2009 - 10:12 am

    Nicole Wolf - Greg, I don’t even know the guy and I am so proud of him! It is people like that that allow other photographers to get down in the mud and plunge through. Please pass on my and many others congratulations!!!

  • January 24, 2009 - 4:59 pm

    Chelsea Elizabeth - That’s an amazing shot and such a genius idea! Thank you so much for giving us an lesson on how that was set up. That is soooo inspiring!

  • January 25, 2009 - 5:16 pm

    Some amazing Inauguration photo’s - […] A huge amount of effort went into getting this shot from a remote controlled camera. The story behind this photo is told by DC Photographer Greg Gibson on his blog […]

  • January 26, 2009 - 1:11 pm

    john prado - Great foresight! Love this image!

  • February 1, 2009 - 10:44 am

    Neil Colwey - You’re always nosing around to see who get’s the scoop.
    ole news dogs learning new tricks!!
    The hardwire for trigger and transmission shows how much effort it must take.
    and the pelican case was so cherry!!

  • February 2, 2009 - 12:19 pm

    brett maxwell - An inspiring capture and inspiring story behind the capture! One question comes to mind; is the top photo the original crop?

  • February 14, 2009 - 2:54 am

    Mike Irvin - Wow!! I stumbled on this story and must say its right up there with the gigapan story. What a great share…Thanks

  • February 15, 2009 - 12:12 am

    How the greatest Obama front page image was made « IrvinPhoto-Blog - […] A Never Been Done Before Gets The Job Done at the Inauguration […]

  • October 26, 2010 - 5:26 pm

    George @ TTL Wedding Photography - Great moments to capture! Thanks for sharing.

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