Barbara Kinney — former staff photographer in the Clinton White House and for Hillary’s presidential campaign — turned her lens from political dramas to the private turmoil of Alzheimer’s patients and their caregivers. Her images for The Shriver Report, A Woman’s Nation Takes on Alzheimer’s look at how the disease affects women, not only as patients but also as caretakers for afflicted family or friends. With only a half day allotted for each subject, Kinney had to unobtrusively convey the complex emotions bound up in moments such as a father no longer recognizing his daughter, or a Nobel Prize winner in physics having difficulty assembling a child’s puzzle.
Web site: www.barbarakinney.com
Project: Assigned by the Alzheimer’s Association to photograph for The Shriver Report, A Woman’s Nation takes on Alzheimer’s.
ASMP: How long have you been in business?
BK: I graduated in 1980 from the University of Kansas with a degree in photojournalism, so that means about 30 years as a professional photographer and picture editor.
ASMP: How long have you been an ASMP member?
BK: I’ve always been a member of ASMP during the periods of my career when I’ve freelanced full time. There was a gap when I was working full time for an employer and let my membership expire, but I would say a total of 10 years.
ASMP: What are your photographic specialties?
BK: Photojournalism and documentary work are my specialties.
ASMP: What do you consider your most valuable tool or piece of equipment?
BK: I’ve always been a Nikon user and my favorite camera right now is the D3S.
ASMP: What is unique about your style/approach or what sets you and your work apart from other photographers?
BK: I believe I am very good at capturing “the moment.” I am very conscious of my subject’s facial expressions, body language and movements. The slightest change in any of these details can make the picture. I don’t think my style or approach is particularly unique; I just think this is what separates the good photographers from people with cameras.
ASMP: Please describe the processes and techniques central to the making of this work.
BK: What was most important about shooting these Alzheimer’s patients and their families was to be sensitive and low-key. I didn’t want to come into their lives with cameras firing just to come away with gritty, hard-hitting photographs. I wanted to observe and try to capture what their daily struggles were really all about. As I was shooting the assignments, I was wondering if my photographs were communicating the realities of the situations — that a father didn’t recognize his daughter anymore or that a man who won the Nobel Prize in physics was now having difficulty with a child’s puzzle. We really only spent a half-day with each subject, so I had to really concentrate on what I mentioned earlier — facial expressions and body language of both the Alzheimer’s patients and their caretakers.
ASMP: How were you selected for the Alzheimer’s Association project? Did you know or have an existing relationship with Maria Shriver from your past career in D.C.?
BK: I realized that the bulk of work I did last year was connected to someone I worked with during my time in the Clinton White House. The connections and people I know from that time in my life just continue to result in work because of our network. A woman I knew from Vice President Gore’s office, Karen Skelton, is now working for Maria Shriver. She had been in touch with another ex-Clinton Administration staffer who is a friend of mine, also now living in Seattle. What is ironic is that my friend was sharing with Karen the portraits of her family that I’ve been shooting over the last seven years. Those family portraits reminded Karen of my documentary work from the White House, so she called to see if I would be interested in shooting a project for The Shriver Report. For the last published report, they had relied on stock photography and weren’t entirely happy with the results. They wanted to hire one photographer who could work on the entire project, for consistency in quality, but also to produce images that were more relevant to the subjects they were writing about.
ASMP: What was the timeframe for this project? How many subjects did you photograph and how much ground did you cover?
BK: We began talking about the possibilities of the project in April, negotiated the terms and had a signed contract by the end of June. At that point, the Alzheimer’s Association was working on finding subjects, planning the logistics and so on. We did ten different shoots in five cities during the month of August. I spent the first couple of weeks in September on post-production, delivering the final files so they could have an edit by the end of September.
ASMP: Please talk about the travel arrangements and logistics. Did you travel with an assistant or other crew for these shoots?
BK: The staff at the Alzheimer’s Association arranged most of the travel, based on my schedule and the availability of the subjects. In each city, I met up with a representative from the Association’s Chicago headquarters and we traveled together to meet with our subjects. At first I was hesitant to have someone looking over my shoulder as I documented my subjects, but both Cynthia Strohschein and Kate Meyer from the Association were very hands-off.
ASMP: What’s in your kit for indoor lighting? Please talk about the technical aspect of making these images.
BK: For a project like this, I used available light most of the time. I wanted everything to look as natural as possible. If I did use any lighting at all, it was a strobe bounced off the ceiling. This gets back to my favorite tool, the Nikon D3S, which is great at higher ISO’s, allowing me to shoot available in low-light situations.
ASMP: Was the presence of lighting or other equipment ever an issue for any of the subjects, who might not understand their purpose? If so, how did you overcome this?
BK: The only equipment that might have gotten some attention was my 70-200 f/2.8 lens. It is a pretty standard lens for a professional photographer, but to everyone else, it looks huge. People think you are photographing their every pore, when in reality, it is a nice portrait lens and is also great for standing back from a situation to shoot long, minimizing depth of field. There was one Alzheimer’s patient, who couldn’t really speak much, but he smiled and pointed at my camera. I got that he knew something about cameras and was impressed.
ASMP: Alzheimer’s is such a tough subject; how do you keep your composure and maintain a positive outlook during particularly trying or emotional moments?
BK: I was definitely affected by photographing these subjects. I have done a lot of work in Third World countries among populations that are suffering from disease and poverty, which are very difficult situations to witness and photograph. But there is also a sense of detachment because of being in a completely different environment and culture, if that makes sense. Alzheimer’s is something that could affect my loved ones, or me. It is frightening to think that your mind could slowly just disappear — really a difficult thing to witness. I so admire those people who are caring for family members. It would be so difficult to see someone deteriorate and in most cases, not even recognize you. I guess this project affected me emotionally because I kept thinking this could be me one day.
ASMP: Photographing Alzheimer’s subjects must entail a high degree of unpredictability, with sessions being determined by the subjects’ moods and whims. To what extent do you get involved or intervene during difficult moments between caregivers and subjects? Are there any strategies you employ to coax behaviors or poses?
BK: I tried to just be there in the room as the caregivers and patients went about their days. Granted, we would speak to the caregiver, who might be the daughter, son or wife of the person with Alzheimer’s, ask about the normal day’s schedule and perhaps adjust the timing of a walk or activity while we were there. I did have one shoot cut a bit short because the subject needed a nap. Luckily, I felt like I had what I needed at that point. There were a couple of families who said we were lucky and had visited them on a “good” day. Some patients can go through terrible mood swings and get very angry and uncontrollable.
ASMP: Have there been situations where you’ve refrained from taking pictures due to the sensitivity or emotional intensity of the moment? If so, could you describe these situations briefly in words?
BK: For this particular project, there were a couple of times where I didn’t push to shoot a situation. One of the original requests on the shot list was a daughter changing her mother’s diaper. I think we all agreed that was too invasive and not necessary. I did have one woman allow me to photograph her showering and dressing her mother for the day. She said as long as I was discreet and sensitive to the situation, she was fine with me being there.
To answer this question beyond the Alzheimer’s project, there was a situation last year in a maternity ward in a hospital in Africa where a baby had just been born and was brought into the intensive care unit where my clients were taking a tour. The baby’s coloring was off and it wasn’t moving much. My immediate reaction was to photograph the situation. I looked to my client’s staffer for advice and was given the “no, not appropriate” signal. My photojournalism background was telling me to shoot, my corporate side was telling me not to upset the client, so I didn’t shoot. The funny thing is, the client asked for those images after the trip because it had been so impactful for the work they were doing. I had to tell them I didn’t have anything and felt like I hadn’t done my job, which wasn’t the case, but I should have gone with my intuition.
During my White House years and even during the Hillary Clinton 2008 campaign, there were so many situations that were sensitive and emotional. I was fortunate in that the Clintons know that photographs are an important part of history and have always been very accessible to me in those situations. But back to the question of what sets me apart from other photographers, is that I am good at working in these sensitive situations and most times, am able to be discreet, quiet and thoughtful about my presence.
ASMP: Smithsonian Magazine referred to a photo you once made as “statesmen checking themselves out like groomsmen on history’s backstage.” Now you do weddings and family portraits. Is your wedding clientele mostly high end, or do customers of more moderate means seek you out as well?
BK: That makes me chuckle. Last year I shot Chelsea Clinton’s wedding to Marc Mezvinsky. It was a huge event in New York, with a wedding planner, multiple photographers, a former president, the Secretary of State, a former congresswoman — and these were just the parents of the wedding couple — all in attendance. A week later, I was shooting a backyard wedding in the rain, with a pony keg at the reception. Both had a certain level of stress and both were fun.
ASMP: Among your most notable wedding clients are Chelsea Clinton, and Huma Abedin and Andrew Weiner. What, if anything, can you tell us about your experiences preparing for and photographing these momentous events?
BK: Yes, last year I definitely had a couple of big weddings. I was hired for both of these events because of my close connection to the Clintons and to Huma Abedin. I had been around Chelsea since she was a 13-year-old at the White House so I know she felt comfortable around me. I had worked with Huma at the White House and then very closely during the Hillary campaign. Huma really loves good documentary photography and appreciates the work we photographers do, so she thought of me for her wedding, as did Chelsea. They knew me, liked my behind-the-scenes work and trusted me to be sensitive and discreet about the events. Any photos that were published from either of these events were officially released after each event. So when Congressman Weiner resigned, the wires had the couple’s wedding photo on file from last summer. Numerous media outlets picked up that image. All I can say is that at least it was a beautiful photo.
As far as preparation for the weddings, there was a lot of planning that went into both events. I brought in a really good friend of mine, Barbara Ries, who is an amazing photojournalist and experienced wedding photographer, to be the second shooter on Huma’s wedding. She was also there for Chelsea’s wedding, along with Boston-based wedding photographer Genevieve de Manio. There was some coordination to do with multiple photographers, but I also came away thinking how much nicer it was to have at least a second shooter because it takes away some of the pressure to be everywhere at once. There is certainly an added layer of stress for big events like these, but really, it doesn’t matter if the bride walking down the aisle is Chelsea Clinton or your next door neighbor, you want those photographs to be the best, most memorable part of the day.
ASMP: How do you market yourself as a wedding photographer? Do you promote this aspect of your business through any of the channels used by mainstream wedding shooters? If so, please describe the channels you find to be most successful, or are your favorites.
BK: I’ve just started trying to market myself for weddings. I have put an ad on www.myseattlewedding.com but so far, have only gotten one call. We will see if this type of advertising is worth it. Most of my weddings have been by word of mouth or from friends who have hired me. Of course, I have been promoting my cover of People magazine from Chelsea’s wedding! I try to send out posts on Facebook, my blog, and so on, whenever I have something of note like that. I think the biggest issue is just trying to tap into the right market. I can have a Facebook page and a blog, but how do I get those links out to the people who will hire me? I don’t want to shoot weddings all of the time, but I do think they can generate a decent amount of income, which can allow me to take interesting work that doesn’t pay so much. Weddings are stressful, but I find that they are great opportunities to shoot photojournalism.
ASMP: Please talk about your career as a White House photographer. To what degree was being a woman an advantage, or a disadvantage, in this environment?
BK: I don’t recall that it was ever a disadvantage. I think sometimes it was an advantage because I got to do a lot of trips with the First Lady. I got along well with her staff, which were mostly women and for them, it was just easier to have me around rather than one of the guys. But between the four of us who were White House photographers at the time, I think we shared the duties pretty equally.
ASMP: You worked as a photographer for both president Bill Clinton and for Hillary’s presidential campaign. Within the realm of politics, do you find there to be any difference in covering a male or a female subject?
BK: Well, I can’t think of many times when the press discussed the color of President Clinton’s suit or his hairstyle, but both topics were always on the top of the list when the press reported on Hillary. Luckily, she has a good sense of humor. On the Hillary campaign plane, a press photographer posted a list of days of the week along with the color of her pantsuit for the day. Hillary came to the back to the plane to check it out and in her “Wednesday” canary yellow pantsuit, laughed louder than anyone. As far as politics, I do think women are judged more harshly than men. We have more barriers to jump over. I think Hillary has helped change that and, as she said in her concession speech when referring to how many people voted for her, there are now 18 million cracks in the ceiling. I also think there are now just as many women as men in the traveling press, which is nice.
ASMP: With the above question in mind, do you have any insider advice or tips to share in terms of strategies for approaching future coverage of current notable female candidates, Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann? Or, any thoughts about the male candidates currently aligning themselves?
BK: If you are referring to covering a candidate as their personal photographer, I would say align yourself now with a candidate that you think has potential. When Hillary announced that she was running for president, I lobbied hard for the position as her campaign photographer. They weren’t even thinking about photography so it was me who convinced the staff that it was important to document her historic campaign. As photographers, all we think about is shooting pictures, but not everyone thinks like that. It didn’t really occur to anyone that a documentary photographer would be important. They were hiring people to shoot fundraising receptions and for a few Web site photos, but not to actually document every step of the way. Because of my relationship with Hillary, with Huma and with a few of the staff from our White House days, I was able to convince them of the importance. It took a lot of persistence on my part and I’m proud of myself for following through with my quest. It was discouraging when I didn’t get a call or e-mail returned, so I just kept pushing. So, be pro-active and get acquainted with the staffers who make decisions on the campaign. I think it would be fascinating to be on the inside of the Palin (although at this writing, she isn’t officially running, right?) or Bachmann campaigns because at this point, they both are drawing the biggest crowds and are in the news. And more importantly, I can imagine the behind-the-scenes images of both those campaigns are compelling. The men don’t seem that interesting at this point.
ASMP: From your point of view, what have been the most significant changes in the job of a White House or campaign photographer since you worked in this role?
BK: I think the biggest change from when I was I at the White House is the switch from film to digital. We were just experimenting with a digital camera back in 1999, so now that the White House Photo Office is totally digital, their entire workflow and archiving process must be different. Also, a major change is how White House photos are released and distributed. Pete Souza took my photo with President Obama at an event last year and that print arrived in the mail, same procedure as in the Clintons days, so maybe things aren’t totally different in that regard. There is a daily Flickr stream of photos released from the current White House that are accessible to anybody. I know there has been some discussion as to whether that is a good or bad thing. Some agency and wire photographers think this might be limiting the access they get to the President. I’m not sure if that is a legitimate argument or not. I do feel that releasing all of those photos on a daily basis takes away the mystique of the presidency. There really are few “behind-the-scenes” photos that we haven’t seen. During the Clinton administration, when we released a photo, actual prints were made and distributed to the working press in the briefing room. I’m starting to sound old now…
ASMP: More generally, how did you navigate the transition from White House photographer and Hillary Clinton campaign photographer back to bread-and-butter work in Seattle?
BK: I’m always trying to figure that out. Since moving to Seattle in 2002, I’ve freelanced, was a staff picture editor for three years at the Seattle Times, worked and got laid off from a start-up, Digital Railroad, went on the Hillary campaign, came back and then was hired for a contract photo-editing position at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The contract ended after 15 months, but I was able to negotiate a deal to be their photographer on a number of domestic and international trips the following year. As of January 2010, I was back to freelancing full time, but with a number of assignments on my schedule. As I mentioned earlier, my network of contacts has been essential to my current freelance work. I’ve reached out to friends and former co-workers within that network for potential work. I’ve never been great at marketing myself, but am concentrating on that aspect of my business a bit more than in the past.
ASMP: On balance, is your Washington, D.C. background a help or hindrance to your current career in that other Washington?
BK: At first I thought there was an East Coast bias here in Seattle, but I think there is just a different culture on the West Coast; it is a little less intense with fewer workaholics. It took me a while to acclimate to the environment here. There aren’t as many people checking out who is who at what restaurant and dropping business cards. I still do that, however, and that’s why I saw the musician Dave Matthews at a coffee shop the other day. Maybe I should have given him my business card. Surely, he needs a tour photographer. To answer your question, I think that my Washington, D.C. experience is a help for my work out here. People are impressed with my time at the White House and with Hillary. More importantly, I have strong photographs to back up the “wow” factor. When I think of being back in D.C., I have to remember that I would be one of a few ex-White House photographers, where out here in Seattle, I think I’m the only one. I like that.
ASMP: Are there any things that you miss about your past work in D.C.? What don’t you miss about this aspect of your career?
BK: I do miss being in the center of where everything is happening, at least politically. Especially with Obama in the White House, a lot of my Democratic friends are there. I was in D.C. for 21 years, so I get very homesick and nostalgic about the place and the work that I did at the White House. There is no experience that can match working for the President of the United States. It is grueling, with long days and very little time off, so when I romanticize about D.C., I have to remind myself about those long hours of working, which I don’t miss! I also don’t miss the humidity of the hot D.C. summers. I can remember on certain summer days back at the White when I would go from photographing the president in a briefing inside the Oval Office out to the Rose Garden for an event, only to have my lenses fog up because of the humidity.
My time at the White House was amazing for my career because it was so high profile. My photos appeared on the covers of both Time and Newsweek and were published everywhere. It was wonderful exposure and a great opportunity for me. My work is now part of history — that is very special to me. However, D.C. can also be a one-subject town. I think I get a broader range of work now, am surrounded by a much more creative environment here in Seattle and have a more balanced life. For instance, today I was back in a darkroom for the first time in 15 years, processing film for a 4x5 camera class I’ve enrolled in, while at the same time negotiating a deal to do production stills for an indie film being shot in the Seattle area. It’s all so different from my D.C. days.