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Behind The Lens With Obama's 'First Cameraman'

Sep 2, 2012

Many presidents have had official White House photographers, but Arun Chaudhary claims the honor of being the first official White House videographer. He has written a book about his journey from disheveled film professor to his four years in the almost constant company of the president. First Cameraman is an often funny, generally admiring account of the life and times of candidate Barack Obama — and then President Obama — and the sleepless nights and adventure-filled days of the man trying to record it all.

Chaudhary says there's an enormous difference between having a photographer around and having a videographer around. "The addition of audio is such a crucial component," he tells NPR's Linda Wertheimer. "A photograph is a kind of art that we bring so much of ourselves to. Someone looking solemnly out a window can mean all these different things. Once the audio is there, the mystery is gone, so it becomes a much more dangerous proposition to have a videographer around than to have a photographer around, which is generally ennobling."


Interview Highlights

On his initial role, as videographer on the campaign trail

"In the beginning I was being brought on to go on the trail and to make sure the speeches were being posted and things like that. But in the back of my head, I thought the real job of any smart, young filmmaker working for a campaign has to be to think of that brilliant 30-second ad that's the one that just transforms the election. ... And then [I] quickly realize that all these little clever things I was doing on the side were not getting the hits, the attention that uncut speeches from Sen. Obama were: the victory speech in Iowa or the race speech. These were the ones that were the real 'viral' hits.

"And so the discipline definitely became: How can we get this person, this candidate in front of as many people as possible? So: live-streaming, putting the speeches up, doing everything quickly. If you couldn't make it to a gymnasium in Iowa, we're going to make sure you had a way to see the candidate speaking in your town, speaking to you."

On the balance between being authentic, and putting the administration's best face forward

"I think you can still have a point of view and be authentic. I think we have a false sense of neutrality from our government, from sources — we want this sort of anonymous stuff. I think the material I produced has a little more personality, which I don't think makes it a scary proposition — I think it allows people to know where this information is coming from."

On what happens to his awkward or unflattering video of the president

"At the White House, nothing vanishes. I'm actually subject to something called the President Records Act, which — I think due to the misdeeds of a certain President Nixon — everything you do in the service of the president is in the archives forever. And so every frame, every mistake, every out-of-focus shot, every everything — every time the president swears because he makes a mistake in the weekly address — all that stuff is in the archives somewhere and will be available to the public."

On his favorite presidential outtake

"There was one day when I was just getting ready for the Easter Egg Roll — which you know is a traditional event at the White House every year. It's really nice; lots of kids come. ... And when I got into the Blue Room, I came upon the president and Sasha Obama punching the Easter Bunny in the stomach — just letting him have it. It turned out to be Brian Mosteller, the deputy director of Oval Office operations, dressed up as the Easter Bunny. But it's a strange thing to walk into a room and see the president and his daughter beating up what looks like an oversized Disney animal."

On pushing his luck a little too far

"Every now and then, I would push my authority a bit too far — because I got such free reign at the White House, it was hard not to want that when you get other places, too. So we arrived at the Indian Parliament and someone looked at me and saw my camera and says, 'Oh, you must be [Chief Official White House Photographer] Pete Souza.' And Pete did have access to the thing that I kind of wanted to shoot and was already with the president, and so he was already in position. And so I was like 'Yeah, sure. Why not? I'm Pete Souza, let's see where this goes.'

"And where that ended up going was around a winding set of corridors and to someone who identified me as not Pete Souza and then that led me to the back door of the Indian Parliament, where I was unceremoniously thrown out of Indian Parliament by my belt."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

Arun Chaudhary claims the honor of being the first official White House videographer. He's written a book about his four years in the almost constant company of the president; the story of Chaudhary's journey from a disheveled film professor to "First Cameraman," which is the title of his book.

Chaudhary was hired by official White House photographer Pete Souza. His book is an often funny, generally admiring account of the life and times of candidate Barack Obama, then President Obama and the sleepless nights and fun-filled days of the man trying to record it all.

Arun Chaudhary joins us from our New York studios. Welcome to our program.

ARUN CHAUDHARY: Thanks so much.

WERTHEIMER: Now, lots of presidents have had photographers. Some of them have become like members of the family. They've had extraordinary access to the president. But you insist that your role was different, first in the campaign and then in the White House. Different how?

CHAUDHARY: Well, I think the addition of audio is such a crucial component. You know, a photograph is a kind of art that we bring so much of ourselves to. You know, someone looking solemnly out a window can mean all these different things. Once the audio is there, the mystery is gone. And so, it becomes a much more dangerous proposition to have a videographer around than to have a photographer around, which is generally ennobling.

WERTHEIMER: So what was your assignment? I mean, what they tell you they thought you ought to do?

CHAUDHARY: Well, right in the beginning, I was being brought on to go on the trail and to make sure the speeches were being posted and things like that. But in the back of my head, I thought the real job of any smart, young filmmaker working for a campaign has to be to think of that brilliant 30-second ad that's the one that just transforms the election.

You know, we all dream of being the one who makes the daisy ad for (unintelligible) cycle.

(LAUGHTER)

CHAUDHARY: And then quickly realized that all these little clever things I was doing on the side were not getting the hits, the attention that uncut speeches from Senator Obama were; the victory speech in Iowa or the race speech. These were the ones that were the real, quote-unquote, "viral hits." And so, the discipline definitely became: How can we get this person, this candidate in front of as many people as possible? And so, you know, live streaming, putting the speeches up, doing everything quickly. You know, if you couldn't make it to a gymnasium in Iowa, we were going to make sure you had a way to see the candidate speaking in your town, speaking to you.

WERTHEIMER: The president's advisor, David Axelrod, says in your book: We thought the video could be the life of the campaign online, an authentic mirror of the campaign. Can something like that really happen? I mean surely a campaign always wants its best face forward. The White House always wants best face forward. What's authentic about that?

CHAUDHARY: I think you can still have a point of view and be authentic. I think we have a false sense of neutrality from our government, from sources. We want this sort of anonymous stuff. And I think the material that I produced has a little more personality, which I don't think makes it a scary proposition. I think it allows people to actually know where this information is coming from.

WERTHEIMER: OK, this is a test. Did you ever shot anything that was such an unpleasant view of the Mr. Obama, that you and everybody else knew that video was going to vanish?

CHAUDHARY: Well, at the White House, nothing vanishes. I'm actually subject to something called the President Records Act. Which I think due to the misdeeds of a certain President Nixon, everything you do in the service of the president is in the archives forever. And so every frame, every mistake, every out-of-focus shot, every everything. Every time the president swears, 'cause he makes a mistake in the weekly address, all that stuff is in the archives somewhere and will be available to the public.

WERTHEIMER: Now, what was the best bit you captured in your four years?

CHAUDHARY: You never know exactly what you're going to run into. But there was one day when I was just getting ready for the Easter Egg Roll, which you know is a traditional event at the White House every year. It's really nice...

WERTHEIMER: You were going to lift the lid off Easter egg rolling?

CHAUDHARY: Yeah, I was going to, you know, make the very best White House Easter egg roll video that had ever been made. And when I got into the Blue Room, I came upon the president and Sasha Obama punching the Easter Bunny in the stomach, just letting him have it. It turned out to be Brian Mosteller, the deputy director of Oval Office Operations...

(LAUGHTER)

CHAUDHARY: ...dressed up as the Easter Bunny. But it's a strange thing to walk into a room and see the president and his daughter, you know, beating up what looks like an oversized Disney animal.

(LAUGHTER)

WERTHEIMER: Now, you tell several stories in the book where things went south on you. Tell me another one.

CHAUDHARY: You know, every now and then, I would push my authority a bit too far. You know, 'cause I got such free reign at the White House that it was hard not to want that when you get other places, too. And so, we arrived at the Indian Parliament and someone looked at me and saw my camera and says, Oh, you must be Pete Souza. And Pete did have access to the thing that I kind of wanted to shoot and was already with the president, and so he was already in position.

And so, I was like yeah, sure. Why not? I'm Pete Souza, let's see where this goes. And where that ended up going was, around a winding set of corridors and to someone who identified me as not Pete Souza. And then that led me to the back door of the Indian Parliament, where I was unceremoniously thrown out of Indian Parliament by my belt.

(LAUGHTER)

WERTHEIMER: They grabbed the back of your coat and the back of your trousers and threw you?

CHAUDHARY: That's right. It actually works. You know, you see if in the movies, you're like I wonder if someone did this, someone who could really could throw them through a door. Yeah, I'm here to tell you, it works.

(LAUGHTER)

WERTHEIMER: Arun Chaudhary's book about his years as videographer to a president is called "First Cameraman."

Mr. Chaudhary, thanks for talking to us

CHAUDHARY: Thanks so much. It was really fun.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.