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tv   Oral Histories Interview with Photojournaist Eric Draper  CSPAN  September 19, 2021 7:24pm-8:01pm EDT

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texas recorded this interview rd archived his photographs. it is february 15, 2015 here with eric draper and the reason we are here is because we are celebrating the opening of the center museum of history and we are here to get your perspective on some of the items of your reflection as well as journalism archives. i know we could talk a lot about your background and given the time constraints i want to jump right into your photos. >> sure. >> tell the story of how you became the official white house photographer because i love how you got the job. >> it could be a long story, because it's fascinating to me because i never really planned on being the white house photographer. it was an opportunity that presented itself and back when i was the staff photographer my career had been in the journalism newspaper wire service business. i was assigned to cover the
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campaign, presidential campaign in 2000 and then i was assigned to cover governor bush who was running for office so i was among many journalists traveling on the campaign trail for nearly 18 months and it wasn't until the very end of the campaign that i decided or actually realized that i had a shot at the white house job which i had been very happy and satisfied with my position at the ap and i still blame everything on the recount. i remember back then and in 2000 there's a time period nobody knew which way the election was going to go so there was a two to three week period. now's the time i took a break and went back to albuquerque. i was recovering from the campaign and the more i inquired about the position, the more that i discovered i had a shot at the job. and then i discovered i had an opportunity to ask president
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elect bush in person when i discovered i was invited to a christmas party in austin texas i said that's where i'm going to make my personal pitch for the job and so i walked up to president elect bush at the party. my wife was there to coach me on the sidelines, because i knew making a direct pitch would help. the portfolio, the staff knew me. i looked him in the eye and said i want to be your personal photographer and i took a page out of his political playbook because he would always say on the campaign trail i want to be your president. it was the longest handshake ever because he kind of looked at me like he never thought about it. he said i appreciate it. i will get back to you. a week later it all happened very quickly. back in austin in andy carr's office, who was the chief of staff he pretty much offered me the job on the spot and he said
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we know you are a good photographer because i had that advantage of traveling with the staff. they knew me, they knew my work and how i worked and the first thing he said is can you manage and of course i said yes. what he really meant was and these words stuck with me he said working at the white house is like trying to get water through a fire hose at full throttle and he was right because i discovered immediately just how much happens and how much i had to manage as the personal photographer to the president and director of the white house photo office. the first thing i had to do is hire a staff to handle the workload because i spent all my time traveling with the president and shooting in the document and trying not to miss a thing and what happens with the photos afterwards is very important. a big part of my job was maintaining that archive which at the very beginning was just a
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handful of film and eight years later nearly 4 million images and the entire database, the entire staff because we also photographed the vice presidents, the first lady. it's more than just what's in the presidential archive as it stands. >> i know we could talk even more about what that was like.
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i'll us how the day unfolded and the picture taken at the elementary school. >> it was the most amazing day. my time at the white house obviously, and for me it was nine months into the job i was still kind of learning a lot about traveling with the president and all that. i'm in the classroom and i see that moment and expression on the president's face changed. i knew something was wrong. something was very wrong. walking into the classroom there was a holding room and that's where they were with the tv in the room. seeing the images on the tv
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screen, i knew the day would be huge in terms of history not knowing how big and how bad it would get. at that stage it would be even more with the attacks on washington and all the planes involved. my immediate thought was to connect what was happening in new york with what the president was doing. the president walked into the room and i was waiting to take that picture when he stopped to see the images on tv. and he never stopped. he picked up a notepad and started collecting the information that image that
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shows the communications director of point that was the first time we started seeing the replay of the second tower getting hit. the emotion of it hitting and the explosion and that scene that is burned in everyone's memory that's the first time the president saw it because after that moment when dan bartlett alerted everyone in the room, he said look and everyone looked at the tv and we saw that. everyone stood in silence because we hadn't seen it. we heard it happened. so to me, that is a critical moment the president visually could connect what really happened. so just a second later the president turned to see that image for the first time. >> was also striking about that image we were all witnessing the events unfold reacting the same
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way the president was. >> that's true. everyone remembers being glued to the television. everyone remembers that image of the towers burning, the plumes of smoke. that does make that personal connection because that's what everyone was experiencing at the same time, you're right. that is a good point. >> talk us through the rest of that day. there were so many images but obviously what was it like ask you for a photographer to cover the president's movements that day? >> for me, i didn't want to miss a thing. i don't think i really thought about what i was doing because when i would stop and think about it, it was hard to imagine what was happening.
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it was almost like a nightmare playing out in front of me. all i did was react and do my job of not missing a moment. that's what it was like for me. i tried not to get lost in thought because i had the same feelings everyone else had that day, the feeling of why and who and the tremendous sense of loss happening and the shock. i was as shocked as everyone else. i tried to suppress that and luckily i had a camera to do that with. the technical part and trying not to miss a moment so that was my focus that day was just reacting to the president's movements and his moods and emotions and trying to get that all on film. >> was there ever a point you were not able to get that kind of access? >> that day i truly felt visible
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because it was so intense and everyone was focused on their jobs. i stood 2 feet from the president on air force one when they told him sir, you cannot return to washington. it's not safe. he looked around in distressed and was so upset and frustrated that he couldn't leave from washington he turned around and it was like he was looking through me. i was it felt like inches away from him and i truly felt invisible that day because everyone was so focused on their job and it was so intense. that's what that day was like. >> switching gears a bit although another devastating time for the presidency of george w. bush was hurricane katrina and the aftermath. we selected one of your photos to represent that. can you talk a little bit about
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that image? >> this was three or four days after the hurricane. we were touring both states in louisiana and mississippi that day and just walking around seeing the damage, so there was a motorcade tour primarily the president would get out and meet with the emergency personnel and then there was a part where there were still some of the people that lived there because it still wasn't safe for people to go back. so the president got out and did a walking tour of the area and there were people standing with shells of their home. it looked like a nuclear bomb went off. the destruction was so horrific and there was a gentle man standing in front of his home
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that was gone and just reduced to shreds of wood. the only thing left was the base of the cement stairs that led to his front door. the only thing standing. the president walked over and what struck me is the fact that there were media that they were down the street and the president set out just to meet with this gentleman and to hear about his story. it wasn't done for the photos or the press. it was a real moment of comfort at this moment that this guy that lost his entire home and who knows what else in hurricane katrina but it was definitely an example of the loss at that moment just a few days after the
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hurricane. >> your photo tells a different story than another photo or the image of bush in the helicopter. can you speak to the different of what one picture can make? >> you mean the other photo everyone talks about? [laughter] >> the one i'm referring to is where it's not that he appears in different but i think that is the conclusion some people made looking at that photo of him in the helicopter. >> there's definitely two different situations. the first situation which actually i wasn't on the trip because he left texas to fly back to washington and decided to basically do a flyover of the area because he didn't want to land and get all of the police and personnel involved still basically recovering rescuing people. he didn't want to disrupt that so he did a flyover but symbolically it did look like
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there was a disconnect and then a few days later he had the opportunity to actually land on the ground and see it firsthand and meet people and connect with the people that were effected so yes, two different situations. >> there was a photo we talked about using where he talked about regretting letting a camera on that helicopter. >> it's that image that unfortunately it was unfortunate with the timing of it i think. that probably shouldn't have been the first image to connect the president with in that disaster looking out a window. >> another that we have is a
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great picture of him in a cowboy hat at the ranch. talk a little bit about the importance of his time at the ranch and your access to his downtime if you will. >> the ranch was a great place to just unwind and relax. 1600-acre ranch so you had the sky and grass and the president the first thing he wanted to do whenever he landed on the ranch was get outside and stay outside. so activities like in that picture driving his truck. he was proud of his ranch and he would give tours to visitors and i think that's when i made that picture we had some friends in the truck and he was giving a tour of his ranch. it was a great place for him to unwind and he would also work because when you're the
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president you're always the president. whenever he would invite world leaders, that was always a big deal. every world leader new if you were invited to the president's ranch that you are special because you had the opportunity to the personal diplomacy where the world leader would learn about his life so he was very proud of his ranch and that picture definitely illustrates that texan in him. he loves his ranch. >> another image that we selected, and again this is tough because a lot of your images were striking but this was the lance corporal rimer is being awarded the purple heart, while he was actually in a hospital bed. so, if you could remember the
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back story on that and also reflect on what that picture tells us about the president. >> the president would go to both walter reed and bethesda hospital to visit his lawyers and to visit with the families and he would go to the icu with their loved ones and to the rehab area to meet with soldiers and at the same time it was an opportunity to award purple hearts to the soldiers and quite frequently he wouldn't bring the press along and i would be there as a professional photographer but also the photographer for the families because they would also want photos with the president and definitely whenever he would meet with these families it was always a roller coaster of emotion because he got the troops in
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this situation you could see the sacrifice and those types of scenes. the president was very compassionate and always wanted to look them in the eye and tell them if they had questions for him, look them in the eye and tell him why the mission was so important and why he made the decisions he made as the commander-in-chief and to send them into harms way. it was important for him to confront. it was a moment of compassion to award the purple heart and kiss them on the four head. and he was that way with so many meetings it was repeated over and over again through the years
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and i think it is one of the most underreported stories in terms of how many soldiers the president would meet behind-the-scenes to thank them for their service both at hospitals and whenever they would travel to the military facilities the president would want to meet with the families of the fallen and those that were lost in the wars and he would want to meet with these families and soldiers. it was repeated numerous times it was very important to him. >> one of the reasons we do what we do and i am sure from your perspective is we are preserving history and evidence. if someone were to look at your
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photos, what sort of evidence of his character do you think they would find? >> that's a good question. in this case president bush i think when you meet him in person, you have a different opinion of him. you see moments you don't normally see. i had the opportunity to capture but it's all in the eyes of the beholder. but what i tried to do is if there's a human connection to be made that i could illustrate in the photo i would capture it and the fact that it did have so much access to those moments that you would see a completely different side that you normally don't see, the human side. the husband, the father, the dog
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owner you see the human side, you don't see the official side, the commander-in-chief. you see someone just like us and i think that's what i had an amazing opportunity to witness and see the complete view during really historical times. when you become an official white house photographer is it during a club? >> there's so much work involved in doing the job that you don't get a chance to come up for air. you are kind of in this bubble and you will see your colleagues looking out the window.
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from my experience, there was so much work involved and focus on the job that until i got out, you realize how special the job was even more so. but yes it is great to be in such a tightknit club, because not a lot of photographers have done this. >> we did a talk with you together and you have been on the other side. what is the difference between what you were doing as a member of the ap and official white house photographer? >> very different. i think as a journalist, working for the media, you are there, you are on assignment and your focus is to illustrate what's
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presented in front of you, or if you do have access to a behind-the-scenes moment, you record it and put it out there, but it's limited. when you are an official photographer, it's like a whole another world, a whole another universe where we have so much access and to see and follow it's almost overwhelming at times because there's so much access. but the focus is the president at the same time you are working for the president, so it's not like you are with a media organization, you represent that organization and when you are working for the president, you are serving the president. i am bringing my background, my style, my way that i make pictures to this job of being
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the official photographer so it's a mixed bag but it's so much more when you are the official photographer and at the same time, when you are an official photographer for the white house for the president of the united states, you are representing the country so you have to be very diplomatic with your movements. i had to turn off a switch because being a journalist you are always having doors closed in front of you, there's always something to get around but when you are the white house photographer, everything is open because no one realizes your position. it's almost a dream come true where there is so much access it's great. there are two different worlds so it's interesting to discover
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even as soon day one as the white house photographer. >> what do you personally think of as your best image or significant image? >> i don't have one image. i kind of see my images as a body of work because there's so much and because i had the opportunity to witness and document a lot of history and that history is always unfolding and changing with the times, with the perspectives. many years it's been nearly four years since i left, and so a lot of photos that i didn't consider before became even more
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important. like the decision to go to war. it was important then but even though more important now because the echoes of that decision are still being felt. so to me it is always fascinating to see the historical images rise and fall with time and where they end up is no one knows in terms of what's going to be more important now, will it be just as important later or will other images be important. in terms of favorite it's so hard. there's just too many. but my favorites are those that explain and illustrate the president's personality especially the photos of the ranch and that kind of reveal the personal side but those are the images that are my favorites. >> talk about the images of the
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decision to go to war. how did that on the fold? when he started to commit troops to iraq. and that morning at the white house i was in the situation room standing outside the door and back then there was a peephole to see what was happening for other staff to monitor the room. i knew the meeting was breaking up so i documented the beginning which i typically do and then at the end, i saw the president salute and i really wish i
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could've made a photo. it would have been an amazing picture. i knew something was happening so i went in the door, the president is there standing in front of me and i literally have to leap out of the way. his eyes were literally inches from my eyes and i saw the emotion, i saw the tears in his eyes, and i knew something had happened. i didn't know what. obviously that kind of build up to the war was happening but so i followed the president. he walked through the oval office and out to the south lawn. i kind of gave him some room and stayed back knowing he was very emotional so i wanted to wait for a good moment. but he walked the entire length. you could see the weight of the
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decision on his face. then the president spoke to me and said are you interested in history. all i could say was yes sir. he said these photos in the situation room and the south lawn are very important and as he said that, secretary rumsfeld and vice president cheney were walking out of the office and started to discuss the timing of the start for the war in iraq so that moment was very intense especially with the president speaking to me i disengaged from the conversation from the meetings and that's my job is to be the observer not the participant so especially
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realizing what was happening and that we were going to war. >> for your book coming out this is your book on your years with president bush. what do you hope to accomplish with this book? >> what i've always wanted to do with my photography and one of the reasons i fell in love with photojournalism was telling stories. this story has a beginning and an end. it's an eight-year story. so to have the opportunity to present this a very important time period with access to the job i had and it's a story from
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my perspective that could only be told by the white house photographer. a lot of the photos have been seen in various ways. a lot haven't been seen. to finally have one full body of work, very proud of that to finally have that presentation. >> how hard was it to get a million photos done? >> it was tough. i could probably do ten books to be honest because there were so many pictures but a lot the cream of the crop it naturally rose to the top.
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there was a chapter on the western white house and it was tough because there were a lot of favorites. >> before we wrap up i wanted to ask a couple of questions. where did you decide to put your questions here. >> i didn't have to think about it. just yes there is a home for my photos but most importantly it's not a place to sit and collect dust. there would be a living archive for people to come in and study and that's what really interests me is that it is a working and
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living the type of archive and then also to be included with so many great photographers that i idolized through the years and now i am a part of that group and very blessed to be in that company. when you look at the collection as a whole what do you think as the value of the collection? >> it gives it a home and it's very important to have access to something as important as the story so it's huge. you can't put a number value on that. it's a very important. by the centers here that exist in that way.
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a. >> is there anything else that you want to share? there was a chance to interact with some other photographers. anything coming out of that experience? >> it's great to hear their stories. it's almost like you have these walking talking history books right in front of you and so the fact that this is a rare opportunity that everyone is in the same place at the same time, i am trying to take advantage of that to talk to these people that i've known through the years and worked alongside but we don't have time for this chit chat. usually we are crossing paths but it's a unique opportunity
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