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Clear, Sharp And Properly Exposed: How A Photo Made A Career

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Clear, Sharp And Properly Exposed: How A Photo Made A Career

ARUN RATH, HOST:

We are collecting stories of triumph, big and small, the moments when people make those great leaps forward in their careers. We're calling it My Big Break. And we're kicking off our series with a break that happened 24 years ago today, thanks to one lucky photograph.

BILL O'LEARY: My name is Bill O'Leary. I'm a staff photographer with The Washington Post. My big break came the night Washington Mayor Marion Barry got arrested for smoking crack in a hotel room during an FBI sting.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

O'LEARY: Leading up to that point, I had been administrative staff at The Post. It's pretty much clerical background work. And I was anxious to get out on the street with a camera, you know, make a real contribution. So I got a new boss who gave me an internship. So a month into this internship, an editor comes running in and says, there's a rumor that the mayor has been arrested. For this to be happening was a monstrous local story.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

O'LEARY: It's true, the mayor has been arrested. He's being held at the FBI Buzzard Point center, and we are going to flood the zone. We're going to have people at every intersection and every corner of the building, and we're going to get the mayor when he comes out of that building. So they dispatch all the heavy hitters off to their assignments, and there's two or three people left - just me and one of the older photographers who had been going through a divorce and had asked for light duty.

So my boss looks at us, and he says, and you two guys, why don't you go out to his house just in case we miss him. It's now close to midnight. It's January. It's very cold and dark and quiet. My colleague takes the front of the house, and I take the back. The back of the house is off of an ally. And sure enough, vehicle pulls up, SUV with smoked windows. And the door opens and four men get out. And damn, there he is. There's Marion Barry.

So I raise my camera, but before I can take a picture, this big, beefy FBI agent blocks me, puts his hand on my lens and starts pushing me back. At that moment, I hear a commotion. And at the end of the ally, a competitor, Joe Johns of Channel 4 News, he has arrived at the end of the ally. He's seeing that he's missing it, so he's taken off on foot, and he's yelling at the top of his lungs, Mr. Mayor, what were you doing in that hotel room, something like that.

Well, this alarms the FBI agent, who stops worrying about me and turns to intercept this new threat. At that instant, I get off this one picture, bam, with a punch flash direct strobe hideous in the middle of the night. So I get in the car, and I go rushing back, running into our darkroom, close the door and lock it, begin the process. When I finally start to unwheel it from the spool, hold it up to a light box, and there it is. It's clear, sharp, it's properly exposed, and it's the mayor.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

O'LEARY: It was our lead picture, an incredible scoop. Everyone wanted it. We got picked up by all the wires, all the magazines. It was magic, is the only way to describe it, I think. And that's what happened. That's - that was my big break.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RATH: That was Bill O'Leary. He's a staff photographer for The Washington Post. We want to hear the story of your big break. Send us an email at My Big Break at npr.org.

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