Photographer Offers Window Into Obama's Life Callie Shell, a photographer on contract for Time magazine, has been one of a very few photographers with personal access to the Obama family. She tells NPR about how the president has handled meetings, travel and family life in his first 100 days in office.
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Photographer Offers Window Into Obama's Life

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Photographer Offers Window Into Obama's Life

Photographer Offers Window Into Obama's Life

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From NPR News, it's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Michele Norris. We're going to hear now from someone who has spent much of the past 100 days working behind the scenes to capture what life is like in the new Obama White House.

Callie Shell is a photographer on contract for Time magazine, and since Barack Obama announced his candidacy, she has been one of a very small number of photographers with personal access to the Obama family. That access has continued at the White House, where she captures the president's meetings, travel and family life through her lens.

Some of Shell's work of the past 100 days is collected in a slideshow on Time's Web site, and Shell told us that one of the first pictures in that collection - a picture of President Obama in a meeting with Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner - says a lot about how the president handles his meeting-packed schedule.

Ms. CALLIE SHELL (Photographer, Time Magazine): This photograph was taken in the Cabinet Room, and that night the president was going to have his second national press conference at the White House. So he went through a series of briefings with his staff, which is what he does every single day, is just sit and listen to the issues, and then he contemplates them. And so here, he was listening to the various budget proposals, the state of the country, and he just leaned back to take it in.

NORRIS: He's sitting in - I guess - what looks like a leather-backed chair, and he's leaning the chair back, and he has a look of - would it be concentration? He looks like he's almost someplace else as he leans his head back.

Ms. SHELL: I must admit - when I'm trying to make these photographs, I don't hear what's really going on because I had been waiting for quite a while for something to happen more than him just sitting at the table, but I find that this is way he listens to a lot of options. Someone might think he's not listening, but he's actually listening to every word and what people are saying to him.

NORRIS: The president's love of sports is well-known. It's no secret that he's a big fan of basketball. He follows ESPN. He likes to play sports. He likes to watch sports. It seems like there's a lot of sports in the White House, at least judging from your pictures, and there's this wonderful picture of him leaning back, and it looks like he's getting ready to toss a football.

Ms. SHELL: Some people, when they're thinking and working, you know, play with worry beads, or they might doodle. Barack Obama, in between meetings, while he's waiting for staff, which was what he was doing this day; he's waiting for the senior staff to show up for a briefing. And so Denis McDonough, his foreign-policy adviser, was going over some issues, but basically they're waiting. So there was a football, and so he was just winding down with it. He doesn't seem to be someone who likes to sit still very much.

NORRIS: It's the Oval Office. So is he getting ready to throw the football to someone, or is he just kind of striking a pose?

Ms. SHELL: No, he actually threw the football to Pete Souza, the White House photographer, and Pete impressively caught it with one hand. You know, it's a way to release pressure, you know, to kind of go on to the next meeting. And I wanted to show this is one of his ways, and he is the first to put some humor into the day.

NORRIS: You know, when I look at these pictures in the Oval Office, I find myself looking at the details. This is an office that has been occupied by many presidents, and each one makes it his own by the kind of pictures that they put on the wall or where they place photographs, the kind of statues that they have around the room.

There is a picture on the wall. It's a picture of Lady Liberty, the Statue of Liberty, but you only see the hand outstretched.

Ms. SHELL: Right. It's by Norman Rockwell. But you know, he has not done anything, really, to the Oval Office, and I don't know if he will. It's the same rug that President Bush had, the same art, same couch, same desk. He, to me, appeared to go in the first day and just start working. You know, he wants the room to look good and make people feel welcome. I've heard him say that, you know, this is the people's Oval Office. But at the same time, it's not high on his list.

NORRIS: You've also, in these photos, captured what family life is like in the White House. How has that aspect of life been for Barack Obama, moving in not only as the leader of the country, but as someone who's also trying to raise two daughters?

Ms. SHELL: Well, one thing I really wanted to show was when we were on the campaign, it was really hard, you could tell. He would not be able to see his wife or his daughters for a week, maybe two weeks. And the greatest part, I think, of the White House is that there are times when Sasha, you know, can just drop into the Oval Office if she wants to say hi to her dad.

He may come out of a meeting where he runs into them. There is a photograph where he had been doing a series of television interviews, and Malia was just coming back from school. So she was telling him about her day, and so he and the first lady, you know, were listening, and the president put his hands up and held her head. I think he just wanted to make sure that she knew he was really listening to what she had to say.

I find that they are the mental break for him. If he needs to just, you know, get two minutes, he can pop upstairs and see his family.

NORRIS: There's a photograph that shows the president and the first lady, and they're doing that thing that I guess they've been photographed doing a few times, where they touch foreheads. And there are other people in the shot. Their friend and adviser, Valerie Jarrett, is in that picture. And it seems that the other two people in the room know to kind of put their head down and give them their space because I guess it doesn't come that often.

Ms. SHELL: No, it doesn't come that often. He was doing events that day. She had different events, and they came together to do this one event. So they had just a second together to say hi and how are you doing. And I find when that happens that staff, Secret Service, everyone will just try to look down or turn away because there's not much you can do, but you're trying to show respect and give them a little bit of space.

And they have an amazing ability just to tune the world out for just two seconds. That's all they get.

NORRIS: You've spent a lot of time with President Obama before he was President Obama, when he was candidate Obama, when he was Senator Obama. How has he changed in the first 100 days? Have you watched him evolve?

Ms. SHELL: I think the difference - I wanted to show, I don't know if I did, that here's a person that, you know, at one time did civil organization duties, so you had to worry about, you know, your town. And then you become a senator, and you worry about your constituents. And then you walk into the White House, and you go from a campaign, and everything you say, do, doesn't just affect your constituents anymore, it affects an entire country and, in our case, I believe, an entire world.

So I'm not sure I think that he's changed or evolved. I just think that - you can tell that he feels deep responsibility for what this White House is doing.

NORRIS: Do you capture a different range of emotions when you're shooting Barack Obama as president as opposed to Barack Obama as candidate? You're shooting him in probably a much more confined space, as opposed to a different city every day, in front of hundreds - in some cases, thousands - of people.

Ms. SHELL: I think that's one thing that seems to be harder for him. On the campaign, I think he and his staff really enjoyed going from city to city and meeting different people, and now a lot of it's confined to the Oval Office. I think at times - I haven't asked, but you know, we'll be somewhere, and he'll look out the window and he'll just say, oh, I'd love to be there. You know, let's go - just go walk down there.

NORRIS: Callie Shell, it's been good to talk to you again. Thanks so much for coming back.

Ms. SHELL: Thank you so much for having me. I really appreciate it.

NORRIS: That's Callie Shell, a photographer on contract for Time magazine. Her book is called "President Obama: The Path to the White House." And you can see a gallery of her photos at our Web site,

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