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The Path to The White House: Callie Shell’s intimate portrait of Obama

March 30, 2010

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It is the dream of every news photographer, to get – almost – unlimited access to the most powerful man in the world. Time photographer Callie Shell got just that. She was Barack Obama’s personal photographer for 5 years and has captured an estimated 400.000 images of the man she calls her friend. Last night Shell presented her book The Path to The White House at the Netherlands Photo Museum in Rotterdam.

Callie Shell had been an official White House photographer for 8 years during the Clinton administration covering vice president Al Gore, when Time Magazine contracted her. For Time, Shell covered The White House and President Bush as well as John Kerry‘s presidential campaign.

It was during that campaign, in 2004, that she first met Barack Obama. Obama, who at the time was a senator in Illinois and nowhere near running for president, immediately fascinated Shell. She remembers thinking “I do not know. I just have a feeling about him. I think he will be important down the road.”

Shell convinced Time and in 2006 the magazine published her first photo essay of Obama. Since then Callie Shell has been following Barack Obama every step of the way, including his first 100 days at the White House.

© Callie Shell / Aurora

Shell was there from the early days and she witnessed Obama’s rise. She recalls that in 2007, just after Obama had announced his candidacy “We would go to rally’s and there would be nothing for him to stand on because they didn’t think anyone would show up. But then 200 or 300 people would come and Barack Obama just grabbed a crate that happened to be there and used it as a stage.”

Soon however, the tide turned. Very early in Obama’s campaign Callie Shell experienced his almost rock star-like status: “People wanted to grab him and touch him. Moms where throwing their babies at him and asked me to take pictures.” What also struck Shell is that Obama’s supporters came from all ethnic, social, and economical backgrounds.

Moreover, Obama was one of the first politicians to acknowledge that speaking up against the war in Iraq does not make you unpatriotic. This made him gain increasing popularity among families of deployed troops as well.

© Callie Shell / Aurora

Obama’s campaign team who never told her to not take a certain picture amazed Callie Shell. “In my work it’s all about gaining trust,” Shell says, and over the years she got to know Barack and Michelle Obama well. “They are very good at keeping each other grounded,” says Shell. At one occasion when Obama grumbled about having to wear black tie – “He hates black tie, he feels like a monkey” – Michelle reminded him “You wanted to be president so stop complaining.”

Callie Shell’s photo series of Obama include some precious shots of The First Couple. There is an image where Michelle falls asleep on Barack’s shoulder when they reunite after having been separated for 10 days. And there is a beautiful close-up of them dancing, showing Michelle from the back, where the expression on Barack’s face unveils true love.

One of Shell’s pictures portrays Obama with his feet on the table wearing shoes with holes. Obama called these his ‘lucky shoes’ and refused to part with them. The photo was posted and re posted around the Internet as a comparison to Sarah Palin’s big spending on clothes.

© Callie Shell / Aurora

Besides the many shots of the person behind the president – Obama asleep on the campaign bus, cleaning up after himself at an ice cream parlor or joking with his daughter in the oval office – Shell also wanted to show what is happening around the president. The images she captured therefore include staff and visitors, such as musicians and inner city kids invited at The White House.

After covering the Obama’s first 100 days at The White House, Callie Shell returned home, to South Carolina where she lives with her husband Vincent Musi, a National Geographic photographer and their son. She continues to cover special events around President Obama.

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