Journalist Spotlight: Larry Downing, WHNPA's 2015 Lifetime Achievement Award recipient, on career as photographer
Last week, the White House News Photographers Association (WHNPA) announced that Reuters photographer Larry Downing has been awarded their 2015 Lifetime Achievement Award, for his exceptional coverage of the White House dating back to 1978 and spanning six U.S. presidencies. Larry started covering the White House while Jimmy Carter was president, working for U.P.I. and then Newsweek Magazine before joining Reuters in 1997. Over the course of his career, his reputation and access has enabled him to document countless historic events and people. In a Reuters Best: Journalist Spotlight Q&A, Larry reflects on his career and what it means to him to be a photojournalist.
Q. What makes you passionate about photojournalism? Why did you become a photographer?
A. Today’s style of photojournalism grew in the golden years of its infancy during the 1960’s. The stream of U.S. soldiers fighting and dying during the Vietnam War, the heated battles for racial equality on American streets; the unimaginable race to step on the moon first; and the human drama of political assassinations that played out in public brought exciting times in American history. Thankfully, brave, sensitive photojournalists captured every detail, giving me an opportunity to study the steady collection of dramatic images splashed across the front pages of the Boston Globe newspaper waiting for me as soon as I got home from school. I could only day dream then of the rewards of traveling around the world with only a camera and representing those who could not, or would not, leave their homes to record all of man’s deeds with little thought of the risks. What a wonderful way to live a life. I knew then I wanted to be a wire service photographer and I followed that dream.
Q. What do you find most difficult/like least about your job?
A. My responsibilities for Reuters now center on coverage of the White House and of the U.S. President. I started my Washington photojournalism career assigned to President Jimmy Carter 38 years ago and am now assigned to Barack Obama. That’s a long time covering one beat and is artistically challenging but the physical demands get harder and harder with the passing of each year. My assignment requires that I accompany the current U.S. President wherever he decides to go, both domestically and internationally. The rigorous precision of the schedule remains at an unforgiving high speed and the strenuous demands of six, seven or eight days in a strange country are brutal. That wears everyone down. I’m 62 years old and still running with the young “go fast” photographers and it hurts.
Q. What have you found most fulfilling about covering the White House? Have you covered any other subjects/topics throughout your career?
A. A curious footnote to the many years I’ve spent traveling with the President(s) is that I have recently fulfilled a small ambition of mine which took nearly four decades to accomplish. I have now landed aboard Air Force One in all 50 states of the United States. A simple task at first thought but nearly impossible. President Barack Obama went to North Dakota in 2014 and that completed the travel set for me.
The two most challenging assignments away from the White House I’ve negotiated were the Winter Olympics in Norway, and 10-weeks before and after the first Persian Gulf War. Both were a test to find and negotiate solutions during stressful and intense conditions. Norway was very cold and those athletes traveled faster than any humans I’ve ever seen. Most major league baseball pitchers couldn’t throw a baseball as fast as a downhill skier throws himself down a mountain. And war is, well, it’s unpredictable.
Q. What have been your most rewarding and most difficult experiences as a photojournalist?
A. The most amazing flight for me aboard Air Force One was when President George W. Bush sneaked off his central Texas ranch during the Thanksgiving holiday and collected a small handful of trusted journalists to travel non-stop across the Atlantic Ocean, Europe, and into Iraq to secretly visit with surprised U.S. military troops. What an honor to have been picked for that mission by the White House and what a daring feat pulled off flawlessly by the U.S. Air Force. The funniest moment of that trip was when I asked one of the seated soldiers waiting in the chow hall whom he was waiting for, and he responded with a smile, “the Dallas Cowboy cheerleaders are coming…”
Q. Can you imagine being anything other than a photographer? If so, what?
A. A professional wire service photographer is the greatest job on the planet…period. Everyone wants to be one. I can’t even visit a doctor’s office without every single conversation turning to photography as soon as my job is mentioned. I am the luckiest man alive.
Q. What advice do you have for aspiring photojournalists?
A. That is answered with a simple question…..”Are you willing to chase a dream at any cost?” Photography is not a job or a career or even a fun hobby. Living with a camera is the product of a burning passion which flames hotter and brighter than anything else in your life. Thoughts of how much money you will make aren’t even an issue.
Realize that most successful photojournalists are not blessed with immediate talent, but are born with that uncontrolled desire to learn and challenge themselves before becoming a great photographer.
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