Kevin Gilbert on Pictures, Photo Ops, Presidents and More
Why we take pictures
Photographs represent truth and memories. You only have to see one to remember how hot it was that day. You remember the smells of the market. You remember being with so and so. All these wonderful memories are triggered by looking at a photograph.
These days, I teach and travel a lot. I try to help people go from taking a typical picture to taking a better one. Telling stories has always been a big part of why we take pictures. I try to tell stories of my trips. Or the little things in life. Recently, I made a Mother’s Day film with pictures of my three year old (which were easy to find because I am organized now). I found 75 pictures, put them to music, added some text and it was ready – a four minute story of motherhood based on photos of my daughter and wife over the last three years.
Serendipity comes into play in many different ways for photographers. I was in New York recently and bumped into an old friend one morning. It was great to be able to get a picture of my friend Porter and me in the Big Apple. That’s the kind of serendipity that people are able to make the most of these days because they always have a camera with them. You can find stories just about anywhere.
Photo ops I can’t pass up
There are so many emotional triggers that cause you to pull out your camera. For me, it’s the light. Bright sunlight is not as interesting to me unless there are also some wonderful shadows to capture. I am always looking up and down, not just straight ahead. I love to be up in the morning with fog, mist and some backlighting. What gets me excited visually is seeing the effects of light in different places. About a year ago, I was on a ship in Antarctica for a couple of weeks. I was always up at three in the morning even though the sun doesn’t even set by then over there. But the light was just so incredible at that time. It was an epic experience – to be up and to be able to see that interplay of light, shadows and colors.
When I was part of the White House Photographers’ Association
I’ve covered four presidents during my time with the Association – Ronald Reagan, George Bush 41, Bill Clinton and George Bush 43. And those are just the real ones. I have photographed a few fictional presidents for TV shows as well.
The first president I covered was Ronald Reagan. I was 24 at the time and was handed this assignment to go shoot in the Oval Office. The president was being interviewed by our editor in chief. I had been in the Oval Office earlier, although always with a group of fifteen or twenty other people from the camera and sound crew. So I wasn’t that overwhelmed by the space when I walked in. They asked me to set up my equipment and I proceeded to do that. Then I glanced up and saw this man in a brown suit at the desk. It was Ronald Reagan! He didn’t look up at first – he was busy reading and signing papers. I felt a bit nervous and decided not to look in his direction. So I stood waiting to shoot, with my back to the president. Then, all of a sudden, I felt this arm on my shoulder and he said: “Well, are we ready yet?” I was so startled that I knocked over the strobe from my light. It went crashing to the floor. He turned away, laughing the whole way back to his desk. That was my first real encounter with a president. It made me realize that he was a regular guy. It also shows how Reagan was always ready to appreciate the humor in any situation – whether it involved an attempt on his life or the clumsiness of a young cub photographer in his office.
How I ended up on the sets of ‘The Apprentice’
At one point in my career, I made the transition from being a daily newspaper photographer to working for the Discovery Channel. One of the first reality TV shows at the time was called the ‘Eco Challenge” – it was an outdoor adventure race set in a foreign country. By then, I had started shooting digital – this was in ’96 or ’97 – and so they hired me to do some shots for this TV show. They wanted live pictures and I became the digital go-to guy for them. ”Eco Challenge” was produced by Mark Burnett, the man who created ‘Survivor’ as well as ‘the Apprentice’. I had known Mark very well over the years and eventually got hired to shoot the first season of ‘Apprentice’. It was not supposed to be the huge hit that it turned out to be. I went on to shoot four seasons of the show and saw a businessman grow into a reality TV star and household name and eventually, the President of the United States. It’s been interesting, to say the least. But I haven’t seen President Trump in ten years now.
A day I didn’t have my camera with me
This was back in the pre-camera phone era. I was teaching a photojournalism course at the Corcoran College of Art and Design in Washington DC and on that particular Tuesday, I was taking my students through one of the first classes of the course. It was September 11 of 2001. The class started at 8 am and we took a break around 9:30 am. We stepped outside and saw people running all over the place with machine guns. We were right across from the White House – not more than a hundred yards from it. We could see smoke in the distance – a plane had already hit the Pentagon. I tried to go back in the building. My car was in the parking garage and all my cameras were in the trunk. But they would not let us back in. I had ten kids with me – all of them around 18-19 years old – and I had to get them out of harm’s way. We started walking towards relative safety and along the way, two or three of my students took some pictures that eventually wound up in the Library of Congress collection. I can still see the images in my head – the Secret Service, DC police, blocked streets, jets flying overhead to stop the fourth plane from hitting the White House…
That was a day when I didn’t have my cameras with me because they were locked up in my car trunk. If I had had my camera phone, it would have been a different story.
Baby steps to saving memories
I am in my 50s and my life didn’t start twenty years ago. I have pictures from thirty, forty and fifty years ago. On my laptop, I have a picture of myself – as a one year old, eating chocolate cake. I go that far back with just my life. But my parents and grandparents go back further. Pictures are a way to connect our yesterdays with our todays and tomorrows. It’s not really about genealogy but about preserving moments that belong to a collective past. You can go to a flea market or yard sale and find a box with thousands of old prints or slides. And the seller says ‘yeah $5, take them all’. You have essentially reduced a generation or more of some family’s memories to $5.
I encourage everybody to spend a few minutes everyday – to look at old pictures, back up their phone to the cloud, back up their photos. Just do these little things. Don’t try to solve the problem entirely in one day because that’s too overwhelming. If you tackle it piece by piece, you’ll find it’s not so daunting.
Keeping our heads above the digital flood
With digital cameras becoming affordable and an integral part of phones, we have started to take a LOT of pictures. It’s a wonderful thing for photography, storytelling and creativity that people are taking around 1.3 trillion photos a year (that was the number last year). The problem is that 1.2 trillion of these pictures are probably not very good. But it’s information and stories that are personal to people. My most treasured photo might be an out-of-focus camera phone picture of my grandfather before he passed away. It’s not award winning and will never make it into a gallery but it’s the most important picture I have taken in thirty or forty years
But with up to 10,000 photos saved on each of our phones, we are wallowing in data. We have pictures on memory cards. We have a few years worth of images on our hard drives or old computers. So all of a sudden, it’s a very decentralized vault of our lives. When we think about our lives, we remember our kids being born. I remember my first overseas trip. Can I lay my hands on a photograph? Probably yes, because as a professional I am supposed to be able to organize my images. But even professionals find it hard to keep up with the current pace of picture taking. A picture is worthless – as a personal memory and a photographic asset – if you can’t find it. So, start working on a system to organize your pictures. Gather old prints and scan them. If you can find your pictures, you can print them. You can make a book. You can put together the storylines of your life.
Photo credits: Kevin Gilbert
Kevin Gilbert is an award winning photojournalist, teacher and memory evangelist based in Washington State. He is also a Panasonic Lumix Luminary.