9 Jan 2018

Graeme Jennings: Photographing history on the Hill

From Summer Times, 9:10 am on 9 January 2018
Graeme Jennings, Washington Examiner reporter Salena Zito and President Donald Trump

Graeme Jennings, Washington Examiner reporter Salena Zito and President Donald Trump Photo: Frank Craig

By Ben Stanley* 

Thanks to constant controversy, drama and a 24-hour news cycle that prizes both, President Donald Trump's first year in the White House has riveted Kiwi attention on American politics like never before.

Figures like Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell and Kellyanne Conway have become household names as the Trump administration - and United States - has bounced from one perplexing political moment to the next.

Graeme Jennings has had a front row seat to it all. A photojournalist for the Washington Examiner, the 39-year-old Aucklander is the only New Zealander in the Capitol Hill press corps.

Jennings spends his days chasing Senators and House representatives through the corridors of Congress, photographing cabinet members and big-name political operatives and even spending time in the Oval Office with President Trump himself.

"My Dad will ring me up from New Zealand and say 'who are you photographing today?" Jennings tells RNZ, at a DC bar located three blocks from the White House.

"I'll tell him it's, say, Steve Mnuchin, and he'll be like 'ah yes, the Secretary of the Treasury. I know all about him.' It's crazy - Kiwis know about it all. It's like Days of Our Lives."

Jennings, who has worked on the Hill since 2013, took the long road to Washington DC. 

Jennings, who hails from Mt Eden, moved to the United Kingdom after graduating from Unitec in 1998, but worked in bars instead of pursuing photography.

His first professional work came in 2004 when he worked for an NGO focusing on land mine removal in Bosnia. Further work documenting refugees in Chechnya and Azerbaijan followed. 

In 2007, he and his then-wife moved to Washington, allowing Jennings to gradually build up his contacts among the DC press corps. He secured a job with the Examiner in late 2010.

The Examiner - now considered DC's leading conservative political publication - was then a local newspaper with a focus on Washington's suburbs. In 2013, it changed into a weekly magazine strictly covering the national political scene. 

Jennings has worked virtually all the big DC political moments since, starting with Hillary Clinton's congressional testimony over the Benghazi attack, in 2013.

The last year has seen him witness former FBI director James Comey testify on the Hill, capture Senator Al Franken's resignation after allegations of sexual misconduct and stake out the court as disgraced former National Security Advisor Mike Flynn pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI.

Jennings also covered the racially charged Charlottesville protests last August, and was only metres away when activist Heather Heyer was killed in a brutal car attack.

The majority of Jennings' time is spent patrolling the Hill's maze of underground hallways or in press scrums. Word on the Hill's grapevine travels fast, meaning the press is quickly aware of whichever political figure was making waves.

Graeme Jennings and Paul Ryan.

Graeme Jennings and Speaker of the House of Representatives Paul Ryan Photo: 2016 Getty Images/ Win McNamee

"It can be a bum's rush, really, [but] I feel like I do all right in those scrum situations," he says. "It's chaotic, but I always feel like I get something good."

Covering people testifying in front of Congressional or Senate sub-committees is a different kettle of fish, however. For those high profile events, the Kiwi will be positioned directly in front of whoever is testifying, waiting for "the moment" that could define a hearing.

"You have to become a big body language expert," Jennings says. "You're looking for the moment that shows frustration or defeat, or defiance, or maybe someone being contemplatively angry. You're only a metre or two away. 

"You sit there and start looking through the lens, and it's like you're looking through them after a while."

While Jennings interacts with the high profile politicians often, as evidenced by a lighter moment last year when Ryan, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, examined a tattoo on the Kiwi's left shoulder, he says they don't really build up relationships. 

"Unless they talk to me, I don't really engage," he says. "I'm sure they recognize me, like all of us. I'm also pretty sure they know which outlets are kinder to them than others. 

"There are other senators and representatives who are just more in tune with what makes a good photo, too. [Democratic Senate Minority Leader] Chuck Schumer is very aware of cameras."

Last April, Jennings became one of a handful of New Zealanders who have entered Trump's Oval Office when he and an Examiner reporter spent 45 minutes with the President.

Jennings recalls Trump talking at length about the size of his election victory and handing he and the reporter a copy of the 2016 electoral map to illustrate his point. 

Jennings says that, despite the controversy that surrounds Trump, spending time in the Oval Office was an honour - and a challenge, professionally. 

"Whether it's a Democrat or a Republican, it's definitely exciting to photograph the President," Jennings says.

"I couldn't take a range of pictures [given the setting], but from a photographer's point-of-view, [Trump]'s a good subject. The light in the Oval makes it difficult for a photographer, though. All the light pours through the windows behind the desk."

Despite his front row seat of American political history, Jennings reckons his Kiwi-ness has been a big asset in navigating Trump's DC.

"I don't take it too seriously and I think that helps," he says.

- You can follow Graeme Jennings on Instagram.

* Ben Stanley is a multiple award-winning journalist from Taupō.

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