Under the Cover: April 2016

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Creative Director’s log: January 26, 2016

11:45am: I’m on my way to the White House. We’re scheduled to photograph President Obama at 2:45. We have five minutes. FIVE minutes.

We’re not allowed in until 1:00pm but the photographer and crew want to get there early so we can get all of the equipment through security. Better to be early than late ...

I was told POTUS hates photo shoots. This needs to go smoothly.

Washington D.C. has been hit with a massive snowstorm that changed the shoot date and shut down the government … it also gave me major anxiety.

The photographer is coming from NY; thankfully the roads are clear.

11:55am: There they are. The photographer Ruven Afanador and his crew. They’re all wearing the same outfit. Black suit, black tie, white shirt. They look like the Reservoir Dogs of photographers.

We make it through security pretty quickly. I guess the snowstorm was a good thing. It’s a slow day at the White House.

12:20pm: We’re early, so we hang out in the Briefing Room. It looks a lot bigger on TV. There’s some chatter amongst the camera operators that Nancy Pelosi might come out to make a statement. Maybe Joe Biden!

Guess not. Nothing happening today, folks. The camera men and women pack up and go home.

I get a granola bar from the vending machine.

1:00pm: Clock is officially ticking. I text the press assistant to see if we can start setting up. She comes to get us and we follow her to the Diplomatic Reception Room where we’ll be doing the shoot.

1:18pm: It’s a short walk to the Diplomatic Reception room. Apparently this is where they take the White House Christmas photos. Cool.

I put my coat down on a chair that’s probably worth three times my salary. Someone quickly asks me to take my coat off of said chair. No problem.

Ruven and crew begin setting up. It’s kind of like that show “Chopped” when the clock starts and everyone runs to get ingredients. One guy is unrolling cords, one guy is setting up the backdrop, another guy is setting up lights. They’ve clearly discussed a plan of action beforehand.

1:45pm: Lights and background are set up. I’ve been talking to Ruven over the past couple of weeks about what we need to get from the shoot: a cover, interior opener, and secondary black and white options.

We don’t have a lot of time, so the plan is to smoothly transition to three different set ups.

First set-up: white backdrop with POTUS’s foot on a small wooden box

Second set-up: POTUS sitting on a stool in front of a warm gray backdrop while the white backdrop gets moved off-set

Third set-up: POTUS stands in front of the gray backdrop with his hands resting on a makeshift table top.

We practice the choreography of the shoot.

WH grounds folks yell at us for hitting the chandelier with the white foamboard backdrop. Oops.

We go over the plan with the press assistant and show her some test shots. They look awesome.

2:00pm: I’m hungry. Good thing I got that granola bar earlier …

2:05pm: Goldberg’s here. He’s scheduled to interview POTUS after we wrap. Says he could’ve done this whole photo shoot with his iPhone.

Now we wait …

A few people from the White House come to check in. We go over the plan. Make some small talk.

Suddenly there’s was a loud “POP” from one of the battery packs that power the giant lights. A power surge. Everyone looks around, like “what the hell was that?” Ruven didn’t flinch and assures Obama’s people that it happens, not to worry.

I think to myself if that happens while POTUS is in the room, we’re all dead.

2:25pm: We’re told POTUS could be here any minute. There’s a Secret Service agent! He sees me looking at him and then he gives me a look that says “I see you looking at me.” I look away.

2:30pm: Damn, I’m thirsty. They couldn’t give us water?

2:45pm: POTUS glides into the room. Right on time.

I was expecting that bald guy from the State of the Union to come in and say “ladies and gentlemen, the President of the United States!” or ring a bell or something, but he just walks in and says “Hey everybody!”

I quickly introduce myself. “Hi Mr. President, I’m Darhil Crooks, Creative Director of The Atlanticjksnalsdfvoanvanfvbiporefnv”

“Nice to meet you Darhil!”

We head over to the set. POTUS shakes everybody’s hand and gives a “nice to meet you!”

2:46pm: Ruven is a pro. He quietly instructs POTUS what to do. He shows him where to stand for the first set of shots on the white backdrop and starts shooting.

Ruven: “Excellent … wonderful … no smile, Mr. President … perfect … excellent”

2:47pm: POTUS moves about two feet to his right and sits on a stool with one leg up, one on the ground.  At the same time the white backdrop is moved out. The tabletop is moved in. Just as planned, it’s a beauty to watch.

Ruven: “Excellent … wonderful … perfect … excellent”

2:48pm: POTUS moves back to his left, rests both arms on the tabletop.

Ruven: “Excellent … wonderful … perfect … excellent”

We’re done. Less than five minutes.

2:49pm: President Obama says “Wow! These guys are efficient!” Then he says “all right, who wants a picture.”

I run over like a little kid. I tried to be cool, but hey, it’s the President…

From left: Mario Jimenez, Me, POTUS, Ruven Afanador, Ricardo Beas, Christopher Leung

2:51pm: That’s a wrap.

POTUS thanks everyone and says “All right Jeff, let’s go to work!”

They dart off to the Oval Office. Ruven follows them. He has one minute to get some shots of the interview.

As the crew begins breaking down the set, Ruven returns and we review some of the pictures. They look amazing.

I thank the White House folks. A couple of “nice-to-meet-yous” and a few high-fives. Everyone is happy.

Time to go. What a day.

3:10pm: Finally, I get a sandwich. It’s delicious.

(See all Under the Covers here)