At President Obama’s second inauguration, as members of Congress took their seats, one of their ranks crouched in the aisle, apart from the crowd. He had a camera with a long lens on it, and he was snapping away like a pro. “He looked like a sideline photographer. He was capturing everything,” recalls Freddy Barnes, a then–congressional aide who was helping to direct lawmakers to their places.
The camera-wielding congressman was Sam Farr, a California Democrat who, since arriving on the Hill in 1993, has made an unabashed pursuit of documenting scenes both momentous and mundane. Farr’s haul that day included a couple of lovely photos of Obama with Sasha and Malia—and a paparazzo-worthy shot of Beyoncé and Jay-Z.
Farr first picked up a camera in Medellin, Colombia, when he was a Peace Corps volunteer just out of college in 1964. Writing letters was difficult for Farr, who has dyslexia; he was looking for some way to share his experiences when he came across a second-hand Olympus in a camera store. Color film was more expensive to develop, so he started sending home black-and-whites. “I found that I could be expressive with a camera,” he tells me.
Since then, Farr has taken thousands of pictures, of subjects ranging from his garden to Pope Francis. It is almost impossible to come into his orbit without stumbling into his viewfinder. I was not immune. During our interview, one minute he was showing me his camera, the next he was holding it about a foot from my nose and snapping away. (I haven’t yet seen the results.) Farr’s press secretary, Adam Russell, tells me that before he brought his girlfriend to the staff Christmas party to meet the congressman for the first time, he warned her that she’d probably find a camera in her face at some point in the night. When they arrived, Farr went right up to her and, with no introduction, started shooting photos. One of those pictures now hangs on their wall at home.