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U.S. political photographer David Butow reacts to a new world in DC

The world in DC and in all U.S. politics has seen dramatic shifts in the last 18 months, and consequently, so has the photography of David Butow that has captured it all.

The violent storm on Capitol Hill. Streets shut down like an occupied war zone. An inauguration completely unlike any in memory, with fears of danger – both from the outside and in – twinging in the minds of Americans everywhere.

Make no mistake about it. We are living in unprecedented times, and the political structure of the U.S. is showing signs of weakness it never has before. U.S. political photographer David Butow (licensed through Redux Pictures) was at the 2021 inauguration for President Biden.

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Scenes from the 2021 Inauguration (Courtesy of David Butow)

We had the honor of speaking with the highly-respected photographer about capturing U.S. politics at this defining moment.

A conversation with David Butow, U.S. political photographer

KultureHub: From an atmospheric perspective, how did it feel being at this year’s inauguration, especially as compared with years’ past?

David Butow: I’d only been to one inauguration before which was Obama’s in 2008. At that time I was out on the Mall in the middle of the enormous crowd.

It felt very historic and upbeat. This year I was on site at the Capitol but because of COVID and what had happened just two weeks before, I witnessed almost no celebratory attitude. The sense was more of a ritual that had to be done but also a relief that even after the recent failures, the system held and the transition was taking place.

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President Biden on screen during the 2021 U.S. inauguration (Courtesy of David Butow)

KH: You wrote that the comparisons of Washington to the Green Zone in Baghdad were apt. Can you elaborate on the similarities and what your visceral reaction was feeling those startling similarities so close to the foundation of U.S. democracy?

DB: The Green Zone was established in Baghdad because the political system had been broken intentionally by the U.S. invasion. The U.S. had set up a bureaucracy that they were trying to make work but was under threat by the political vacuum.

That’s why they needed all those barriers and blockades and fences. And in D.C., after January 6, you saw the same thing. Just miles of fences surrounding this area to try to maintain order after it had been broken. It felt ominous and lousy that the U.S. had fallen into such disfunction.

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Soldiers looking on as the 2021 inauguration continues (Courtesy of David Butow)

The secret to being a talented political photographer

KH: How do you approach your craft, both before, and in the moment? That is to say, how do you prepare (and then search) for the perfect image that can encapsulate an event/moment/circumstance when every instant is fleeting?

DB: That’s a pretty complicated question! I’ve been working on this since I was a teenager, and it never ends, but it’s a matter of trying to think clearly about what you are photographing, recognizing how you feel about it, and then being a keen observer, watching people, the flow of events and trying to capture that into a frame that contains some or all of the elements that you think are true to the moment.

It’s good to have some ideas worked out ahead of time and then see if those ideas play out, and also be open to surprises and nuance that you might not have expected. Most of the time I don’t get all those things right, but when it lines up and you nail it, it’s pretty exciting.

KH: What is it about “political” photography that is different from other areas (if you have experience in them, or through colleague’s personal accounts)? Do you have to prepare differently, or be quicker on your toes, etc.?

DB: I think the main difference is that there are access limitations. Often you can’t get into places that you’d like to because it’s and many of the events that you cover, you can’t move around or place yourself the way you’d like.

Sometimes this is for protocol and of course security is a big part of it, but photojournalists generally work pretty loose and aggressively so it can feel constraining. When political events happen in public spaces it’s much more interesting to work because you don’t have as many restrictions.

Also, the photo ops at the Capitol and White House are usually staged, so the scene is crafted for you and it’s challenging to extract something that seems spontaneous and revealing.

Searching for honesty and fairness through photography

KH: How do you maintain an objective disposition while you are on the clock? 

DB: I don’t try to be objective because I think that’s impossible and not really human.

Some people have a misconception that journalists should strive for objectivity but I think what they should strive for is honesty and fairness and that starts with acknowledging and understanding your own personal and subjective views. I like to incorporate some of that into my work deliberately.

David Butow

KH: Are there any images of yours that you would say are your favorites?

DB: My favorites are always the pictures that I’ve taken most recently that I like and think it’s a new kind of picture for me, like I’ve surprised myself. Some of them hold up after time and some not. After a lot of time has passed I like to look back at the good stuff but my interest is always in moving forward and producing fresh work.

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January 20, 2021 (Courtesy of David Butow)

KH: Is there any advice you may have for aspiring photographers, especially ones who wish to, in the future, cover political events?

DB: There’s a lot of stuff you can do without special access. This might be going to campaign rallies as part of the regular crowd or covering events on the street, and even for me that’s often the things that can be most fun and yield off-beat and cool photos.

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U.S. soldiers standing with the Capitol Building behind them (Courtesy of David Butow)

U.S. politics are extremely polarizing right now, and David Butow has a front-row seat

David Butow added that, for the inauguration, he “carried more gear than I usually do because of the variety of lenses I thought I might need. I used a Leica M10-R with a 50mm 1.4, a SL2 and SL2-S with 24-70mm and 100-400mm lenses.”

Butow was adamant about the Leica camera enabling him to be able to shoot the inauguration in its purest light.

The political photographer who has both accomplished assignments domestically in the U.S., and abroad, had startling statements on the current state of U.S. politics.

But additionally, he was resolute in understanding what his job is. Photographers are the world’s eyes into some of the most significant circumstances occurring. Nothing in U.S. politics is more significant than inaugurations and literal insurrections.

For David Butow, a U.S. political photographer at the height of his powers, it’s about always striving for the next image. Always striving for honesty and fairness. And always striving to be better tomorrow. We commend him for his magnificent work, which can further be seen here.