History As Theater

By David Butow   Thursday July 13, 2017

Photographer David Butow was in Washington covering the recent James B. Comey and Jim Sessions hearings before the Senate Intelligence Committee. What follows is a description of the world that is the high-profile Washington hearing.

At 7:45 a.m. Washington time, more than two hours before the world will get its first public glimpse of James B. Comey since his firing by President Trump, there is a buzz in the large hearing room where he will appear. TV technicians, photographers, police officers, Capitol workers and others are fine-tuning their respective responsibilities. Remote cameras are test-fired and checked again. Most everything in the room has been set up the afternoon before.

Two young Senate staffers meticulously place pens, notepads and glasses of water on the long curved table at the seats of the 16 senators on the committee. At T-minus 30 minutes there is near-silence and a new energy fills the space.

I’m fresh here, having worked on Capitol Hill for only a couple of weeks, photographing the whirlwind of activity as the three branches of government wage battles through bureaucracy, media and today, though a solemn but unpredictable event. Even among jaded journalists there seems to be a reverence for this moment. A week before, I was in California covering the first game of the NBA Finals, and even though the volume in Oakland’s Oracle Arena was 100 times louder, the excitement here is more palpable. No one is sure what the former FBI director will say.

The 30 or so photographers — culled days ago from the long list of those credentialed for Congress — have staked out spots along a line of tape laid in a semi-perimeter four feet from the desk where Comey will sit. We wait there, occasionally peeling away to photograph the senators up-close as they stroll in and greet each other.

Just after 10 o’clock there is a murmur, then the room goes silent as the 6-foot-8 Comey enters. In the pack you hear nothing but the motor drives of the cameras. This may be history but now I am thinking only about proper camera exposure, focus, composition and mostly about finding a clear view.

After shaking hands with the two committee chairmen, Comey immediately sits down. He is expressionless, motionless and stares straight ahead with a Zen-like calm. A half a minute or so later the gavel clacks down and our time around the desk is up.

With that sound, the pack of semi-feral photojournalists, competitive but pleasantly collegial, obediently retreats to the prearranged spots in front of the senators, where we will sit on the carpet, shoulder to shoulder, for the next couple of hours. We focus on every gesture of the hands and nuanced look in the eye. We vary the composition and angles to the extent we can, sometimes shooting tight, sometimes wide. Periodically, a photographer will crawl on hands and knees and head out of the “well,” as it’s called, to transmit pictures and to try other views from special cutout decks around the room.

The challenge is to make photographs that rise to the level of the event. It’s an impossible task in my view, but the pleasure of working here goes beyond creating images, it’s about having a front row seat to such significant and dramatic events.

Here are scenes from the Senate Intelligence Committee hearings and elsewhere in the Capitol.

Former FBI Director James B. Comey took just a few sips of water during his two-hour testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee.


Reporters and staffers stay in touch on their mobile phones outside of an auditorium of the Capitol Visitors' Center during a briefing for members of Congress after several people were injured during a shooting at baseball practice for the congressional ballgame.


Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions leaves after testifying before a hearing of the Senate Intelligence Committee.


Photographers crowd the desk as a Senate staffer places a name card for Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions shortly before his testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee.


Secretary of State Rex Tillerson leaves after testifying before the Senate Budget Committee on Capitol Hill.


Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont walks to a closed briefing room next to the Capitol building to hear testimony from Deputy Atty. Gen. Rod Rosenstein.


Sen. Jim Risch (R-Idaho) chats with Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) minutes before the testimony of former FBI Director James B. Comey.


Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Vista) speaks with reporters at an impromptu news conference after a closed briefing on the Russia investigation.


A Senate stenographer during the testimony of Former FBI Director James B. Comey before the Senate Intelligence Committee.


Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.) speaks with reporters in the basement of the Capitol building.
Photographs © David Butow/Redux This article originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times