DC: Inside the Cauldron

By David Butow   Wednesday December 19, 2018

David Butow, whose shot from Nelson Mandela’s funeral made the cover of AP30, is a frequent contributor to DART. It must be stated that I have worked with David since our collaboration on China: 50 Years Inside the Peoples Republic back in 1998. Info. As the editor of that book, researched during an exciting—and dangerous—period as a new order was taking shape on the world’s biggest continent, I found David to be a faithful ally who often added perspective to events quite mysterious to me. Now he shows us what it is like to be inside the cauldron of politics as another new order takes shape.—Peggy Roalf

Shortly before 10 a.m. on the morning of June 8th, 2017 I am standing in Hart 216, a large, bright hearing room in one of the office buildings next to the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C.  I have been here for over two hours, running on adrenaline, low on sleep and still on California time. Just a few days earlier I was in Oakland’s Oracle Arena photographing the NBA Finals. Those games were unpredictable, exciting and loud. Strangely, the formal proceeding today in DC has the same level of energy.

The room is packed with hundreds of people, but unlike the basketball arena, it is nearly silent. Everyone is anxiously awaiting the momentary arrival of former FBI director James Comey who has not spoken publicly since he was fired suddenly and unceremoniously by Donald Trump, the 45th President of the United States.

I am here because of the last six words of the last sentence. I think decades from now, people will look back at this time and wonder what the hell happened. How did the same country that elected a politically progressive, mixed-race, Harvard-educated constitutional law professor turn around and replace him with a self-absorbed, race-baiting, unscrupulous businessman with zero public policy experience and little apparent knowledge or interest in government.

The whole thing is just extremely weird, and when you’re a photojournalist, as I have been for three decades, you get drawn into extreme situations. Sometimes they are the effects of natural disasters or some isolated event, but usually they’re the result of public policy decisions: health care issues, policing, the environment, wars. That’s what I’ve done my whole career, and I’ve had the privilege to work with DART editor Peggy Roalf and describe some of those experiences. [Info]

I had, however, never worked in Washington, where a lot of those critical decisions are made. I moved here from California in 2017 to capture this moment in our history— but outside of the frame of TV cameras. I wanted to give a sense of not just the key players, but also what it feels like to be in the cauldron with the supporting cast, staffers, police officers, aides, reporters, and the politicians in rare, unguarded moments.  

Photographing proceedings here can be tedious and unrevealing, but on days like the Comey hearing, it is a great privilege just to be in the room. Since then, I have pursued other opportunities to document the current zeitgeist, in real time. With other photographers, I staked out Special Council Robert Mueller to snatch a few of frames of him, paparazzi-style, as he left the Capitol, and sat on the floor a few feet away from the baby-faced Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg as he brilliantly dodged serious questions about how Russian state intelligence gamed his algorithms.

There is a protocol and formality to these proceedings, but you can’t predict what’s going to happen. Such was the case this past fall when Senator Jeff Flake, defying Republican leadership, called for a week’s delay in the confirmation process of Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh. Most of the senators in the room didn’t know exactly what was going on as Flake, the last one to arrive, scrambled into his chair.

Realizing Flake was the most important person in the room, I stood right in front of him when the gavel came down and his fellow Republicans, flummoxed and annoyed, surrounded him. I was interested in the social dynamics as much as anything else. It was over very quickly, I have just a few frames and each one is different. There were a half-dozen other photographers crammed together shooting the same thing, and all of our pictures are different too, which says something revealing about the power of photography.

The type of visual situation that I like is not always the “newsiest” moment of the day, but in that instance the two dynamics merged. Those are the opportunities that drew me here: a chance to see and experience events up close, and to interpret, record and preserve them. As 2018 winds down it seems like half-time in Washington. It had a wild and disturbing start, and no one really knows how it will end. Stay tuned.

David Butow moved from California to Washington last year and has covered recent events in Washington for TIME magazine, NBC and the Los Angeles Times. He has worked on assignment in over two dozen countries including Afghanistan, Burma, Iraq, Peru and Yemen. His news and feature coverage of subjects such as the 2011 Japanese tsunami, the 2008 China earthquake and social issues in the United States have won awards from World Press Photo, Communications Arts, American Photography Annual, Photo District News and others. [David Butow in DART]