While just about anyone armed with a cellphone can take a photo these days, professional photographers are a breed apart. And someone like Leigh Vogel is in a league by herself. A member of the White House News Photographers Association, as well as credentialed to photograph on Capitol Hill, Leigh’s camera manages to capture not just images but history.
Photographing Presidents, Senators, and members of Congress, however, makes up just one aspect of Leigh’s work. Dividing her time between D.C. and Aspen, Colorado, her portfolio also includes stunning shots of fashion models, sports stars, animals, and nature. Social issues are important to her and she has used her camera to great effect. Leigh earned a masters degree in corporate communications/public relations from Georgetown University. She is a Cause Consultant and the Photography Fellow at the University’s Center for Social Impact Communications and is a recipient of the center’s Social Impact Award recognizing her commitment to positive social change.
When we first met you were embarking on a masters in public relations. When did you realize you were actually moving towards photography?
From my perspective today, I realize I had been moving toward photography since about the age of 12. I moved several times throughout my childhood, attending four high schools, and several other grade schools. It turns out that communications and photography were integral in emotionally surviving those moves. Communications was a skill, and photographs were proof of life. Subtle moments meant everything to me. They connected me to the people I would leave behind.
At Boston University, my undergraduate degree was in communications, and I would photograph protests and friends when possible. My friends remember that I always had a camera.
How did it feel when you bagged your first agency assignment in D.C.?
An editor reached out to me pretty quickly—within a few weeks. I photographed an event called the Ally Katzz Teen Summit Music Festival. I was very much in the moment, a feeling that was rare for me. The next day an image ran in the Washington Post. It was a nice bonus.
Credentialing is a necessity when working on Capitol Hill. It’s really an access issue (along with not having to wait on lines down the block, especially when a high-profile person is attending). Sometimes one cannot photograph if not credentialed. I was assigned enough jobs on the Hill to know I needed a pass, and I was grateful that assigning editors supported the protocol that permitted me to get that pass. (I’m also grateful that the people who take your photo for the pass retook mine year after year when I didn’t like what I looked like – a la license/passport photo misery. I’m happier holding the camera!) I was granted acceptance as a member of WHNPA, and this year, I hope to get further involved with the organization. It took me some time to gain the confidence to believe that I belong. That is not easy to write, but it is the truth.
I know the perceived accolades, but what are the challenges of photographing a President? Do you ever fear you won’t get “the shot” you need?
Yes, I’ve had fear that I would not get a shot. Depending on the event, the challenges can range from the number of photographers around you, the angle you choose (and sometimes have to commit to), and Teleprompters! President Clinton is phenomenal to photograph. He looks in every direction, articulates with gestures, and gives eye contact. (Tip: If you give a speech with photographers covering the event, please look up and try to articulate with your hands and facial expressions!)
I’ve had camera failure, mechanical issues, and just have to get the best shots under the circumstances. I also look forward to increased access as my career continues to unfold. Access matters.
One image I took of President Obama stands out to me as a moment of pride-for the thousands of people attending, for me, and for the strides many people in this country have made. (More work to go on the issue of civil rights.) President Obama is seen through the window of the presidential limousine during the January 21, 2013 inaugural parade and he is smiling. Michelle Obama can be seen, slightly, waving outside through the window on the other side. What a moment that must have been for them. I waited seven hours in cold temperatures for that image. I had the opportunity to move to another location to photograph the President and First Lady walking in to the White House, but I was fearful that leaving my spot on Pennyslvania Avenue and being blocked for whatever security reason would yield no photos. I committed and waited. I saw the types of images I missed by not moving to the other location, but I got what I got. I rode the metro in to D.C. at 5:00 am, where I met a gentleman from Alabama who came in to attend the event by himself. I took his photo on the metro and I won’t forget him.
Actually, three events stand out to me: the first is the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. I photographed the march and then the speeches at the Lincoln Memorial, which included Presidents Carter, Clinton, and Obama, along with members of the King family. And Oprah! I spoke with people who attended the first march and told them I wish I had walked with them 50 years ago. I was not yet born but I know for sure that I would have marched hand-in-hand.
The second and third events that stand out are the 2012 Presidential Citizens Medal to family members of those who lost their lives in Newtown and another event where the President spoke to Newtown victim family members about gun violence. I saw expressions on faces, of especially fathers, that indicated more pain than I could fathom. The women were somehow more expressive, through tears, gestures, and words. But the fathers were almost not reachable. I found it heart-wrenching that they were being honored at the White House for an event that could break just about anyone.
Why did you leave D.C., especially at a time when you had established yourself with photo agencies, the World Bank and other local organizations?
Leaving D.C. permanently was never my intention, and it was frightening to think I would lose contacts and work, which I did. Trying to balance work with a relationship was the reason for my break from D.C..
While in Colorado, I worked heavily as the spokesperson for Voices for the Krabloonik Dogs and for the Aspen Times. I also photographed for the Associated Press in Colorado.
I traveled almost weekly between D.C. and Colorado, and frankly, I was exhausted. That much time in the air was not healthy!
I am sure that every photographer approaches his or her photographs with an intention. I try to capture subtle moments that can help relay a story, an issue, a solution, or even a problem. Some events really don’t yield any of these opportunities, so I just try to get a good shot. I am attracted to topics that plague people—maybe plague me: racial injustice, domestic abuse, and animal rights. I will always show up to highlight these issues. I plan to photograph a story on D.C. General, the homeless shelter, and its connection to the D.C. Jail.
Does a picture really say a thousand words?
I believe that images are very important. I always have.
But what a picture says is very subjective in my opinion. Images convey feelings that words alone cannot. Even if the content in the image is obvious, and you don’t have a caption to help you interpret, different people will likely feel and respond to different subtleties in an image.
What is the one picture you haven’t taken yet—the #1 item on your image bucket list and why?
One image I wish I could have taken (but impossible due to timing) is Martin Luther King, Jr.’s speech at the Lincoln Memorial. When I photographed the 50th anniversary it was very powerful. I could not help but to wish I had been at the original march and speech.
In present times, I would like to take more in-depth photos of President Obama. Viewing his presidency with a focus on civil rights issues attracts me to his time in office.
I enjoy assignments that tackle a serious issue and ones that present opportunities to capture unique light and beauty. The specific genre does not matter to me, just the opportunities to love what I hear, learn, or capture. It doesn’t hurt when someone I am photographing is hysterically funny.
Your portfolio includes many black and white photographs—how do you decide whether to shoot in color or in black and white? Many of the social awareness shots are in black and white. Do they have more impact?
The reaction and interpretation of color images versus black and white is subjective, I think. At times I include a black and white image on my site because the issue is so strong, that it is timeless, and color almost makes the image modern, and I want to remove all distractions.
Except for the likes of Annie Leibovitz, photography seems to be a boys’ game—is gender an obstacle?
Talent is not gender specific. I have seen some pretty rockin’ work by female fashion and political photographers.
Do I see more men photographing? Yes.
Who are some of your favorite photographers and what do you love about their work?
I grew up in Miami during the height of fashion work in South Beach. Working on set and location as an intern and ultimately an editor of luxury lifestyle publications secured my love of strong imagery. I was always attracted by the work of Herb Ritts and Sante D’Orazio. Still am. A long and winding road brought me to Aspen, where I was taught to shoot by a photographer who worked for Herb Ritts in Los Angeles. How lucky he was to be on set with him. The circle is closing and my original fascination with light and beauty is forefront on my mind these days.
No, thank goodness! I have recently experienced an overwhelming feeling of wanting to shoot what I feel represents my aesthetic (along with what editors and clients need). This feeling is refreshing for me, as I have never really explored the styles that attracted me to photography in the first place. My first jobs were more oriented toward fashion (Donna Karan, magazine editor).
People tend to think the big names make the career. But what’s interesting for me is that I found light. I want to shoot portraits that explore both natural and studio light in ways I have not so far.
All photos courtesy of Leigh Vogel. For more information on Leigh and her photography, go to her website.