Polo-playing socialites Tareq and Michaele Salahi crashed a state dinner at the White House last week. The Secret Service assumed responsibility for the security breach, admitting that they hadn’t checked to see if the Salahis were on the party’s guest list. As Scout Tufankjian’s slide show from January 2009 demonstrates, for all of its resources and sophistication, the Secret Service is still a corps of ordinary men who are perhaps better suited to spotting snipers than checking names against a guest list.
Click here for a slide show on Obama’s Secret Service detail.
When people find out that I spent 23 months covering the Obama campaign, one of the first questions they ask (right after “Is Obama still smoking?”) is about the Secret Service. Are the agents scary? Are they mean? What is it like working alongside them? Most people know very little about the Secret Service; they just picture the instantly recognizable image of a man in a suit with an earpiece. The one thing we do know about them—the fact that they are (in theory, at least) willing to sacrifice their lives for their protectees’—does little to dispel the mystery. And so, in addition to photographing the candidate and his crowds of supporters, I began to photograph Obama’s Secret Service detail, fascinated by what it represented and what could be communicated through its image.
Barack Obama received Secret Service protection earlier than any other candidate in history because of what is euphemistically referred to as “the historic nature of the campaign” (i.e., the fact that he is a black guy). RFK, as the agents liked to remind me, did not have Secret Service protection. He had only three bodyguards when he was killed in that hotel kitchen: a former FBI agent, a gold-medal decathlete, and an ex-NFL lineman. Obama, however, was surrounded by a 24/7 Secret Service detail beginning in the spring of 2007, mere months after he announced his run.
Obviously, over of the course of the campaign, I got to know many of the agents quite well. In fact, it sometimes felt like traveling with the 40 or so older brothers and sisters I had never wanted: They were nosy and overprotective and fun to be around. Best of all, they almost never wanted to talk politics, a quality so rare on the campaign trail that it immediately elevates those who possess it to most-favored-interlocutor status. The only thing worse than hearing the same speech over and over is hearing people talk about it endlessly at bars afterward.
I remember a long night in Pennsylvania when a Fox producer and I tried to figure out exactly what we would have to do to get them to shoot us. (Answer: nothing. They would never need to. We were pathetic, and they could take us out without firing a shot.) Rather than being impressed by them, we would tease them about the boring aspects of the job, asking them how many tiles were in the ceiling outside of Obama’s room and laughing at them as they stood guard next to a steaming dumpster.
Despite the teasing, however, I came away from this experience deeply impressed by their skill and professionalism. People would come up to Obama as he was shaking hands and express their concerns, nakedly expressing the fear that he might be assassinated. He would always brush their words aside, saying that he had the best security in the world. And he is right.
As I photographed his Secret Service agents, I found myself becoming more aware of their attentiveness as we both scanned the crowds—they looking for threats and me looking for a particularly excited supporter. Often we would find ourselves focused on the same person. In addition, I also began to realize how respectful, grateful, and protective Americans feel toward the Secret Service. I was often berated by Obama supporters telling me I was putting the agents in harm’s way by photographing them, even though I most certainly was not. They aren’t really “secret,” and as long as I stayed out of Obama’s exit paths and did not block their field of vision, I could take as many pictures as I wanted. The thing I really enjoyed about photographing them, though, was the surreality of it all. I saw agents high on lighted staircases, agents standing alone on cold airfields, wearing blue plastic booties at research facilities, protective eyewear in factories, hands folded, earpieces in. They often seemed invisible in plain sight, but they were always there and always watching..