On July 13, 2016, I photographed then Vice President Joe Biden’s visit to the Port of San Diego’s Tenth Avenue Marine Terminal.
We’d met with the United States Secret Service advance team a week earlier to do a walk through of the event. It was fairly light and easy and I was (correctly or incorrectly) under the assumption that I’d have more direct access than the general press pit which was to be placed behind the viewing audience. Even exchanged chuckles with their IT guy who shared with me that after all the stuff he’s seen, he’s looking forward to retiring and unplugging completely from the internet and social media.
On event day…
I learned that there is a massive difference between the energy of their advance team and the culture of the Secret Service guys you hear about on TV – the ones that would take a bullet for the president. It seems silly now to have assumed anything else but passing through security to get anywhere near the VP is intimidating by design. I’m 6’5, 220 lbs and there was not an shred of doubt in my mind that these guys could snap me in half like a used toothpick.
As they dug through my backpack, my heart pounded a little faster for a few seconds. I found myself suddenly sprinting through last minute panic thoughts and very detailed scenarios. I wondered if maybe I left my camping knife in there from my last hike and if that’s going to lead me to suddenly finding myself face down in the asphalt and eventually in an interrogation room. The feeling eased as they jokingly yelled back and forth at each other this same phrase, the intonation of which lead me to believe it was an inside joke they’ve been sharing for a while.
“It’s a camera.”
“Yip – it’s a camera.”
Then Chair of the Board of Port Commissioners lead Vice President Biden out and introduced him, followed by their own official photographer who had much bigger and more impressive lenses than anything in my arsenal. I was cornered off in the press pit with the rest of the media and actively trying not to be grumpy about it. Port staff wanted a photo of the Vice President speaking with Port of San Diego in huge letters as his backdrop which they planned to send the White House as a thank you gift. Pretty standard. I got the shot. I got multiple. As far as staff was concerned, I’d done my job.
But… It didn’t feel like anything. Anything at all, really.
It was the same photo every single other photographer had gotten. The controlled message. Non offensive. Safe.
I continued hitting the shutter till he was done speaking. There was a planned bit of handshakes with some designated dignitaries in the audience but the Vice President decided to go off script and do some crowd work (to the frustration of his staff I was told). It was during this impromptu interaction that I took advantage of the fluid crowd and decided to push some boundaries and get some angles I was technically not approved to get. Out of that came the photo of Joe Biden talking to the young girl in the vibrant dress.
I didn’t know what I’d gotten, but it felt special.
After posting the photos, the Director of General Services called me and asked if I knew what the significance of that photo was. He delighted in illuminating me of the backstory.
The young woman’s father was Joe Biden’s military attache years prior when he was a senator representing Delaware. When then Governor Biden met her as a little girl he’d said to her, “call me Grandpa Biden.”
Flash back forward to July of 2016. At the moment where my finger is landing on the shutter of my Nikon d7000, Joe Biden is seeing her for the first time in years. Upon recognizing her, the first words out of his mouth were, “do you remember what I told you to call me?” To which she replied, “Grandpa Biden.”
Government employees typically aim for safe.
Feelings, abstract imagery and ideas that might have the slightest chance of being misinterpreted are usually not the direction government feels comfortable going. Safe, steady and professional is the standard operating mode. I’m sure this is hard for people who’ve never worked in government to believe this but government culture really does do it’s best to be all inclusive. They try hard to make sure access is as equal as possible. Because government is supposed to belong to all of us. Government doesn’t rock the boat because the boat is constantly refining and retooling itself to make it harder to rock. Weather that’s a good or bad thing is a topic for another time.
I turned in my event photos. But after the dust of the event settled, I felt moved to do a thing I rarely did back then: I suggested that maybe there is a better idea than sending that very safe and dry photo-op. I relayed the story that was revealed to me and suggested sending this one instead and signing the print with “thanks for visiting, Grandpa Biden.” My thought was that public figures at his level receive a never ending avalanche of gifts and something that’s more unexpected, sincere and personal may have a deeper impact. A human moment rather than an image accordant with section three, paragraph nine of some approved photo gift act from 1983. Honestly, I was pretty surprised when the Public Information Officer agreed.
So that’s what was sent to Vice President Joe Biden’s office as a thank you gift. A large print of the image of him with the young gal signed by the Port CEO and Chair with the words, “thanks for visiting, Grandpa Biden.”
It may be sitting in some boxes of gifts collected over the years somewhere or hanging on a wall. Maybe someday I’ll find out for sure.
It should be noted that an edit was done to the original photo. Uber talented graphic designer, Joy Maramska, deleted a speaker on a riser that was hovering in the corner of the frame.
More photos from this day can be seen on the Port of San Diego’s Flickr page.