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U.S. senator captures powerful photos

Sen. Patrick Leahy's unusual access has enabled him to capture photographs of powerful people in candid moments.
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U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) takes photographs of the media outside the West Wing.Alex Wong / Getty Images file
/ Source: The Associated Press

At various times, Presidents Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush are seated at a desk facing photographers as they sign a document that even someone with a powerful magnifying glass would have to read upside down. It's the standard bill-signing photo.

In the hands of Senator Patrick Leahy, the camera takes aim from behind each of the presidents, over their shoulders.

The images illustrate the art of the unusual angle, an eye for composition.

Leahy, first elected in 1974, has had ample opportunities to join other senators and representatives at such ceremonies and in the inner sanctums of government. The unusual access has enabled him to capture powerful people in candid moments.

The senator was among a group invited to the White House by the elder President George Bush for drinks one evening. The ensuing frivolity resulted in a Leahy photo of the president wearing a Mickey Mouse hat.

International intrigue
Leahy's photographic skills have resulted in some impressive freelance credits. An image he took at Reagan's second inaugural was spread across two pages in U.S. News & World Report.

The way Leahy tells it, his career as an intrepid amateur photographer also has included moments of international intrigue. He said he was "the last American to see (Soviet Premier) Yuri Andropov alive.

"We knew he was sick," Leahy said. "We were meeting on an extraordinarily hot day in Moscow. He had a heavy wool suit on in an un-air-conditioned room and I thought I could see something sticking out from under his sleeve."

Leahy took a picture and then aimed at the cuff and got off a quick shot before Andropov "yanked the sleeve down." U.S. intelligence officials enlarged the image, and "you could see his shunt, for kidney dialysis." When Andropov died a few weeks later, American officials thought they knew why.

Shannon Perich, associate curator of historical photography at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History, described the historical record created by Leahy as "invaluable."

"We often have writings by senators but most of the time we don't think of them thinking visually as well," Perich said.

His photography of people across the political spectrum demonstrated that "he's able to transcend politics to recognize the significance of what he's doing," she said.

Photography generally isn't allowed inside the Potala Palace in Lhasa, Tibet, but for a U.S. senator and friend of the Dalai Lama, some rules are overlooked.

‘A really unique perspective’
"In fact the Chinese security started to take out their cameras and were told, 'You can't take pictures,'" Leahy recalled. "They said, 'But he is.' 'No he's not,' came the reply."

The story drew a laugh from a crowd of about 80 who recently packed a gallery at the McCarthy Arts Center at St. Michael's College for the unveiling of a career's worth of photos -- from foreign heads of state to rock stars.

Heather Moore, photo historian in the Senate Historical Office, said former Senators Howard Baker and Barry Goldwater were also avid photographers. Goldwater specialized in Arizona and other southwestern landscapes.

"For someone like that who is on the inside and who is able to document the history of world events, it's a really unique perspective," Moore said.

"Many of these are images that only he could have taken, from meeting individually with world leaders or being behind the scenes. It's a perspective that only he could have ever had. That's immensely valuable for the historical record."

Photography also can be helpful in bridging divisions between people. "Photography often becomes a jumping-off point for story telling," Perich said. "Generally you can put people at ease. You're able to tell stories and convey ideas in a way that's different from sitting next to someone and talking."

Historic events
Even a small gesture can be a marker of historic events -- China's domination of Tibet, for instance. One of Leahy's photographs shows a Tibetan man with a weathered face standing by the side of a road, holding a child and a small picture of the Dalai Lama.

"At that time you would have been arrested and thrown in jail for having a picture of the Dalai Lama," Leahy said. "He was making it very clear that he had something he wanted to show me, but wanted us to block out the security person following us. He pulled out that picture," and Leahy snapped away.

The senator and his wife later gave a copy of the photo to the Dalai Lama.

"When we showed him that," Leahy said, "we both remember seeing the tears well up in his eyes."