Q&A with Pulitzer Prize-winning news photographer David Hume Kennerly

by Jessica Weiss
Oct 30, 2018 in Multimedia Journalism

David Hume Kennerly has photographed eight wars and every U.S. president since 1969, but the first thing he reaches for on assignment isn’t his camera—it’s background reading.

“All good photographers know the story,” says Kennerly, who won the Pulitzer Prize for feature photography in 1972. Doing your homework on your subjects means “they’re going to be more inclined to let you into their lives so you can do your job.”

Kennerly has persuaded every president since Nixon to let him into their lives, and he's captured images that range from a quiet portrait of the Obamas to an ebullient Ronald Reagan. Kennerly recently donated a collection of his presidential photos to the International Center for Journalists' annual photo auction.

Kennerly, whose photos have appeared on the cover of Time and Life magazines at least 35 times, talked with IJNet about his career, news photography in the digital age and how he stays inspired.

IJNet: Can you talk about the trajectory of your career as a photographer?

DHK: My news background is rooted solidly in print media. But these days, my income has gone from 95 percent journalism to 95 percent commercial work. The beauty of that is I’m still taking the same kind of photos. This year I was in India and Haiti for my biggest client, Bank of America. They sponsor Vital Voices, a nonprofit that runs a mentorship program to help women entrepreneurs in developing countries start businesses, and I went to document their work. I also shot the pictures that will appear on the new Girl Scouts cookie boxes. I think those are going to be my most widely seen photos ever--there will be five or six different photographs on millions and millions of boxes!

IJNet: How did you choose the photos for the collection you donated to ICFJ?

DHK: The photos I selected for the ICFJ auction are a cross-section of my presidential coverage since 1969. Richard Nixon was the first president I covered as a member of the press, and I've photographed them all up to and including President Obama. My goal in this selection was to show the serious moments as well as the lighter ones. If you want the perfect portfolio of presidential pictures, that's it.

IJNet: You’ve been outspoken on the demise of print media. What do you see as the greatest threats to photography and photojournalism in the current landscape?

DHK: I fully understand the practicality of digital media but I worry that media outlets aren’t assigning as many photographers and writers. They just pick up pictures and stories from other places. So there are fewer people making a living as journalists and photographers, or at least fewer making a good living.

A major casualty is photo editing. When I was working in the field for TIME or Newsweek, I always knew there was someone back in the office who was a pro editor, and I had confidence they would pick my best photos. It’s not an easy job. But now a lot of this is being left to photographers, who aren’t usually their own best editors. That dilutes the business.

IJNet: How are you seeing changes in the way people consume photography and photojournalism as the media landscape changes?

DHK: We photographers always loved seeing our photos displayed big, and would take great pride in our work. But now, the consumers are seeing everything online, and the problem is that there are so many images that they feel bombarded. For the average person it’s hard to know good from mediocre. One thing the magazine did was focus you on these stories, where you really paid attention, and the layouts had significance in telling the story. I get no satisfaction out of seeing my pictures online. It doesn’t do anything for me.

The good news is that a great picture will withstand and emerge from the blizzard of mediocrity that surrounds it on the Internet. Eddie Adams' Pulitzer Prize winning photo of a Viet Cong suspect being shot in the head is going to be compelling no matter how it’s presented. But that’s a rare picture.

IJNet: Some of your iPhone photos were posted on the Chicago Tribune. They’re beautiful. What is your relationship to new tools and digital photography tools?

DHK: I shoot a lot on the iPhone because it’s quick, convenient, and the quality is quite good. Somebody asked me why I don’t use my Canons to shoot photos on a daily basis as I walk around, and the truth is I wouldn’t be taking all the pictures I do if I was using my regular cameras. I associate them with work.

I think it’s fair to point out that there are millions more pictures being taken everyday because of digital, but definitely not millions more good pictures. Being a professional photographer means someone is paying you for your point of view. That’s not going to change anytime soon. Everyone is a camera user, but not everyone is a good photographer. Most aren’t.

IJNet: You were named one of the top 50 journalists in the March 2001 issue of Washingtonian Magazine, and you were the only photographer on the list. Do you consider yourself a journalist or a photographer?

DHK: Both. All good photographers know the story. Good sports photography comes from shooters who know the game. The same goes for any other kind of assignment. For instance, in the 70s I was sent to photograph Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin for TIME. Among other things, I read his book, The Revolt, and researched everything I could find about him. When I first met the Prime Minister, I was up to speed about his life and that broke the ice. He was pleased I’d taken the time to learn about him. In my line of work, that translates into better access. If your subjects like you, they’re going to be more inclined to let you into their lives so you can do your job. There is no excuse for ignorance, particularly in these days of Google. You have to care about what you do and how you do it. It makes a difference in your coverage.

IJNet: In 2000, you did a self-inspired project of taking a photo a day, which turned into the book Photo du Jour. Tell us about the assignment.

DHK: A self-inflicted project is more like it! I really had to push myself. It was an election year and the turn of the century, so it was a good exercise. It was also kind of frightening because everyday I would wake up knowing I had to take some pictures, and they had to be good. I was probably annoying to be around at that point to be honest, but it was a great challenge. It turned into a book, and a major exhibition at the Smithsonian.

My photos on the iPhone are a progression of that in a way. On all these occasions where I wouldn’t normally be taking pictures I find myself really enjoying the process of looking, and more important, seeing. It’s all about running across things that are different and seeing photos right under someone else’s nose that they haven’t noticed. People ask me how I do it. I just have my eyes open.

Image: iPhone self-portrait courtesy of David Hume Kennerly.