The swearing in of Barack Hussein Obama will inarguably go down as one of the most memorable moments in many people’s lives, mine included.
I, along with over 2 million people, crowded the historic National Mall, braving below freezing temperatures for hours to witness the man who had risen to the top of the political food chain with meteoric speed and against all odds take his rightful place in history.
As I tried to move my painfully frozen fingers, I couldn’t help but wonder how my friend and photographer Abbas Shirmohammadi was faring from his perfect vantage point. For years, Abbas had been Hillary Clinton’s official photographer. But today he was tasked with the opportunity of a lifetime: to take the official panoramic photograph of the swearing in ceremony of the 44th President of the United States.
To that end, on a day when people were lined up a mile back to take part in the festivities, Abbas had one of the best seats in the house on a podium, erected just for him, 70 feet from the President and 5 feet above all the news cameras, in order to ensure him an unobstructed panoramic view.
Born in Yazd, Abbas Shirmohammadi came to the US alone as a teenager thirty-one years ago, and since has not only risen to the top of his field here in our nation’s capital, but has photographed the likes of Nelson Mandela, Ronald Reagan and Charlton Heston along the way.
I caught up with Abbas the day after the inauguration while he grabbed a quick bite to eat at a swanky restaurant in downtown D.C. He had slept 10 hours in the last 3 days but had made time to do this interview for PAAIA.
You’ve come a long way from Yazd! What was going through your mind as you were watching President Obama take the oath of office? Were you able to enjoy the moment at all? Or were you too busy trying to get that perfect shot?
Setting up the camera (100 years old and 45 pounds) takes some time and all I was concentrating on was the angle, exposure, and to capture it at the right time. You have only 40 seconds when his hand is up as he’s being sworn in, so there’s not much room for error. To be honest with you, I never think of the event and I try not to let emotions get to me when I am taking pictures of these historical moments.
Tomorrow, you will present the President with his own copy of that panoramic shot. This isn’t your first encounter with President Obama though. He called you personally once, didn’t he?
I met him during the 2004 Democratic Convention in Boston and then several times after. In Denver Wednesday and Thursday night for the acceptance speech, he called to thank me for the panoramic I took of him while he was giving that speech. I was so surprised to get a personal phone call from him. It just shows you what kind of man he is.
As Senator Hillary Clinton’s official photographer you spent a lot of time with her and former President Bill Clinton…What’s your favorite Clinton story?
We were on a private jet coming back from Puerto Rico a few years ago, I gave the documentary by Mr. Rezaian, “IRAN SEVEN FACES OF CIVILIZATION” to Bill Clinton. He saw the illustration and then asked for a DVD player and watched the entire DVD on the flight back to the states. After watching the documentary, he said, “Hopefully one day I will have a chance to visit the country.” That was enough for me. That I had the chance to show Bill Clinton where I’m from and to get that response….was a great feeling.
You have photographed so many amazing people…Nelson Mandela, Charlton Heston, of all the people you’ve photographed, who has touched you the most?
Nelson Mandela and Bill Clinton. You feel safe looking at them.
Tell us about Ronald Reagan. You not only photographed him…you did it at a critical time in the history of US-Iran relations.
Oh, yes! I remember Howard Baker had just handed him the Washington Post with the front page heading of “American Hostages left the Iranian Air Space” and President Reagan said: “No more Iran, no more Iranians”. He repeated that at the Inaugural Ball at the Mayflower hotel that night, I was less than 50 feet away from him! It was surreal.
One of my favorite photos you’ve taken is of the Berlin Wall just after they started taking it down. How did you end up there at that moment?
A: The minister of finance of Germany, a friend of mine, had asked me to go there and photograph the wall before they opened it to the public to take pieces of it. When I got to the wall and saw it for the first time, I immediately knew how I wanted to capture it. I asked them to light up the wall at night. They brought eight light trucks and aimed them at the wall, and cleared the area for me. I took two photos and I was done. They are displayed among the slide shows on my website “panoramicvisions.com“. That wall belonged to everyone. It was a very emotional experience for me.
Photography goes back generations with your family, doesn’t it?
A: My grandfather’s uncle was one of the first photographers in Iran at the Palace (Mirza Taghi Khan Shams). My grandfather learned photography from him and came to Yazd and started an “Akasee” there. Then my father along with his seven brothers and sisters all became photographers.
Did you always want to be a photographer?
A: Photography was always my dream, and I learned it in my father’s studio. I was in 10th grade when my father gave me a camera for my birthday. I had that with me in my bed and I held it all night.
You scored major points with your eldest son on Tuesday, didn’t you? He had second row seats…next to Oprah….Denzel Washington….for the Inauguration!!??
A: The biggest reward I have ever gotten for the work I’ve done came from him, yesterday. The look on my son Bardya’s face as he thanked me and said goodbye to head back to his school in New Jersey, was priceless. I love both of my sons and I see that there will be a 5th generation photographer in my family.
You moved from Yazd straight to Washington DC, four blocks from Logans Circle…which now has become a very hip and trendy part of town, but at the time was very scary. It must have been shocking!
If there is one sentence I can carry with me to the grave, it is “I HAVE SEEN IT ALL.”
If you would like to view or purchase Abbas Shirmohammadi’s photographs, please go to panoramicvisions.com.