I was supposed to cover a basketball game. At the last minute, an editor asked me if I would be interested in covering President Barack Obama's visit to Tampa instead. I jumped at the chance and wound up with an iconic photo that bounced around the world.
Instead of sitting in the Sun Dome on Jan. 28, I stood on a tarmac at MacDill Air Force Base. I had arrived hours early, as required, but it gave me time to troubleshoot my cantankerous laptop, double-check my camera exposures, and then wait for the moment when the White House staff person would escort me (and a gaggle of other photojournalists and television cameramen) out beneath the wing of Air Force One to photograph Obama's arrival.
I had made photos of President George W. Bush from nearly the same spot a few years ago, but none so memorable as the one I was about to take of Obama. The president bounded out not long after the plane touched down. I began working quickly, constantly asking myself questions: Did I have an image of him waving as he got off the plane? Check. Saluting? Check. Greeting Gov. Charlie Crist, who stiffly shook the president's hand after a previous Obama hug had gotten him in hot water with Republican conservatives? Check. What about an image of Obama greeting Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio? Yes, I had that too.
I was especially pleased with my photograph of Obama and Iorio. I had captured him in a respectful bow, a traditional greeting of one's host. As mayor of Tampa, Iorio was just that: Obama's host. I couldn't hear what they said. We weren't that close, and the low roar of Air Force One's engines drowned out all other sound.
I use a WiFi-enabled memory card in my camera, so I transmitted the picture back to the paper seconds after I made it, thinking I had captured something that the readers of the Times would appreciate — an image that placed the president in our Tampa Bay home. I didn't really think about it again, because seconds later the White House staff person herded all of the photojournalists off to the next minutelong photo-op with the president.
The following Tuesday morning, a colleague phoned to ask me questions about the image. It was all over the Internet. Pundits were claiming it showed Obama as weak, that he should save his bowing for terrorists.
None of these people were even there. I was. And I didn't see anything like that. Even though these critics hadn't witnessed the scene firsthand, they decided they knew with certainty what had happened.
Nothing makes my blood boil more than seeing an image, particularly one I created, used outside of its original context to promote a particular agenda. Further compounding my frustration is that it is totally out of my control when it happens. People criticize the media constantly for showing bias, or not reporting the whole truth, but here is an instance of an accurate depiction of an event being recycled and repackaged with much bias. Fair? I don't think so.
I have worked for the St. Petersburg Times for just over five years and have had more than 3,000 images printed in our newspaper during that time. I am very proud of much of it, particularly a yearlong project I just finished on child abuse at a state reform school. I'm saddened that out of all of my work, this image is now the most famous photo I've ever taken. I've been reading a lot of the blog commentary out there relating to the moment I captured. Some of it is pretty disgusting and inappropriate, no matter what political leanings people may have.
If the president of the United States is going to be torn apart by his own citizens for showing respect to a local mayor, what does that say about us? Maybe we are a touch too arrogant for our own good? Maybe we are focusing our attention on trivial things? Maybe we could take a cue from his graciousness?
Edmund Fountain is a staff photojournalist for the St. Petersburg Times. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.