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Interview with Photojournalist Charles Ommanney
by Mark S. Orr
Charles Ommanney grew up in London, England and began his career two decades ago
covering the break up of Eastern Europe in the early 90's. Since then he has covered major
Charles first gained recognition for his work in 1991 after being granted access by the Albanian
government to the Bulqiza mines in the north of the country which at the time housed hundreds
of political prisoners left over from the regime of Enver Hoxha and were strictly off limits to
The subsequent story 'Descent' that ran in the Sunday Telegraph put the hook in Charles and
it was around this time he realized that the process of story telling was also a way for him to
connect with a world so far from his upbringing in Southern England.
Between 1992 and 1996 he went on to cover the events in the former Yugoslavia and the
conflicts in Rwanda, Sudan and the Congo for Newsweek magazine.
Since 1997 Charles Ommanney has been a East Coast-based editorial photographer. Clients
include Vanity Fair, Rolling Stone, Amica, The Sunday Times Magazine and Stern. He has been
a full-time contract photographer for Newsweek magazine since 1998 and was assigned to the
White House in Washington D.C., between 2001 and 2008.
In 2005 Ommanney was named on American Photo Magazine's list of 'The 100 Most Important
People in Photography'. He has received many accolades for his work including two from the
coveted World Press Foundation in Amsterdam, Pictures of the Year International, NPPA and
Communication Arts, The WHNPA Political Photo of the Year, PDN Photo Annual and Alfred
Eisenstaedt magazine awards to name a few.
He is currently based in Miami.
I find Ommanney's work fascinating. It is powerful, poignant and beautiful. I would be
hard-pressed to pick a favorite. I think the photograph that most drew me is the following
photograph of President Obama, taken just before his inauguration.
It is one of those amazing moments in history captured and preserved for future generations to
experience and enjoy. It is a stunning photograph. So many things had to take place to get such
a powerful photograph. First of all, you had to be there....something very few photographers get
a chance to do when we're talking about the President of the United States. Then you have to
anticipate the shot, and recognize that perfect moment to capture it, if/when it happens. All this
with the added pressure of getting a technically good shot. In this photograph, Ommanney did all
brilliantly as he has done repeatedly throughout his career. That's a photographer whose work I
want to see more of, and whose work I admire.
'Changing of the Guard'. Barack Obama pauses to gather his thoughts seconds before stepping out in front
of the world to be inaugurated and become America's first black president. (Photo by Charles
Ommanney/Reportage by Getty Images)
Scenes East of New Orleans - the waters are beginning to reseed but the area is left devastated with
massive flooding and structural damage. Much of the area is only navigable only by boat posing a big
problem for rescuers. The are signs of death everywhere including bodies left rotting on and underneath the
10 freeway. Questions are being raised about why the dead are still out in the open.
Charles Ommanney / Contact Press Images
Young muslim girls in Zanzibar, Africa.'The Rise of Islam in Africa. Newsweek magazine
Charles Ommanney/Contact Press Images. 7-13-05
LONDON - JUNE 22: 'The Tea Party'. Britain's Queen Elizabeth II hosts a Garden Party at Buckingham Palace
June 22, 2010 in London, England. (Photo by Charles Ommanney/Reportage by Getty Images)
From the book "Made in France". 4-25-12. Photograph of a French women's style to help illustrate the
differences between supporters of France's president Nicholas Sarkozy and challenger Francois Hollande.
(Photo by Charles Ommanney/Reportage by Getty Images)
Behind the scenes during the making of the hit tv series American Idol. Newsweek Magazine. @Charles
KABUL - 6-6-11: The ICRC hospital and orthopedic centre in downtown Kabul, Afghanistan, June 6th 2011. A
very young boy as his father looks on learns to walk again often in great pain in the orthopedic section of the
hospital. It is believed he was run over by an American tank during a firefight on the outskirts of the city.
CRAWFORD, TX - AUGUST 24: President Bush vacations on his ranch in Crawford, Texas, August 22nd,
'Trailblazer' is the code name the US secret service use for George Bush. When seen on his Prairie Chapel
Ranch just outside the small town of Crawford, the term "Trailblazer" seems very fitting. President Bush starts
his day very early and does really stop until going to bed. An avid fitness enthusiast Bush starts the day with
fishing for Perch on his pond at 6am. This is closely followed by his morning briefing where he is joined via
tele-conferencing by VP Cheney and members of his National Security team. The day continues as Bush
rides his mountain bike on trails he has hand built around his 1600 acre ranch. After lunch and with the
afternoon heat rising to over 100 degrees President Bush gathers senior staff and the most hardy of his
secret service Protective detail for a afternoon of cutting cedar out on the wilds of his ranch.Here he is seen
resting on a stump in the afternoon heat. (Photo by Charles Ommanney/Reportage by Getty Images)
Barack Obama answers reporters question aboard his campaign plane during the 2008 election. (Photo by
Charles Ommanney/Reportage by Getty Images)
'Changing of the Guard'. VP Dick Cheney in his last moments in the White House sits in a wheelchair as he
awaits the Obama family's arrival. (Charles Ommanney/Reportage by Getty Images)
Two supporters of Mitt Romney at this years Republican convention in Tampa, Florida. (Charles
Ommanney/Reportage by Getty Images)
LONDONDERRY, NH - OCTOBER 16: Democratic presidential nominee U.S. Sen. Barack Obama backstage
before speaking at a campaign event at Mack's Apples October 16, 2008 in Londonderry, New Hampshire.
Obama continues to campaign as Election Day begins to draw near as he runs against his Republican
challenger, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ). (Photo by Charles Ommanney/Reportage by Getty Images
The following is a telephone interview with photographer Charles Ommanney on December 13,
Hi Charles...would you tell us a bit about where you were born and how you came to
I was born in London, England in 1965 and came to the U.S. in 1997. I'd been living in Europe
in the 1980's, covering the wars in the Congo, Somolia, all of the strife that had been going on
in Africa. As the 90's went on I was increasingly burnt out. I had been working for the Sunday
Times Magazine in London. I came to the U.S. and ended up meeting a girl from Texas, and
she introduced me to Austin Texas. In that time I was doing a shoot for a Texas magazine and I
happened to meet Laura Bush and George Bush. This was now 1998 and I really had no
intention of becoming a part of the circus surrounding the campaign, but I had been fond of the
old photos of the Kennedy campaign, so I pitched the idea of making an historical record of this
Governors run for the Presidency. They (campaign managers) looked at my work and a few
months went by and out of the blue, suddenly I got a phone call from the campaign manager
saying "okay..we will let you have total access to make an historical record of the Governors run
for the Presidency.". So for the next 20 months I embedded myself in George Bush's campaign.
I made a huge body of work. At the end of the process. I thought "okay, I'm going to go back to
Europe now and the magazine that I had been working for since the early 90's (Newsweek), a
wonderful magazine. But they said "absolutely not, you're not going back to Europe, you're
moving to Washington D.C., to cover the President.
So after a little bit of complaining and a bit of a reality check on my part, I moved to Washington
D.C. and lo and behold, that was the beginning of my Presidency years. So it all began with a
chance meeting of a girl from Texas, and a chance meeting with the Governor in Austin......
and so began my life in America.
How was it covering the Bush Presidency in the White House?
Since I'd done this project for the run of the Presidency, I knew him and Laura so well that I
had very good access and it was very well for the magazine. I was very lucky.
Those early days of covering Bush were quite extraordinary, but then 911 happened and
everything changed. It became a divisive Presidency, and all the ideas I had of going back to
Europe and carrying on with my career were out the window because My God, what an
incredible time to be attached to a President. However you felt about the President, it was an
incredible time. A very important time in history to be documenting the White House. And I
carried on there for many years. Each of the magazines, Time and Newsweek have two
photographers assigned to the White House. You would do one month on and one month off.
When on, it was basically 24 hours a day for a month. You'd fly everywhere on Air Force One
and every waking moment he was up, you were up. It was a fantastic time.
How did you become involved with photographing Barack Obama?
In 2006, thoughts turned to the upcoming election of 2008. The magazine said "we need to put
you on one of these many candidates for the 2008 election". Literally there were like 16
candidates. I wanted to pick the person who most likely would be out of race early as I felt I'd
gone as far as i can...I've nothing more to do in this arena, I want out. I would pick somebody
who would lose the race real quickly so I could go back to Europe... thank you very much. So I
went down the list of all the candidates of the 2008 election. McClain, Hillary Clinton....and I
came across someone named Barack Hussein Obama. I Iooked at him and I saw his middle
name and I thought....I'll pick him. The rest is history.
Nineteen months later I took the photo of Obama with his eyes closed about to go out and
greet the millions of people at his innauguration as the first black President of the U.S.
After that I really called it quits. So that was that.
I did do a little bit this year, I did a little of the Republican primaries and a little of the President
and first lady.
What is your favorite type of photography now?
I'm still very passionate about the whole process. I love it and I could never see myself doing
anything else. I wet my toes a little bit in the fashion world, Paris and Milan last year which I
found fascnating. I photographed for the Italian magazine Haute Couture which is so far
removed from anything I've ever done before, but I loved that. I still have a passion for genuine
reportage photography, I was in Paris in the summer photographing a...making a book about
Francois Hollande and Nicolas Sarkozy, it was about the French election in Paris and I
absolutely loved that. I still have a love of fashion and photojournalism.
In the area of this whole cell phone thing...I'm just not kind of getting it. My colleagues who are
now into this iPhone, instamatic photography, you know, I'm sure you see it all the time. This is
the only thing that I'm kind of not getting it. I worry that it's watered down. Outside of that I love
What are you working on currently or most recently?
I'm working a lot these days. I'm working with magazines like Neon Magazine in Germany who
are cool enough to let me go off and do interesting projects. I've just come back from North
Dakota where they are having the same as essentially the gold rush of the 1890's but it's with
oil. They've discovered a large amount of oil, it's like the gold rush. You've got people up there
descending on this small area of North Dakota where people are very, very poor and they are
making millions and millions. People who had nothing three years ago are discovering they
have oil under their homes and suddenly they are multi-millionaires.
And just before that I was traveling the country months ago doing a story about "preppers".
Preppers are people who believe that the end of the world is coming. They build underground
bunkers and have plenty of supplies, a very strange bunch of people. People call them
doomsday believers. And that involved going across the whole country and photographing
That would be very interesting...!
It was fascinating....and I still find this whole thing, doing it for 26 years now, one of my sole
motivations is I still have the hunger for learning and I love that about our profession. You get
to go and do things that you know nothing about and come back later with a basic knowledge
of something you didn't know before and I still find that a very strong motivator.
Do you shoot with film, digital or both?
I was one of the last people to go digital. I was definitely one of the naysayers. When the whole
digital thing took off I was still shooting with a Leica. i was one of the last people... in
Washington anyway, to move over to digital. But I actually find I loved it after a while. If you go
and shoot for a magazine, an event or story... you might shoot, say, twenty rolls of film, You'd
send that, in the old days, you'd courier that twenty rolls of film. and then you'd look at the
magazine the next week and invariably you'd be disappointed with the edit.
With the digital, you have the pictures right in front of you an suddenly you are doing your own
editing. So from the control level I love it and embraced the element very quickly, and I love
that you can see what you're getting and that you're getting it right, almost like a Polaroid.
I think we've all gone completely mad and insane these days taking pictures... mega-pixels and
gigabytes, but I love it.
What do you shoot with now?
I shoot with a couple of Nikon D800E and a 8200 Nikon that I never use.... a Leica M-9 and a
Fuji X 100.
Do you have a favorite?
Yes..if I could only use one camera for the rest of my life, it would be the M-9 and I would be
very happy with that. The best camera I ever had was a Nikon D700 and I wish I'd never gotten
rid of it. If you can ever get hold of a used D700 for a good rate...grab it. They are fantastic!
Before I shot with Nikon I used to love the old Canon, the first one they came out with.
One of my favorite photos of yours is the one of the young school-girl in Zanzibar.....
Yeah...it's kind of Biblical in a way isn't it? I was doing a piece about the rise of Islam in Africa
and I was in a public school in Zanzibar. I was standing at the back of this open air class and it
was so strange because I couldn't really see anyone's face, everyone cowering, so I was just
standing in the back looking at the sheets and the veils, it was very beautiful. And this one girl
looked round and the contrast between her face and this sea of veils was a 'moment' and I was
very lucky. It was those moments that you know you couldn't even hope for. I love that. I have
made some very large prints of that. I'm glad you like that...that's great.
Who is your favorite photographer?
That's a good question...I go back and forth with that all the time. But if I was to say that there
was one photographer I really wished I could shoot like, be like and who I think is beyond
amazing, it would be the genius of William Eggleston. He, in the 50's, 60's and 70's
revolutionized color photography. You'll have a lot of fun checking his work out. (And I did).
You must do that. He fundamentally changed photography and he is one of the best
photographers working out there today. He's phenomenal, so I'd say him. And I quite like the
style of the younger generation of photographers I've been working with at the moment.
That's a difficult question to answer because I could rattle off a bunch of names that I might
Lastly....who would you like to photograph that you haven't?
My God, that's an incredible notion isn't it. I would love to do a portrait of, a very close, very
tight.....this is something I'm trying to work on....of the British entrepreneur Sir Richard
I think he's got the most interesting face, I'd very much like to do a black and white lit studio
portrait of him. But there are so many things, so many subjects Mark that I can't really answer
that question. But it's a very, very good question. And I think I remember you asking ho many
dignitaries I've photographed and that's a very hard one to answer too, Being with Newswekk
Magazine, for all those years I was a contract photographer for Newsweek, you can imagine
how being with that magazine opened a lot of doors and over the years I was very privileged
and lucky to photograph all manner of people, from the little girl in the Islamic school in Africa
in Zanzibar to the King of Thailand. The breadth of subject matter that I got to spend time in,
but we're entering a new period an hopefully in five years it will be just as interesting and
exciting, if my knees will let me...
Thank you so much Charles...I love your work...and I appreciate you taking the time
to speak with me.
It was such a pleasure my friend. Whenever I can, I try and promote, help and do anything I
can do to keep our business alive and I am very happy to have chatted with you.,,,and best of
luck and keep up the good work.
Mark S. Orr
What a great work, Mark! The photographs are amazing and some are very touching. All of them are very
special! You are doing such a good work! Congratulations! Your guest is an incredibly talented man!