Arun Chaudhary was a film professor at New York University in 2007, when one of his friends asked him if he was interested in shooting Illinois Senator Barack Obama’s presidential campaign.leg
Having long harboured an interest in politics and governance, Chaudhary seized the opportunity, and followed Obama as he travelled the country. More than a year later, Chaudhary bagged a new job, as the first-ever official videographer at the White House.
By this time, he was already familiar with the newly-elected president’s ways and his legendary camaraderie with the members of his staff. Yet, the weight of the new title conferred on his subject was not lost on Chaudhary. The man he sometimes casually referred to as Barack, was now the president of the United States.
On one occasion Chaudhary waited nervously in a room at the White House, camera in tow. He knew he had to film Obama, but knew little else about the assignment. Obama walked in and asked, “Hey man, what are we filming?”
“I don’t know,” responded the young videographer, visibly distressed at having to tell this important person, whose time was of utmost value, that he had no idea why they were in the room together.
Obama walked over to Chaudhary, gave him a hug and said: “We’ll figure it out man. Don’t worry about it.”
“That’s just the kind of person he is,” said 42-year-old Chaudhary. “He did such things all the time. He made sure that the person who was feeling most uncomfortable felt comfortable, the person who was most quiet said something.”
After inauguration day in January 2009, Obama transitioned seamlessly into the Oval Office. Everyone who had worked on his campaign went on to become staffers in the executive mansion. However, Chaudhary’s path to the White House was not as straightforward. “I didn’t apply to a classified advertisement that read: videographer needed at the White House,” he said.
Filming Obama for videos released during the election campaign had a sharply defined objective: victory. But once that victory propelled Obama into the White House, nobody was quite sure what to do with Chaudhary anymore. “The idea of having a full-time, backstage video person wasn’t on anyone’s mind,” he explained. “The job didn’t exist, but developed organically.”
Unsure of what to do next, Chaudhary hung around and volunteered for about a month, until finally, a post was created specifically for him in the photo office: shadowing the new commander-in-chief.
For his official duties, Chaudhary was given the green light to freely wander around the premises of the most exalted space in Washington DC, with the sole exception of the Situation Room, a military information and communications centre. The second sacrosanct rule: he could shoot the first children, Malia and Sasha, only at official gatherings.
Conflating the tasks of documentarian and messenger, Chaudhary’s camera rolled at all times, following the president as he flew across continents, zipping from one meeting to another, one situation to the next, each vastly different from the other. Chaudhary was not interested in diving into Obama’s personal life. Nor did he want to be an archivist of the president’s speeches, which induced optimism and sometimes tears.
What fascinated Chaudhary the most were the moments right before and immediately after Obama’s public appearances. “The points at which his public persona and private life converged, were of interest to us, the in-between spaces,” he said. Chaudhary then curated short videos which were released on The White House website as the West Wing Week series.
The son of an Indian immigrant father from Uttar Pradesh and a Jewish mother, Chaudhary grew up in New York but didn’t have many Indian friends. When he was a teenager, a report said, Chaudhary’s father asked him why he did not want to get into politics. “I can’t, Dad,” he replied. “I have a funny name.” So he graduated from Cornell University and then got an MFA from New York University.
Chaudhary refutes the idea that his work at the White House was related to public relations, or creating propaganda on the president’s behalf. “The photo office is not there to help the president or the White House,” he said. “Its purpose is to document history as it unfolds.”
Chaudhary worked as a one-man army who took calls on which moments could have potential historic value. “I had to use my discretion at all times, I couldn’t be everywhere, so I had to make choices,” he said. “For instance, I decided to follow discussions on the health care bill instead of shooting the president’s meeting with [Benjamin] Netanyahu.”
Chaudhary was filming for posterity and was governed by the Presidential Records Act. This meant that he was forbidden to erase even a single frame he shot. The totality of the footage, running into thousands of hours, will become available in the public domain in 2021.
“Historians will certainly get mad seeing those videos and hearing me talk to Obama all the time,” he said, smiling. “But that’s how it was, you know, we were always joking around, having a good laugh.”
On one occasion, the president’s entourage was touring Westminster Abbey and came across Isaac Newton’s grave. Someone began rattling off abstractions of physics, calculus, and mathematics.
“Obama looked over at me and I knew he wanted to say something funny,” Chaudhary recollected. “He said, ‘This guy is pretty impressive, right?’, and we both burst out laughing.”
A close association with someone extremely famous often invites curious questions, including some common ones. For instance, is Obama the same off-camera as when he is in the spotlight—affable, idealistic, an impossibly cool president? Absolutely, said Chaudhary.
But chronicling Obama’s historic term also meant that Chaudhary missed important moments with his own family: his children’s first steps, their first words. As a result, once it became apparent that Obama would secure a second term, Chaudhary decided it was time to move on.
“Initially, I took the job because I wanted to help build progressive majority in America and enable change,” he said. “I had already done the campaign, had done the governing. Now I wanted to get into political filmmaking.”
Chaudhary left the position in 2011 and joined the mobile-messaging start-up Revolution Messaging the next year, as senior vice-president of communications. In 2016, he was the digital creative director for Bernie Sanders’s campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination.
Chaudhary, who authored the book First Cameraman, said he grew as an artist and a person because of his time at the White House. “I’ve become a much better filmmaker because of having to work under such pressure and speed. It really forced me to drop the more indulgent habits I had developed in art school. Dropping everything that was irrelevant to just focus and get things done changed how I think of myself as a person.”
As Obama leaves behind a complex legacy, with a fair number of successes and failures, Chaudhary hopes to have pieced together a truthful narrative of the outgoing president’s term. It is perhaps in the punctuated spaces between public theatrics and private incidents, that will reveal what it takes to run for the highest office—and to occupy it.