When Christy Bowe was a fledgling photographer with scarcely more than ribbon-cutting gigs under her belt, she attended a National Press Club event to build up her portfolio. In the 350-seat auditorium, she went for the front row. And when another woman entered and told Bowe she wanted her seat, Bowe refused to cede her spot.
Bowe didn’t know she was speaking to Sarah McClendon, one of the first female members of the National Press Club and a reporter well known for stumping presidents with tough questions. Bowe realized her mistake when Henry Kissinger, the guest of honor at the 1996 event, greeted McClendon with a bear hug and a twirl. Still, McClendon liked that Bowe “wasn’t backing down to her,” Bowe says.
A few days later, Bowe sent McClendon a photo she had snapped of her and Kissinger, along with a note thanking her for helping women advance in the industry. Soon after, McClendon offered to hire Bowe as the photographer for her eponymous news service.
So began a nearly 30-year career that would span five presidential administrations, three impeachments, and interactions with everyone from Princess Diana to Sean Connery. Most recently, Bowe, 67, wrote Eyes That Speak, a book about her years covering politics in Washington, D.C. She continues to work as a photojournalist for ImageCatcher News Service, the agency she founded in 2000.
Bowe grew up in Chevy Chase and describes herself as a “third-generation Washingtonian.” After getting kicked out of Catholic high school for talking back to a teacher, she says, she graduated from Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School and took classes at Montgomery College. She got hooked on photography as a teenager, when she took a road trip with friends from Bethesda to Texas, shooting landscapes along the way. When she got the printed pictures back, Bowe thought, This is not what I saw. The pictures showed a “bunch of flat land,” she says, but were missing the depth she’d observed in the scenery. She became interested in cultivating a photographic point of view that she could share with an audience.
Bowe began taking photography classes in college and got behind the camera for Montgomery County’s public information office before McClendon hired her. We spoke to her over Zoom in August. This interview has been edited and condensed.
How did Sarah McClendon and (longtime White House reporter) Helen Thomas inspire you as female journalists in a male-dominated field?
They really taught me how to not back down from something that you want. If you’ve got something that you want to say or something that you want to know, don’t let somebody deflect you from that, because that certainly happens a lot in politics, where somebody will ask a question and they’ll get an answer that’s nowhere close to what the question was about, and then the opportunity is gone.
[McClendon] was the voice of the little people. We would often ride in cabs, and she would always insist on sitting in the front seat with the cabdriver. One day, she was talking to the cabdriver and he was taking us to the White House for a press conference with President Clinton. And so she goes, ‘If you could ask the president of the United States anything, what would that be?’ And he had a question about immigration and his family. And 45 minutes later, Sarah was asking that cabdriver’s question to the president of the United States.
What was it like to be a female pioneer in this field with a lot of guys?
Let me tell you, you don’t see the gentlemanly, ‘After you, ma’am.’ You ain’t going to see that. I would say there’s no special access. Now I’m proud to say that there are more women photographers. What sets me apart is that I’ve covered five U.S. presidents. One of the takeaways that I have learned during the course of my career with all the different presidents is that no matter what, they’re all human beings, and people need to be more aware of that. Yes, they signed up for this job, and yes, it can be brutal. But sometimes it goes a little bit over the top. I noticed, especially in my chapter on the three presidents coming out of the Oval Office together, with Presidents Clinton, Bush and Obama, I could see up close that they were kind of in a boys’ club. Nobody on earth but each other knows what that job is like. People can be nicer, I think, from even something as simple as Joe Biden where he fell off his bike. People were like, ‘He’s old, he doesn’t know what he’s doing, he’s senile.’ How many of us has that happened to, where you fall off your bike? It’s happened to everybody. So give him a break, that’s what I’m saying. I’m not saying don’t report news. I’m saying there’s a way to do it.
What do you have to understand to try to capture a person in a photo?
I always make it a point to try to have my pictures be different from the person standing right next to me that’s shooting the exact same thing. Whenever I go into a room, whether it’s the Oval Office or the East Room, I try to always look around and see who else is in the room. You really yield some wonderful results from the moments before or after [the event] you were there to photograph. [In my book, there’s] a picture of Presidents Clinton and Obama being buddies; they’re laughing and they got their hand on each other’s shoulder and I think Obama’s slapping him on the back. That kind of thing to me was every bit as significant, maybe more so, than President Obama putting the Medal of Freedom around Clinton’s neck. I tend to go for the moments before or after to try to capture the relationships between people and to see the range of emotions.
How do you get around the fact that they’re really trying to only show you one perfect, buttoned-up side, to capture the emotions and the reality?
Some times are easier than others. I know there’s one picture in my book that is from the Obama administration, where he had the parents of children that had been killed at Sandy Hook [Elementary School in Connecticut] there in the room. All these different parents and relatives and families, and the president started
crying because he was just so frustrated about gun laws. It was just visceral. I was crying. Usually I stay pretty separate, but the emotion was so raw in that room. That was easy to get the picture across that I wanted to because the moment was so fueled with sorrow and grief.
What were the personalities of the presidents that you’ve covered and their different ways of relating to the press and to people in their administrations?
President [George W.] Bush was my favorite president to cover. He was very genuine, and he would kid around with me, which I really enjoyed because there weren’t many women still photographers back then. He’d always say to me something like, ‘How are the guys treating you today?’ Or a lot of times when the staffers would get us out of the Oval Office, they would say, ‘Thank you very much.’ And this one day, I happened to be the only woman still photographer there. And so the handler from the White House said, ‘Gentlemen, thank you very much.’ And President Bush stops and he goes, ‘Hey, wait a minute,’ and he points to me and he goes, ‘There’s a lady here.’ So I said to him, ‘Thank you for noticing, Mr. President.’
How has the media landscape changed since you started?
Now everything is instant. It’s breaking news 24/7. It’s good and bad. Now when we are taking pictures of the president, those images are going around the world as he’s speaking. And it’s all about people saying their opinion about what’s going on. I feel that people tend to watch the stations and listen to the people that think like they do. And that’s what’s causing the division, because you’re hearing something from people that think like you do.
For print journalism, there’s a real pressure to not share your political views. What is your outlook and approach in terms of neutrality as a photojournalist?
As you will notice in my book, I am extremely neutral there, extremely bipartisan. And I make a point of doing that no matter how crazy the situation is that I’m in; I try to focus more on technical aspects of it. Then, if I start feeling resentment or feel like I’m starting to place judgment, I try to focus more on my craft, and try to squash my having an opinion about something.
Can you talk a bit about your experience covering the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol?
I was not even going to go downtown that day until I heard on the radio and the TV [that] they were saying don’t go downtown, work from home if you possibly can, it’s going to be a potentially dangerous situation. And in my world, that means what time do we leave? So I grabbed my cameras right away and ran down there and I thought, Let me be positioned at the Capitol so people are coming towards me, and I’m not caught up in the crowd where I can’t get an overview of them coming. And so I did exactly that. People were holding their phones and having Trump’s speech on speakerphone. So all these people had their phones on speakerphone, and you could hear his voice everywhere, which was kind of surreal.
After the speech ended, people started marching up towards the Capitol. In the beginning part of that were the Proud Boys. One of them started yelling derogatory things about me being the media. I kept firing as they came towards me to maybe 15 or 20 yards away, and then I jumped behind a tree and let them go past. And that’s the centerfold picture in my book. They had walkie-talkies on them, and then things started getting more militaristic and you could feel the whole mood start to shift.
On another note, what was your experience photographing Queen Elizabeth II?
I’m very honored to have been 15 yards away from her. [It] crossed my mind that wow, her face is on money. We [photographers] talked amongst ourselves about the whole intrigue about her purse, which always fascinated me. My friend told me that she uses that to signal to people around her, that if she moves her purse a certain way, then that means give us privacy. Just the slightest tap, and that movement would say get this person out of here, or give us some private time.
In your book, you talked a lot about different experiences with famous figures like the Dalai Lama and Princess Diana. Did any of those particularly stand out?
With the Dalai Lama, he had just received a Congressional Gold Medal at the Capitol, and a bunch of us were trying to get pictures of him outside when he was going to make a speech. I ended up being shoved by some other photographers behind me into the photographer in front of me. She turned around and yelled to me and said, ‘What the hell are you doing?’ Then the Dalai Lama came over to the end of the stage and leaned down and he started shaking his finger, and he goes, ‘You two stop fighting.’ He was laughing. Maybe an hour later, he had moved to a different stage and I caught his eye. I did the ‘namaste’ stance of putting your hands together, and said, ‘Namaste,’ meaning, sorry about that incident earlier. He knew exactly what I was talking about and he just laughed and posed for me.
About Christy Bowe
Lives in: Chevy Chase
Career: Credentialed photojournalist at UPI and McClendon News service, 1996-2000; founded her own agency, ImageCatcher News Service, in 2000
Pets: Two dogs, a cat and a cockatiel
Fun fact: She earned a black belt in taekwondo in 1990.
Freelance writer Rose Horowitch is a senior at Yale University and a Bethesda resident.
This story appears in the November/December 2022 issue of Bethesda Magazine.