How Do You Photograph The Most Powerful Person In The World? - Sean Gallagher - Photographer & Filmmaker | Beijing, China

How Do You Photograph The Most Powerful Person In The World?

Posted by on Nov 18, 2010 in on assignment | 3 Comments

Hu Jintao, President of the People's Republic of China

As many followers of my blog, Facebook and/or Twitter will know, I had a very unique assignment last week, photographing the British Prime Minister David Cameron on his recent visit to Beijing. It was one of the most interesting assignments I have ever had, mainly because of the access that I was able to get to the PM and the people that he was meeting thoughout his trip.

When I was approached to undertake this job, I assumed that that the PM would be meeting some high-ranking Chinese officials and I hoped that he would be meeting with those at the top. When I found out he would indeed be meeting the main leader in China, President Hu Jintao, my levels of anticipation were raised significantly.

Hu Jintao, is rarely seen outside of formal surroundings and images of him are much harder to come by. His security is tighter than for any other person in the country and he was recently voted by Forbes magazine as ‘the most powerful person in the world’, ahead of American President, Barack Obama. Whether you agree with that statement or not, the opportunity to photograph this man was one I did not want to pass up.

David Cameron and staff walk down the red carpet inside the Great Hall of the People

So, on the morning of Wednesday 10th November, I found myself following David Cameron and his entourage into the Great Hall of the People, as the only photographer with the group. After entering, we spent a few minutes in a holding room waiting for the signal to begin the meeting. The few minutes passed very quickly and once the signal was given, I found myself walking down the red carpet with the group (see image above), striding towards the meeting. As I shot, I had my back to the direction we were headed, walking backwards taking images of the PM. I managed to shoot about 7/8 frames before turning around and moving to the side of the group. No sooner had I done this, a giant curtain was opened before us and on the other side stood the Chinese President, Hu Jintao.

'Abstract' portrait of Hu Jintao

Having been photographing Cameron on a wide-lense (16-35mm), I quickly switch to my second body which had a 70-200mm as I found myself a little further away than I would of liked as I was moved to one side by a Chinese secret service agent. As I started shooting, something appeared to be wrong. My exposure was all wrong and was exposing at nearly a second (see above). Far too long. Mild panic started to set in, as this was the big moment. It would be over in 30secs and knew I couldn’t miss it. I glanced down at the body looking for the problem. I noticed the settings wheel had been nudged off of its normal aperture-priority setting and onto manual, probably whilst I was shooting just before. I quickly flicked it back to where it was meant to be and was back to normal. Thankfully, I have come to know my equipment so well, I could change most settings blindfolded. All that practice on other shoots prepared me well to not panic and identify the problem and solve it quickly. This is a big part of what being a professional is about.

Hu Jintao, during meeting with British PM, David Cameron.

No sooner had I fired off a few frames, Cameron and Hu moved into the main meeting room and myself and the press pack, who I was now part of, followed. We had a few minutes stood behind a rope a few metres away from the meeting to get what we could. After that, we were all ushered out by security.

Official photograph of British Prime Minister David Cameron and Chinese President, Hu Jintao.

Standing outside of the meeting room, the adrenaline was still pumping from what was one of the most surreal shoots I have ever had. I put a lot of pressure on myself  to make sure I deliver for my clients. Combined with who these people were and the restrictions that were upon me, it made for quite an intense experience. At the end of the day, I was able to deliver the images I needed to my client and had the freedom to be a little creative with the pictures.

I certainly won’t forget the day I got to photograph (arguably, at the time of writing!) the most powerful person in the world.

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  1. Harry Barkema
    November 22, 2010

    Hi Sean,

    Here are the links we talked about:

    Maybe you find the project below also an interesting way to raise money………….


    Harry Barkema
    [email protected]
    China Tel. number 13240712370


    Save slow journalism

    In 2014, the Olympic Games will take place in Sochi, Russia. Never before have the Olympic Games been held in a region that contrasts more strongly with the glamour of the Games than Sochi. Just 20 kilometres away is the conflict zone Abkhazia. To the east the Caucasus Mountains stretch into obscure and impoverished breakaway republics such as Cherkessia, North Ossetia and Chechnya. On the coast old Soviet sanatoria stand shoulder to shoulder with the most expensive hotels and clubs of the Russian Riviera.

    Between now and 2014 the area around Sochi will change beyond recognition. The extreme makeover is already underway; refugee flats and poverty-stricken resorts are disappearing at high speed from the partly fashionable, partly impoverished seaside resort of Sochi. Thousands of labourers from across Russia and abroad live in prefab accommodation in order to have the stadiums, hotels and modern infrastructure finished on time. Helicopters fly backwards and forwards with building materials. The economic crisis is glossed over as much as possible.

    Photographer Rob Hornstra and writer/filmmaker Arnold van Bruggen plan to document the changes in the area around Sochi over the coming five years. The Sochi Project will be a dynamic mix of documentary photography, film and reportage about a world in flux; a world full of different realities within a small but extraordinary geographic area.

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  2. Sue Anne
    November 29, 2010

    My heart skipped a beat when I read your exposure settings are all wrong. It must be incredibly stressful having only that slim window of opportunity to do your job! No wonder I see photographers strapping in 3 cameras on themselves. Hope you got yourself a well-deserved beer after.

  3. Sean Gallagher
    November 29, 2010

    Hi Sue Anne,

    Looking back on the job now, it was stressful, yes, but at the same time quite exhilarating. I guess because I got the picture, it all turned out well. That’s what it’s all about. I’m not sure I could do it all the time though!


    P.S. Yes, a beer was well deserved that day!


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