The Friday Reporter

Behind the Lens with Tom Williams

August 06, 2021 Lisa Camooso Miller
The Friday Reporter
Behind the Lens with Tom Williams
Show Notes Transcript

Today Lisa visits with Tom Williams fro CQ Roll Call about what it's like to be a photo journalist in the U.S. Capitol Building.  From 9/11 to January 6, Tom has had a front row seat for history and has captured it in the beautiful photography he produces.  

Lisa is especially proud to have been with Tom at his first-ever Bruce Springsteen concert. Come for the Jersey references, stay for the reflections on what it was like to be in the Capitol on Jan. 6.  


Speaker 1:

Hello, and welcome to the Friday reporter podcast. I'm your host, Lisa Kaso Miller. I'm a public affairs professional in Washington, DC , and I interview members of the media about their background, about how they got into journalism and lots of other topics. The Friday reporter is a PR daily podcast. Check out PR daily for ideas, inspiration, and trends on all things, public affairs, and to find the Friday reporter podcast. Well, thank you so much for joining me today for another episode of the Friday reporter podcast today, I have my first photo journalist , my friend and colleague, Tom Williams from CQ you roll call is with me today, Tom, thank you so much for joining me.

Speaker 2:

Yes. It's exciting to catch up. It's been a while .

Speaker 1:

It has been a while I say it every time I have a conversation, this is exactly the reason why I started the podcast, cuz these , uh , last 18 months have been kind of hard to connect with my, with my buddies and my friends that I've worked with my favorite.

Speaker 2:

Go ahead and listen to your podcast. Like I've listened to some of your guests. It's like, oh I haven't, I haven't heard that person a while. We saw hook up on the hill or get drinks or whatever. And it's like , oh I know them . Exactly. So it's like good way for everybody to

Speaker 1:

Reconnect. Kinda . It has been, it has been really fun. And in fact, I went to my first in person , uh , gathering this weekend. I think you were there too. And I just, I didn't, I didn't see you. I got to see some other friends and one of the guests, previous guests was there and was asking me about the podcast. It's like, it's just another fun thing to chat about. So it's been , um , a fun, fun project, but yeah , you and I, now I've gotten to know each other because you are this first off. You're one of my favorite and one of the most artful photographers on , in the Capitol at all times. Thank you . I will always keep as my favorite memory of our friendship is taking you to your first Bruce Springsteen concert.

Speaker 2:

Yes, my first and only, and that was like, I was unprepared for like what NATS park? Like the logistics of it was mm-hmm <affirmative> but the sound was great. Our seats were great. That's like a great place to see us show it is I really place . Yeah. And I hope too , if I could , if I'm not too cheap, maybe see him on Broadway. We'll see, boy , it's gotten up there a little bit. I

Speaker 1:

Feel like we gotta save our pennies and, and , and make that happen. Maybe we should do. Maybe we should, we should get the band back together. You and I go to New York. I'm sure that my husband will be happy to bar . Let me borrow you for , uh , for a weekend.

Speaker 2:

Got that , got him off the hook for another ticket and oh no post bonding time with the kids and all that. Oh

Speaker 1:

Man. Well is , is supposed to be a great show. And I know that , um, I know that he's just back on, on Broadway and everybody says that the show has been updated and it's really fun. So it'd be great to see. But so Tom , um, you and I grew up in a similar part of the us born , born and , and raised in the , uh , Pennsylvania state and oh , excuse me, Commonwealth. Yeah . And somehow found yourself down here in Washington. Tell me a little bit about how you got started in, in the business that

Speaker 2:

You're in. Yeah, so I'm from Pennsylvania, but I will say my parents, my dad's from Hatfield, my mom's in Trenton. So I got a little New Jersey re going

Speaker 1:

On because they're Trenton stayed alum too, which I love about them.

Speaker 2:

Awesome . I know I saw somebody with the Trenton t-shirt the other day almost like offered a money for it . <laugh> um , anyway, so it's worth at least a dollar to your question. It's kind of a broad question, but I'll try to like narrow it down a little bit. Sure. How did , how did I to get here? So , um, I start, I was at Penn state and I was like a photo. I took like photo classes just cuz I was kind of good at photography and I thought it would be easy cuz I basically had like no direction in college. I had no idea what I wanna do. I'm sure there's a lot of kids out there with the same mindset

Speaker 1:

I right here . Yeah . I'm familiar.

Speaker 2:

Right . <laugh> right. So it like, it's getting to be like senior year. So I'm like 22 years old and I'm like, oh Jesus. So , so I took some photo classes cause I was good at it in high school. Mm-hmm <affirmative> and I basically kind of jumped right back into it. I was like spending hours in the dark room. Um , you know , a black and white film mm-hmm <affirmative> I was like walking around state college. I was taking pictures. I'm like, okay, obviously I like this. I'm kind of good at it. And what what's what do you do with this mm-hmm <affirmative> oh, you could , you could take pictures for a newspaper mm-hmm <affirmative> and that's like a job, I guess. So , um, I applied for numerous jobs and got rejected by all of them . Cuz everybody wants like three to five years experience whatever. And so real catch 22 . It's like how you get experience , you know , anyway, got involved with role call . I got the , got an internship at role call mm-hmm . <affirmative> how I did it. I have no idea. I mean really got lucky. I don't know why the guy hired me <laugh> cause I had no next to no news portfolio. Um, I only worked at this state called or daily collegiate Penn state for like six months. So the guy hires me mm-hmm <affirmative> um, the internship was six months is coming to an end and I'm like, oh Jesus, I'm back to like square one here. Mm-hmm <affirmative> I still don't have like six months experience. So I'm not privy to all the information cuz I was just an intern, but I think the photo editor at the time got fired. Ah , the staff photographer at the time got passed over for the job. So she quit at a principal and I was like the only one left and like Tim Kern , who's now at the Washington post he's like Tom stepped in my office and he offered me the job. Wow . And I was like , oh cool. He's like, we're prepared to offer you $23,000 a year. I'm like, oh, he's like what ? I'm like, it's not very much. He's like, well that's what it is . I'm like, all right . I guess I'll take it. <laugh> so , so that was , that was April, 2000 . So it's just over 21 years ago . Oh my gosh. I know. It's crazy. I think,

Speaker 1:

I think I remember you telling me that story and, and by the way, still, you know, we look back now on those like those, those salaries, but you know, on Capitol hill , uh that's that's I guess probably pretty close to what's the going rate, right? I mean it's really low, but

Speaker 2:

I guess, I don't know, like when inflation is probably 35 or something like that, I don't know what kids make these days.

Speaker 1:

Yeah . I I'm afraid to even ask, but so , um , but when you started, so you were so you 21 years ago, photography, I mean mm-hmm , <affirmative> talk about journalism changing over the course of the last 21 years. Photography has changed dramatically with the entry of digital and everything else like, oh yeah. Did you? We

Speaker 2:

Were shoot . Yeah. We were shooting black and white film. Mm-hmm <affirmative> like in 1999 , the internship was 99 , 2000 we'd shoot black and white film and have we'd have a darker room at 50 F street where roll call was right next to Irish times. And if we shot colored film, we'd have to run it to use station. There was like an hour photo lab up there. But luckily, you know, in that time we got digital cameras and they were quite crappy for a while , but they're back. They're pretty good now. Yeah. So yeah.

Speaker 1:

Did that help on the production time too? The digital stuff. I mean that must have made it a little bit. The lead time was probably a little less once you had that in place.

Speaker 2:

Oh yeah. Yeah. You just, yeah. You sit down and follow your computer. So mm-hmm <affirmative> it's not a whole , like we waiting around . I mean I've talked my, one of my neighbors in Dirkson building Scott <inaudible> from AP mm-hmm <affirmative> and he's been doing it since the seventies. And he tells you stories about like setting up a dark room in a hotel room and stuff. Oh my gosh. Like a bathroom and going from there. So yeah. We're we're up to speed with the digital photography.

Speaker 1:

Oh , well I figured as much, but I mean, I do think that over 21 years you've seen a tremendous change. Right? I mean there's just, the technology alone is just so much better. Yeah.

Speaker 2:

Yeah. Well the biggest change on the hill is now every office has like a dedicated photographer mm-hmm <affirmative> so when you go to an event, not only do you have to worry about all your colleagues, not running into them and everything. Now, every staff member's kind of thing. So it's like a major, you know, deal on the hill. Now

Speaker 1:

It's a bit of a scramble.

Speaker 2:

Yeah. Right. And not on the hill everywhere. And you know, even if you don't have a professional camera, everybody's got their phones.

Speaker 1:

Yeah. But still in the hill. I mean any of those conference rooms are , they're so small anyway. And you guys have multiple cameras that you're carrying and things that are happening and it's, I've got to believe that it's a little bit of a choreography to make sure you're getting what you need.

Speaker 2:

Yeah. That , and that's been like the biggest thing in the last couple weeks with things opening up, we were doing like pool hearings on the hill. Mm-hmm <affirmative> like we have a , a 12 organization , um , uh , pool and just rotate people, basically. Mm-hmm <affirmative> and now everything's open up. I'm like running into people, getting people's way everybody people are getting my way. I know like , oh Jesus, I can't work in a I've forgot Notre in the crowd anymore. <laugh> But you, I , it was much, much easier when it was just like two people in a

Speaker 1:

Room. I bet. But well, but speaking of , uh , before things opened back up, you were in the Capitol on January 6th . Is that right? Oh yeah.

Speaker 2:

Oh yeah. That was a long day. I left my house like 9:00 AM and I got back at like 4:00 AM the next day. So wow. I think you can do the math. That's like, I mean ,

Speaker 1:

19 hour day. Yeah . That's a long, long, long day. Tell me about, tell me about what it was. How , how did that , how was , tell me about that day.

Speaker 2:

So the only, so you've probably seen my pictures from inside the chamber. Yes . The only reason I was in there is because I got sheltered in there by police. Like I was in the Rayburn room for people that know the capital , just mm-hmm <affirmative> sitting there filing my pictures from earlier. We were in there doing the , um , uh , the electoral account mm-hmm um, and I left, there was a break in the action of the electoral count and I left the gallery because we were trying to social distance at that time. I'm like, all right . I don't wanna just let me get away from people. Yeah. Right. And I went down the Rayburn room on the second floor and I'm following my pictures and I'm looking out the window and I'm like, there's like a , there's like a lot of people starting semi out there. And there's just like a handful of cops and those little fence things. Yeah . I'm like this math , the math is not adding up on this. Yeah . And like earlier in the day I saw one of my , uh , friends he's in the Sergeant arm's office. I'm like, yo man, what's the story with this? Aren't all these Trump people coming up after the, after the rally. He's like, I's a , like, I guess we got all hands on deck. I'm like, okay , doesn't look like the numbers are adding up , you know, forget about like intelligence, whatever they had online. Just the numbers of people, you know ? Anyway, I don't wanna get into all that because yeah . I don't know what happened at the top, but so I'm looking out the window and there's start already be announcements on the there's like an internal system. Mm-hmm <affirmative> I forget, I forget it what it said, but I'm basically putting away my computer and I'm like, all right , I gotta start like shooting. So I started like

Speaker 1:

You ever remember a time when that loud speaker , like when people spoke over that?

Speaker 2:

Uh , probably like, I assume nine 11. I was there, but I can't remember if the cops just made an announcement or if that was a , yeah.

Speaker 1:

I mean , I remember loud speaker . I remember there being a couple, like run for your life moments where like there had been an err plane that was flying over the Capitol right after nine 11. And they were, you know, like Capitol police yelling, get the hell out of the building and run for your life. Um , I remember that, but I never remember there being over the loud speaker . So I was wondering if you called that too. So yeah . So that's something new just back in the different

Speaker 2:

Yeah . Yeah . Um , and yeah, we couldn't leave the building. So it's like, so I started just walking around because the van one had out that Rav window didn't work out. So I went down, looking out the east or the west front where , um, the , uh, big camera stand was set up for the upcoming inauguration.

Speaker 1:

The one they were scaling. Yeah.

Speaker 2:

There's people scaling. It's like , mm-hmm , <affirmative> what the F is going on. Mm-hmm <affirmative> and there's cops running all around. And normally in like a situation like that, cops would be yelling at you, like, you know, get back at some were , they weren't saying anything to us. They were just running by us and I'm like, oh, this is serious. They're not even worried about us at all. Yeah. And one of the , one of the main , um, uh , officers is like , get the Pelosi's office and retrospect, I might, well, I ended up in the chamber, so that was good for coverage, but mm-hmm <affirmative> I probably should have followed him. But anyway , uh, I tried to , so I tried to go back up to the , um, ended up at the house steps and I'm looking out the window and of the door and now all these protestors are on the , their riders are on the steps. And are

Speaker 1:

You taking pictures at this time? Are you , are you snapping pictures? That's

Speaker 2:

What I was. Yes, because that's when I finally got a good vantage point. I see that house steps. Mm-hmm <affirmative> and there's a police, a Capitol police officer right there. And didn't say anything to me. I was gonna

Speaker 1:

Say, did they yell at you or like say anything? No, not really.

Speaker 2:

He didn't say anything to me at that point. And I was at the house steps for about , uh , inside she through a glass door mm-hmm <affirmative> and there rider's right up against it. And I was shooting for about a minute and the guy's like, all right , go shelter. And I'm like, all right , thank you, sir. Mm-hmm <affirmative> he could easily , he could have easily shut me down. He didn't he let me go for a little bit. Yeah. And prior to that, another cop, he was trying to shelter me in the , in like the house chamber on the second floor. I'm like, wow . I'm never been asked in there before that this is , must be serious. That they're like just sheltering people ever . Mm-hmm <affirmative> finally ended up on the third floor at the gallery, like , and Tim's gallery mm-hmm <affirmative> and me and Andy Harnick from AP are just standing out there kind of looking at each other, like , uh , the door's locked. We were , I was , we weren't nervous. We were just like, kind of in limbo. Yeah. And then some cops grabbed us and ran us down to kind of like where the first lady sits in the house chamber, like that side mm-hmm <affirmative> mm-hmm <affirmative> and threw us in there. Oh my gosh. And that's where we ended up and that's where we shot from. Yep . And there was like members of Congress in there. And uh, shortly thereafter they started getting their gas mask on and I was in like, no position to shoot. I had my two cameras, but I was also carrying a computer around loose. Oh my gosh. Against my chest. Yeah. So, so I couldn't operate my cameras and they're like giving us directions. So like , um, put on our gas mask . So I'm fumbling around with that.

Speaker 1:

Well , you don't carry a gas mask. Was this something that they like, oh , had under the , under the seats that's right. I had no

Speaker 2:

Idea. Yeah . Yeah. So I'm like fumbling around with that, but I'm looking around, I'm like, I really gotta be taking pictures. Mm-hmm <affirmative> like the cops and cops and like other people already ticked off at us. I'm sure. Taking pictures, which I thought was fine. I mean , credential press, but whatever. They didn't wanna taking pictures.

Speaker 1:

So history was happening before your eyes. It was almost like that's kind of what you , how you're programmed.

Speaker 2:

Yeah. Some, some woman gave me a hard time. I don't know who she was. She was, she may have been a staffer mm-hmm <affirmative> but I think their point was, oh, this is a break in the action. No photography, but of course, you know, I'm recognizing the , is a historic moment. No , this is you've gotta dial it up with absolutely taking pictures here . Yeah . Um , so I'm carrying around loose. I finally put the computer down. I'm fumbling around with the gas mask . People are like evacuating past me. They almost like step on it. Finally, I got the computer shoved down the back of my pants. You know how like a server will carry like the menu around in the back of the , yeah . Finally got like a 15 inch MacBook in the back of my pants. My goodness. So I get , so I get like operate the cameras . I get the, I get, I finally get the gas master where it's like operational and Andy HARs , like Tom come over and I went, I couldn't see the door where they were. The writers were trying to get in. Yeah. He, he , he flagged me over mm-hmm <affirmative> dropped the gas mask. Never saw it again. Oh . And that's where we took those pictures of , uh , the cops and the Congressman barica the door mm-hmm <affirmative> that's where Mr. Crow and Susan wild was. That's where the whole stuff went down and

Speaker 1:

Like they're iconic images. Like I feel like I've seen them hundreds and hundreds of times. I mean, it's, it's amazing that you it's, it's fortunate that you were there and I'm glad that you're okay. But that, oh , must also in some way, I guess, probably because you guys were doing what you were doing, you, you kind of went into like work mode and like history mode. I , and have you, do you think that since then you've processed that like, wow . We were kind of in a precarious

Speaker 2:

Thing? Not really. I mean, I know a lot of people in the chamber, like I've heard the members interviewed and they were kind of scared for the lives and I get it because the writers were at the door coming for them. Mm-hmm <affirmative> but I kind of had a buffer, like my main goal , my main fear was missing a picture mm-hmm <affirmative> because in nine, during nine 11, we like evacuated the capital and I didn't get any good pictures cuz I was busy evacuating. Yeah . And I didn't wanna off the cops mm-hmm <affirmative> so I'm like, all right . If that ever happens again, not NEC you know, just some big thing, which

Speaker 1:

January 6th or was big. Yeah.

Speaker 2:

You know, I gotta get on the ball here . Mm-hmm <affirmative> and also like when I was at Penn state, we didn't really have a photo journalism course. So I like went to my local , uh, library and got national geographics for like $3 for a year, like from 1985 or something like that . Wow. And <affirmative> , and I wish I remembered the talk's name, but I was reading an interview with him . It was the assassination assassination of UNDA Uhhuh . And, and I read his interview and he's like, all right , keep calm, keep , you know, keep your hands still mm-hmm <affirmative> get your exposure. Right . So I just like, I basically channeled that . I've always remembered. That was like 20 years ago. I read that. I always remember that I'm always in like any kind of big situation, you know, just focus on your working the camera. Yeah . Getting pictures. So I had like a buffer there, Uhhuh <affirmative> . So , um, and luckily like I thought the cops had the gun mm-hmm <affirmative> and I thought they're gonna start shooting people at any time and I better get in a position and you know, get lined up here for a picture or something comes down . Wow. Yeah. So that was like my main goal.

Speaker 1:

And you've, since now you've taken, you've taken some interviews, you've talked to people about your experience being a photo journalist , like really just recording that moment in history. Is that right?

Speaker 2:

Uh, yeah. I've talked a little, yeah. I talked a little bit about it. Um, Penn, my Penn state alumni association work , uh, reached out to me cuz my Twitter handle is Penn state Tom . So they found me on , they found me online . Cool. Uh , yeah, so that was cool. They were like reconnect with my school and stuff like that.

Speaker 1:

That's fun. Mm-hmm <affirmative> well, I'm glad that you are, I'm glad that you are , um, past that point and, and now back to sort of the regular day of taking photos and doing all of the other , uh, work that you do on the hill, how are you , uh , do you think you guys work together pretty well? I think that is true of most of the, the Capitol hill press Corps , but you, and that mm-hmm , <affirmative> the team of photographers. I mean, you mentioned obviously two or three of your colleagues that were there with you that day. Um , you guys worked together super well in terms of getting the shot and, and getting that and , and I guess you said you pooled even when you were or uh , going through sort of the COVID times, is that yeah . Pretty collegial group, right?

Speaker 2:

Yeah. I would say so it's working in a group like that , uh , with a lot of people you learn to kind of check your back and like, oh , are you okay? And everything mm-hmm <affirmative> , that's kinda the hardest thing about going out into the country would like photographers the smaller newspapers. They're not used to working in groups mm-hmm <affirmative> and they'll like, just jump in front of you . Not, not cuz they're being a Dick or anything just cause they don't , they're not like working in groups. So we're always, it , it's kinda like, it's kind of almost like a chore , like almost like a dance you do between

Speaker 1:

Definitely people I've seen it. I've seen it. You guys do it. You , you do it really well. Um , and in no other I can think of no or maybe sporting events, maybe , uh , that different forums completely where , um , colleagues all sort of work together in the same building, but you know, maybe state houses is a little bit like that, but the CA Capitol hill is really super unique as it relates to that kind of , uh, coordination and cooperation amongst, amongst , um , colleagues.

Speaker 2:

Yeah. And it's cool. And you can , you could just like, it's not like the white house where you're in certain rooms you could like in the hill, you know, you're wandering the halls and you're, you are finding pictures and your , the members you need mm-hmm <affirmative> and I think that's why reporters like work in the hill cuz they don't have to go through, you know, any kind of , um, prep situation. They could just run into the member, you know, mm-hmm <affirmative> in the subway or whatever it is . Right, right. Yeah. So you could , you could find like little pockets of pictures here and there. Absolutely.

Speaker 1:

Can you think of one or , um, is there like, is there , is there a subject, is there someone that you find to be like more , um, fun to photograph or is there someone on the hill that you say like, oh , I'm gonna grab that person cuz they're always good at whatever.

Speaker 2:

Uh, well as far as picture Nancy, Pelosi's very animated, so she's good to photograph mm-hmm <affirmative> but like as far as just running into people, I really love running into uh , Patrick way . He from Vermont because he's an amateur photographer and his son-in-law is a photographer. So he's always, he's always talking to us about pictures and cameras and like what gear we're using and stuff like that. Mm-hmm <affirmative> super cool. Yeah. He's one of my favorite senators. That is

Speaker 1:

Super cool. Mm-hmm <affirmative> um , so, okay. So we get to, we get through the end of the day and you've filed all your photos and you've done all your things. What kinds of, what you been doing socially over the last 18 months? Is there anything in particular, like have you been seeing more games? Have you been getting out town to do anything fun? What kinds of things are keeping you busy on

Speaker 2:

The weekends? Well, yesterday was like our first big work, happy hour . So that was exciting to see all my work colleagues out. I bet that that hadn't happened in a while. Mm-hmm <affirmative> even though it was for going away for people, it was so fun to see everybody mm-hmm <affirmative> um, and yeah , got to a NA game, got to a pool party. So it's yeah. It's definitely exciting to see people. It's good

Speaker 1:

To see everybody. Yeah . Yeah . I haven't seen you in a while and what's super, I think, and the thing that I talk about all the time on the podcast is what I love about our , uh , space that we're in here in DC is that communicators and , uh , and journalists, we really do spend a lot of time seeing one another. There's about, you know, if , if there's 500 of us or whatever it is, it's really a nice , um , group of, of friends and colleagues that work together well. And , and for 18 months we haven't been able to see one another. So it really feels like a full emergence. Um , after all this

Speaker 2:

Time, I know I saw one of my , uh , Senate friends yesterday . I'm like we have to out do some like kinda hacks and FLAS happy hour type

Speaker 1:

Situation. We're long pass due for the hacks. And FLAS in fact maybe the Friday reporter will host one <laugh> cause I , I think we need it. It would be super fun to see everybody. Oh yeah. That ,

Speaker 2:

That's a good idea.

Speaker 1:

So Tom , uh, okay, so cool. So you're getting back to see everybody, but what are you most looking forward to doing this weekend?

Speaker 2:

So this weekend's the fourth and normally I'd hope to do some kind of something social, but I'm trying to lay low because to your question on Monday, this coming Monday, I'm flying out to San Diego for NATS pages . Awesome . Then up to San Francisco for NATS giants. So I do a little baseball tour.

Speaker 1:

I love it. Have you been to either of those

Speaker 2:

Parks before I've been to giants and it's amazing thing . It's probably the best part I've been to. Oh, that's cool. And I've not been to San Diego , so I'm very curious to see if , um, NAS fans travel as well as Penn state fans. <laugh> cause you know, I've been to numerous Penn state football away games and it's kind of a scene, but all

Speaker 1:

Right , well let us report back. Will you please? Okay. Well we're looking forward to a full report, Tom. Thanks so much again for being with us. The last question for the podcast is always who would you recommend for a future episode of the Friday reporter?

Speaker 2:

Mm , maybe like , um , my colleague Neils Ky a role call . He was a Senate guy for a long time and he's at the white house now . So maybe that would be like an interesting, yeah , that'd be great . One mm-hmm <affirmative> or as far as the , to journalists go , um, Scott , apple white at AP he's , uh , he's been on the hill for , uh , like 10 years or something, but he was a white house guy for like quite a while. Awesome. And he was also in the chamber and he's got an interesting story about that. So I will , I'll

Speaker 1:

Put 'em both on my list cause I'm always happy. Always happy to take. Good recommendations. You guys always know who's fun and interesting and has good stories to tell. Right? Well, Tom Williams, I'm thrilled to have you. I'm so glad you were with me. And I look forward to , uh , well, I look forward to hosting a happy hour with you sometime very, very soon. Okay, good. We have it on record now . And that's today's Friday reporter podcast, a podcast in partnership with PR daily, a tremendous and helpful guide for all things, public relations. Find us there on their website and join us again for another episode soon.