Around the Nation
3:19 pm
Sun January 19, 2014

Clear, Sharp And Properly Exposed: How A Photo Made A Career

Originally published on Mon February 17, 2014 3:29 pm

As part of a new series called "My Big Break," All Things Considered is collecting stories of triumph, big and small. These are the moments when everything seems to click, and people leap forward into their careers.

On Jan. 18, 1990, Washington, D.C., Mayor Marion Barry was arrested for possession and use of crack cocaine in a hotel room during an FBI sting.

Meanwhile, at The Washington Post, intern Bill O'Leary was waiting for his first real assignment.

"I had been administrative staff at the Post. It's pretty much clerical, background work. And I was anxious to get out on the street with a camera," he tells NPR's Arun Rath. "An editor comes running in and says, 'There's a rumor that the mayor has been arrested.' For this to be happening was a monstrous local story."

Staff photographers were quickly dispatched to the FBI office at Buzzard's Point to cover the developing story. Two people were left behind.

"Just me and one of the older photographers who had been going through a divorce and had asked for light duty," O'Leary says.

Their editor sent them to Barry's house as backup in case the other photographers missed him.

Shortly after O'Leary and his colleague arrived at his home, an FBI SUV pulled up and four men exited the vehicle. One of the individuals was Mayor Marion Barry.

O'Leary raised his camera to take a picture, but an FBI agent got in his way and started to push him back. But then a competitor for Channel 4 News started running up, shouting questions at the mayor. The agent turned toward the commotion.

"At that instant, I get off this one picture — BAM! — with a punch flash, direct strobe, hideous in the middle of the night," he says.

O'Leary rushed back to the office and developed the photo in the darkroom.

"I finally start to unwheel it from the spool, hold it up to a light box, and there it is. It's clear, it's sharp, it's properly exposed, and it's the mayor," he says.

It was the lead picture in the Jan. 19 issue of The Washington Post.

"It was magic," O'Leary says. "That was my big break."

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ARUN RATH, HOST:

We are collecting stories of triumph, big and small, the moments when people make those great leaps forward in their careers. We're calling it My Big Break. And we're kicking off our series with a break that happened 24 years ago today, thanks to one lucky photograph.

BILL O'LEARY: My name is Bill O'Leary. I'm a staff photographer with The Washington Post. My big break came the night Washington Mayor Marion Barry got arrested for smoking crack in a hotel room during an FBI sting.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

O'LEARY: Leading up to that point, I had been administrative staff at The Post. It's pretty much clerical background work. And I was anxious to get out on the street with a camera, you know, make a real contribution. So I got a new boss who gave me an internship. So a month into this internship, an editor comes running in and says, there's a rumor that the mayor has been arrested. For this to be happening was a monstrous local story.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

O'LEARY: It's true, the mayor has been arrested. He's being held at the FBI Buzzard Point center, and we are going to flood the zone. We're going to have people at every intersection and every corner of the building, and we're going to get the mayor when he comes out of that building. So they dispatch all the heavy hitters off to their assignments, and there's two or three people left - just me and one of the older photographers who had been going through a divorce and had asked for light duty.

So my boss looks at us, and he says, and you two guys, why don't you go out to his house just in case we miss him. It's now close to midnight. It's January. It's very cold and dark and quiet. My colleague takes the front of the house, and I take the back. The back of the house is off of an ally. And sure enough, vehicle pulls up, SUV with smoked windows. And the door opens and four men get out. And damn, there he is. There's Marion Barry.

So I raise my camera, but before I can take a picture, this big, beefy FBI agent blocks me, puts his hand on my lens and starts pushing me back. At that moment, I hear a commotion. And at the end of the ally, a competitor, Joe Johns of Channel 4 News, he has arrived at the end of the ally. He's seeing that he's missing it, so he's taken off on foot, and he's yelling at the top of his lungs, Mr. Mayor, what were you doing in that hotel room, something like that.

Well, this alarms the FBI agent, who stops worrying about me and turns to intercept this new threat. At that instant, I get off this one picture, bam, with a punch flash direct strobe hideous in the middle of the night. So I get in the car, and I go rushing back, running into our darkroom, close the door and lock it, begin the process. When I finally start to unwheel it from the spool, hold it up to a light box, and there it is. It's clear, sharp, it's properly exposed, and it's the mayor.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

O'LEARY: It was our lead picture, an incredible scoop. Everyone wanted it. We got picked up by all the wires, all the magazines. It was magic, is the only way to describe it, I think. And that's what happened. That's - that was my big break.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RATH: That was Bill O'Leary. He's a staff photographer for The Washington Post. We want to hear the story of your big break. Send us an email at My Big Break at npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.