Hyde Park, Chicago, IL, October 2, 2006 Obama and the girls get breakfast and wash the dishes. This morning he took the girls to school and Michelle Obama went to work. Image: Callie Shell.

Before the White House: Four stunning new images of Barack, Michelle & co

Today, longtime Time photographer Callie Shell releases a book of intimate images taken over more than a decade she spent photographing the Obamas. Hope, Never Fear is not a love-fest, she insists: “it is, instead, my personal portrait of a journey that changed us all for the better.” 

Here is the book’s introduction, abridged. 

I first met Barack Obama at a rally for Senator John Kerry in Chicago on April 4, 2004. I was there to photograph Kerry for Time magazine; he was there to introduce Kerry at the rally.

I liked him instantly. He was charismatic, funny, and engaging. I watched him hang out in the back hallway while Kerry took interviews. He said hello to everyone – not just Kerry’s staff, but the janitor, the building staff, and the union workers. He was personable, with a genuine smile. Eventually he made his way over to me, and said, “What do you do?” We started talking about our kids, his youngest being the same age as my son, Hunter. We joked that we were both tall and had big ears, and that we had both married up in life; that we had great spouses. I thought at the time that I could see myself being friends with him.

Yankee Kitchen Family Restaurant, Boardman, OH, August 30, 2008 The Obamas share breakfast with vice-presidential running mate Joe Biden and his wife, Jill. They were on a bus tour through Ohio. Image: Callie Shell.

When he went onto the floor, I was surprised at the enthusiastic response. People were so excited to see him that the applause he received was louder than it was for Kerry. I took a lot of photographs of him that day, and when my editor at Time joked that I must be getting bored photographing Kerry, I told her that I thought Obama might run for president one day. A few months later, he gave the keynote address at the Democratic National Convention in Boston, and suddenly everyone was talking about him. My editor said, “So this is the guy, the one you’ve been talking about!” Later that year he won the election for U.S. Senate in Illinois, and I asked Time if I could photograph his freshman year as a senator. That was the start of my journey with the Obamas.

I first met Michelle at her home in Hyde Park, a Chicago neighborhood, as she sat at her kitchen table, balancing her checkbook, checking her Blackberry, and talking with her daughters, Sasha and Malia. I was there on assignment, spending a few days with Obama for Time. She was exactly what he said she was – strong, gorgeous, funny, and wise beyond her years. She told me, “We are big on hugs in this family,” and welcomed me into her home without question. She warned me that my profile of her husband was going to “make his head bigger than it already is,” adding fondly: “Whatever you do, just don’t put him on the cover.” We did.

Columbia, SC, January 26, 2008 In a hotel room the morning of the South Carolina primary, which they won later. Image: Callie Shell

I was simultaneously awed by this amazing woman, who seemed to balance her career and family so easily, and frightened by the reality of what a presidential campaign would mean for the Obamas should her husband decide to run. There was no doubt in my mind that she would be an incredible First Lady, or that he would be an extraordinary president. But I felt a gnawing sense of dread – here they were, both so down to earth, and completely obsessed with their kids. They had what seemed like the perfect family life.

That same day, after the family served themselves cereal for breakfast, I took a picture of Obama washing the dishes with the girls. I couldn’t help but feel that this life would soon be gone. There would be no more washing dishes, no more balancing the checkbook at the kitchen table, no more dropping the kids at school—all simple things that we perhaps take for granted, until they’re gone.

After eight years [as official photographer to] Vice President Gore, I felt an innate desire to swoop in and stop this family before the madness of a presidential campaign could begin.

Lincoln Memorial, Washington, DC, January 18, 2009 President-elect Barack Obama attends, with his family and the Bidens, the “We are One” Inaugural Welcome Concert on the Mall. Image: Callie Shell.


A year into office, while in his limousine as he read the paper, I asked him if he was glad he had taken on the presidency. He acknowledged that there was no going back now, but said yes, he was glad. People would always ask me if I felt he changed while in office. To me, a person does not change in their role as president; instead I think the office reveals who you are.

Images © Callie Shell, from Hope, Never Fear by Callie Shell.

From Hope, Never Fear by Callie Shell (Upstart Press, $34.99).

The Spinoff is made possible by the generous support of the following organisations.
Please help us by supporting them.