The Atlantic recently assigned me portraits of French Ambassador Gérard Araud in honor of his retirement from the diplomatic community.
I’d been to the residency for parties, including one in which Andre Leon Talley sat in a gilded chair by the front door in flowing robes, refusing to get up as he said with a wink, “The party will come to me, dahling!”. That perfectly sums up the feeling of the residence and its inhabitants! It’s a breath of fresh air in Washington, where being appropriate and tasteful to the point of taste-less is de rigueur. I’ve always been fascinated by the unique mix of glamour and intellectualism in the diplomatic community, and no where shows that off more than the residences. Embassies are offices, but the often opulent residences are where the real business of diplomacy is often conducted in ballrooms and sitting rooms with vaulted ceilings over afternoon espressos and late night cocktails. The French ambassador’s residence is known for being one of the most beautiful in town; the classical mansion in the Kalorama neighborhood welcomes guests with a sweeping drive, gilded detailing, and mix of classical design with mid-century touches. It feels like a little world unto itself, with the house staff going about their daily routines, the sound of tinkling china in the background and croissants fresh from the oven as international affairs are discussed in the drawing room. It’s like every fantasy you’ve ever had about what Washington is like when Vogue comes to town - because of course, this is where they go when they do. It is truly, deeply wonderful, a magical place in the heart of the city. I arrived early for the shoot to scout locations with the house manager and his staff, and we crept giggling through the entry hall to avoid disturbing the ambassador’s afternoon meeting.
I had met the ambassador while covering galas for the Washington Post, and his reputation preceded him. He’s known for his flamboyant, raucous parties (he’s an out gay man in the diplomatic community - a rare bird!), impeccable suits, and lack of verbal filter. I always found him to be completely charming, so I was excited to photograph him.
There’s a level of pedantic seriousness to photographs of politicians that I find impersonal and boring - the Classic Statesman photo has been done for so long! These photos are often used to reinforce gendered power dynamics; male politicians are shot quite differently than their female counterparts. To combat those norms, I try to show women with strength and men with softness. It’s not often that you see powerful people depicted accessibly or as “real people”. But everyone puts their pants on one leg at a time and politicians are public servants, so I felt it was important to remove that level of pomposity while respecting their position. Ambassadors - they’re just like us! Power is shaped by perception, and photography has the ability to redefine that perception. You can be powerful and an accessible person at the same time, and photography can help communicate that. For this shoot I wanted to show the ambassador’s sense of humor and playfulness. I scouted locations, set up lights, and after he arrived it was off to the races!
It’s rare have a politician’s full attention during a shoot, but Ambassador Araud was playful and game for suggestions during our 30 minute shoot. We shot sprawled on the sofa in the informal sitting room (that natural light!), perched on the counter in the butler’s pantry sipping a coffee and eating croissants (his favorite), popping around the gardens, and in the sparse private residence upstairs - his real home. We talked about his fastidious fancy sock collection (extensive), new apartment in NYC (modest), and favorite places to get croissants. As I do with all of my shoots, I brought joyful vibes to the shoot, engaging through storytelling and playfulness. We laugh a lot on set, and it’s important that my subjects leave feeling energized by our shoot. It’s hard work being on camera, so I work hard to make sure we are exchanging equal value. So many people are worried about looking silly, but if they know your job is to make them look amazing, it can give them permission to be more fully themselves. I love how photography can be a bridge between people!
I shot the images with a Nikon D850. Everything is available light, except the coffee photos in the butler’s pantry - for those I added a strip softbox and strobe as the key for extra sparkle on the china. The light in the residence was a dream! I never mind artificial lighting and love the control it gives, but there’s nothing like beautiful natural light.
You can read the full future in the Atlantic, and check out my favorite shots from the feature below. Au revoir Ambassador Araud!