Barack Obama's shadow - the man who films the president
- 23 April 2011
- From the section US & Canada
For a year, Arun Chaudhary has been producing the White House's first-ever online video diary, West Wing Week, charting the president's activities. The US administration hopes it will offer greater transparency, but critics say it borders on propaganda.
Not many people can claim that the president of the United States possibly saved their life, but for Arun Chaudhary, it is one of the many stories he shares about working in close proximity to Barack Obama.
Mr Chaudhary trails the president on a daily basis, and it was on a trip to China that he had his near-miss.
"I was filming the president, and all of a sudden he was starting to look concerned.
"I thought, 'was I filming the wrong thing, how can I possibly be, there's a million cameras right now?', but I was actually about to walk off a little cliff, which luckily he stopped me from doing," he says, without a hint of drama.
Described as Barack Obama's shadow, Mr Chaudhary is often seen in the background with a camera to capture every move.
"The president asked me the other day when I was going to stop carrying this toy around," jokes Mr Chaudhary, pointing to his small video camera.
For decades, US presidents have had stills photographers to capture key events, while military videographers have also filmed set-piece moments. But Mr Chaudhary is the first official White House videographer.
He goes on about two-thirds of the president's trips, sharing a similar level of access as Pete Souza, the official White House photographer.
That means travelling in the presidential motorcade, on the helicopter and filming in the Oval Office. But, while Pete Souza might be capturing 99% of what the president does, Mr Chaudhary says he is party to 75%.
"People are always asking me when I get kicked out of the room, what are the signals? That doesn't happen because I am self-policing, and the instant I feel that people in the room are thinking about me being there... I like to be gone the very second after," he says.
Mr Chaudhary's edited footage makes up a weekly video webcast known as the West Wing Week. Everything he posts has to be approved by the White House press office, a filter critics argue makes the videos nothing more than press releases.
The West Wing Week, which recently celebrated its first anniversary, is posted on YouTube and the White House website. YouTube hits alone average in the thousands, but many more people watch the videos through the official website, Mr Chaudhary says.
"My favourite thing to film is what I call 'awkward world leader moments', which are basically world leaders having chit-chat like you and I would," says Mr Chaudhary.
"Most people don't think, 'what would I actually have to talk about if the prime minister of the Netherlands plopped down next to me,' but when you're the president that's what you're thinking about all the time. I just love capturing those moments."
Gathering this type of footage requires a level of trust that he says has been been built up since he started filming Barack Obama during his presidential campaign.
"He thinks I'm a funny guy, that's why he keeps me around - on the campaign, he called me 'funny man'," he says.
David Almacy, who was the White House internet director under President George W Bush, argues that while the idea of West Wing Week is "intriguing", it is an unnecessary expense.
"It is taxpayer funded and the videographer has the ability to take scenes and edit them the way they wish, and when you have a White House press corps that's a hundred of feet away from the Oval Office," he says.
"The videographer is a federal employee, the power of editing could cause some concerns about perceived propaganda.
"With average views between 5,000 and 10,000 for most West Wing Weeks (with a few exceptions), one could argue that the costs associated with producing the weekly instalments aren't providing much value to citizens, especially in tough economic times when Congress and the White House are looking for ways to cut the budget," adds Mr Almacy.
That is a sentiment felt by some White House correspondents, who believe that Mr Chaudhary gets access and notification of some events that they are not invited to.
One journalist, who asked not to be named, said some members of the press corps "resent" the access Mr Chaudhary gets, adding that sometimes events appear on West Wing Week that were closed to the press.
"What the journalists do here at the White House and what I do are very different tasks," says Mr Chaudhary.
"They're here to inform the American people about the daily goings on and positions of the administration. I'm freed up to take a long view of things, and so I think often times we'll be in the same room but getting different things."
The role of a bespoke videographer shadowing a world leader is not unique to the US. Others including Russia's Dmitry Medvedev and Canada's Stephen Harper have their own cameramen documenting their activities.
The UK's David Cameron has had his own West Wing Week-style video blog - Webcameron - although his personal videographer Nicky Woodhouse was taken off the public payroll after much criticism.
Mr Chaudhary has recently compiled some West Wing Week "Despatches" which have taken him to Sudan and Iraq, to show the administration's policies in action. He hopes to expand this to show what is going on in the White House beyond just the president's activities.
But those who want to see more of the behind the scenes-style footage of Barack Obama shooting hoops on the basketball court, or hanging out with his family will be disappointed.
Mr Chaudhary says he has filmed some of this, but it has not been released and will instead go, like everything he records, into the presidential archives as is required by law.
Critics say that in itself is a form of censorship, and argue that the West Wing Week should go further in showing a different side of the president.
But for Mr Chaudhary, West Wing Week is an important step towards opening up the workings of government for all to see.
"I think people enjoy seeing how their institutions work from the inside, and they're going to demand more of it," he says.