Pete Marovich

The Politics of a Democracy

When it comes to politics in the United States, Washington, D.C. is ground zero. This is where it all happens, or doesn’t happen as many would complain.

As a photojournalist covering politics, I have a front row seat to history as our democracy works in all of its magnificence and sometimes its ugliness.

At the White House I have been witness to the President meeting with world leaders, signing bills into law, bestowing honors on soldiers and civilians and sometimes answering tough questions from an inquiring press corps.



Covering the halls of Congress is an experience like no other. A place where politicians snipe at each other one minute and pat each other on the back the next. One minute you can see Senators having a heated debate over a divisive topic like healthcare and later you might see the same Senators chatting it up like old golfing buddies.

Photographing a hearing where Secretary of State Clinton is being grilled on the tragedy in Benghazi or watching Senator Robert Byrd take the owner of a collapsed coal mine in his beloved state of West Virginia to task is about as real as it gets. And having a vantage point sitting in the area between the witnesses and the Members of Congress puts you right in the center of the action.

An then of course there is the spectacle of everyday citizens rallying and marching to have their voices heard. Whether in favor or in protest, the ability of the people to speak freely is one of this country’s most valued and defended rights. It seems you never have to wait long for a protest to pop up in D.C., and every time one does it is just further proof that Democracy is alive and well.

The politics not withstanding.




Pete Marovich is an award-winning photojournalist based in Washington, D.C. He is currently working as a freelancer, contributing to Bloomberg News Photos, McClatchy-Tribune Photo Service, Getty Images, European PressPhoto Agency, United Press International, and SIPA Press. His archive is represented by CORBIS.

His photography has appeared in Time Magazine, The New York Times, Newsweek, The Financial Times, The Christian Science Monitor, Esquire, The Wall Street Journal, Mother Jones, Sports Illustrated, Woman’s World, The Huffington Post, Politico, Essence, Bloomberg Businessweek, The Chronicle of Higher Education and The Daily Beast.

Pete lives in the Washington, D.C. metro area with his wife, Jenny, and their two cats.


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30 thoughts on “Pete Marovich – The Politics of a Democracy”

  1. A few months ago I came across the notion that rhetoric’s essential purpose was to enable the efficient operation of the city. This is a grand idea; that the reason behind communication being the promise of a better life, it addresses the notions of who we are, where we come from, and where we are going. These are also concepts prevalent in art, to which I was first introduced to in Gauguin’s painting ( ) and later in the writings of the critic, Robert Hughes, who holds this to be the ultimate purpose of Art.

    I look upon Pete’s essay as an exercise in visual rhetoric, covering the idea of rhetoric being the root source of the balancing act in politics. Plenty of people have a jaded cynicism towards government because it doesn’t provide them with what they want, but this essay addresses how Washington’s compromising, give-and-take approach, eventually and slowly propels its citizenry forward. The art and rhetoric of photography, covering the art and rhetoric of governing.

  2. Sorry Jeff, looks to me like a gaggle of creepy old white guys (and a creepy old white women) looking some combination of furtive, scheming and depressed. Pretty much the opposite of Gauguin’s masterpiece.

  3. Terrific work, Pete. Both the pictures and your words show that, despite your long and intimate proximity to Washington DC’s circles of power, you yourself have not become cynical.

  4. Pete! Fantastic to see your work here. Finding unique moments in the whirlwind surrounding politicians is not easy. Most of the time you’re herded like cattle, so I know how tough this can be. Well done.

  5. Before responding to Jeff above, I should have mentioned how much I like the work. Strong, meaningful compositions, every one. My only constructive criticism concerns #26, a photo I’ve always liked, and like much better in color. It just seems out of place here.

    As for the their meaning, I’m sure Pete has his ideas but given the who, what, where and the whys of the thing, I suspect it’s more of a rorschach test for most of us. I see the furtive, alternatively smug and vaguely guilty looks of fundamentally dishonest people in the process of grifting. I look at #2 and see an observation that much of what happens in the government takes place in the shadows. Overall, I think it’s a subtly damning portrait of our politics.

    But of course Pete keeps it professional in the statement and cutlines and I think that’s something we can appreciate in and of itself given the nature of his gig. Too many people give short shrift to the ideal of objectivity in journalism, but we all were better served when there was much more pressure to practice it.

  6. Thanks to David for hounding me enough to get me to send this work in for publication on BURN. I sometimes have trouble editing things like this so I sent him about 40 images and got him to the the heavy lifting. Of course he did an excellent job. Also thanks to everyone for the kind words.

    I do want to make it clear that there is no “meaning” in this essay. What I do is simple documentary photojournalism. I witness and I make images of what I see. Most of this was shot on assignment for news agencies and there is no agenda.

    This is simply a collection of images that document the political landscape in Washington, D.C. over a short period of time. I present it in B&W to distill it down to the reality of what it is without the distraction of color when some images might be prettier than others. (example MW comment on #26, which can be viewed in color here:

    If there has to be a meaning, then the meaning is that “this is what happened.”

    As a photojournalist in the front row of what some call a three-ring circus (White House, Congress and the Supreme Court), I though I would share some of my impressions in response to a few of the comments above. I am not defending anyone, just trying to shed some light on what actually goes on here. There are many times while on Capitol Hill that I think, “I can’t believe he just said that.” Sometimes you can get so irritated you just want to raise your hand and in that Suzanne Sugarbaker from Designing Women voice, yell out “EXCUSE ME!”

    My job is to be objective. If I were to be known for letting my opinions affect my image making, it would not be long before it would limit my access. I photograph people on both sides of an issue with the same respect and dignity that they deserve.

    I will say that spending time on Capitol Hill causes one to take a more pragmatic view on politics in this country.

    First off, I think one of the biggest misconceptions of Congress is that they don’t do anything. I think there is a subtile distinction to be made here. While Congress, as a whole, does not seem to get much accomplished these days, it is not because the lawmakers are not doing anything. I have shadowed many Senators and Representatives for a day and trust me when I say they are busy. Their schedules are so tight with hearings, meetings with constituents, lobbyists and the random vote that pops up to disrupt the flow, that it amazes me anything gets done.

    The majority are smarter than most people give them credit for also. I have sat though many hearings when John Kerry was chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and then Secretary of State. While you may not agree with his politics, I can tell you his knowledge of world affairs and the nuances of the positions of foreign governments is encyclopedic.

    On the other side I can give you Ted Cruz. Here is someone who can ignite rage in people. He is a lawyer by trade and I photographed him speaking to a group about the Constitution and rule of law. Again, you may not like his politics, but I assure you that he is not an idiot by any stretch. He knows the Constitution and the law, and very impressively, the history of both.

    Another common thread you hear is that politicians are dishonest. To be sure there have been more than a few who have got their hands caught in the cookie jar or on some intern or “other woman”. But when it comes to looking out for their constituents back home or the entities that helped get them elected, the reality is, that is their job.

    Politicians will always be looking out for the people that put them there in the first place. The rest of the country may not be happy about some deal that a congressman made to get a factory in his hometown, but the people in his hometown are happy. And it was those people that elected him to do exactly that.

    I am sure politicians would love to please everyone, but they can’t. I truly believe that 99% of people who go into politics on a national level really want to change the culture of politics and make a difference. The reality is that once they get there they realize that it is just not that easy. Some leave and some stay and try to do the best they can.

    A democracy might be the greatest form of government, but it is a very messy process.

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  9. PETE

    First off , thanks for the fine work …Washington is a strange place, and these are strange pictures that reflect that endemic “strangeness”….brass and marble and formal and flags and meetings and press and well you gotta be ïnto” Washington to “get it”..

    However, I do believe what you say here…..All the stuff that is our infrastructure is stuff politicians got done….i did not build a school, politicians did….i did not make the highway i drive on..politicians did…i did not turn 5 million acres into a Nat Park, politicians did….yea, they get a bad rap…and of course in a democracy that is part of the deal….thin skin is something politicians cannot have…honestly it seems like a really thankless job…and sure there are crooks among them and philanderers etc….yet as you say, MOST actually have good things to do on their mind in the first place…(except Republicans!!) joking joking geez…

    cheers, David

  10. The logic of journalistic objectivity is two part. Pete describes the part as it applies to the journalist quite well. If there is any meaning, it is this happened and this is what it looked like. For the viewer, however, objectivity by the journalist allows the possibility of intelligent subjectivity: it give him or her the possibility of forming sound opinions based on what really happened, not some journalist’s subjective view and rhetorical result of it. So even though the words are the same, there’s an immense difference between Pete presenting something as what is happening and us seeing what is happening. And multiple viewpoints resulting from the same objective facts can emerge. Maybe I see dishonest grifters skulking in the shadows and vain empty suits fluffing themselves in the limelight whereas Jeff or David see flawed individuals making the best of a corrupt environment to get things done. Those views are not mutually exclusive.

    But I’d add that when one gets into choosing the best compositions to show what is happening, they inevitably communicate more than just what is happening. Otherwise, they wouldn’t be very good compositions.

  11. When people refer to a “do nothing congress”, they’re not talking about meetings, hearings, votes or schmoozing lobbyists. Some of us are unimpressed with a bunch of millionaires flitting about doing busy-work. There are certainly exceptions to the rule, but by and large…

    And also, there is no such thing as objectivity.

  12. “So much for Objective Journalism. Don’t bother to look for it here–not under any byline of mine; or anyone else I can think of. With the possible exception of things like box scores, race results, and stock market tabulations, there is no such thing as Objective Journalism. The phrase itself is a pompous contradiction in terms.” ~ Hunter S Thompson.

  13. There is a technical convention in portrait photography where the vertical film-plane angle relative to the subject will change the psychological intent of the image. The camera held low, angled upwards, will make the subject look powerful and authoritative; held even, democratic; from above, yielding, sensitive or guilty.

    Deconstructing Pete’s essay along these lines, I count half the images shot level, roughly a third from below, and a handful from above. In the sense that Pete uses all these angles, I agree with him that he shoots what he sees, but even these particular decisions of camera angle options suggests a subconscious editorial bent on his part. That is, in the sense it’s not normal to shoot with the camera at knee-to-hip height, why does Pete do it as often as he does, unless there is a compositional or psychological reason and bias for doing so? (Leaving out those moments in a scrum, where the photographer has no other choice but to shoot in a position has he been able to squeeze himself into…see image #5.)How would we have read image #23 differently, where President Obama is about to receive a pat on the head from a little boy, if Pete had shot from below or head-on, instead of above?

    These decisions on the taking, and the hard editing on David’s part, influence the viewer’s reading of the essay. I think it’s just as impossible for the photographer to be impartial and objective to the moment at hand, as it is for the viewer not to allow preconceptions and prejudices to influence their take on the work. Pete and David give us a full range of what happens in the Capitol, and that even-handedness allows Michael and me to view the story along different lines. Still, it’s a juggling act between photographer, editor and viewer, all of whom add their own unintentional subjective biases while trying to be fair minded and objective about the work.

  14. I am sorry but AS a journalist, I have to say this.

    Quoting Hunter S. Thompson is the last refuge for people criticizing journalism who have no idea what they are talking about. Anyone who does, proves my point.

    Thompson’s first person writing style where he is a protagonist is not journalism. Great reading, yes, journalism, no.

    Thompson himself said he was not a reporter.

    Now as far as objectivity, sure there are reporters and networks who take a position in their reporting. I, and most of the photojournalists I know do not.There are also many good writers who explain the issues and leave it up to the reader to form an opinion. Sure we may be motivated by our feelings to take up a particular story, but we do not let our preconceived ideas influence how we shoot or edit. Yes we call that objectivity. We also call it honesty and integrity. It is not my job as a photojournalist, to tell you what to think. I try to give all the facts as much as one can in picture and captions. It is the viewers job to analyze, gather more information and make their own opinions.

    This is the general problem with the electorate as a whole. Too many people make broad statements, about something they know little about, to be able to take a position and enhance a persona that they want to project.

    The images above are presented as they happened. The captions explain the photos and put them in context without being slanted or trying to push an agenda.

    Now if you want to say that some of the comments here are not objective… I would have to agree with you.


    As I was about to post this I saw Jeff’s comment… and I am sorry Jeff but you are also making my point.

    “even these particular decisions of camera angle options suggests a subconscious editorial bent on his part.”

    There is NO subconscious editorial bent. It is just the situation at hand.

    Some examples:

    #4 – Low angle because we are required If we want to shoot from a more head-on view in this room we have to be low. there are seated reporters and TV cameras directly behind us.

    #5. Did not actually have to squeeze in here. There is nobody around me. It was shot this way to keep the TV light out of the picture, to show the Senator surrounded by the throng of reporters (sense of place), and also to show the legs of the women in what has been traditionally a boy’s club.

    #7. The General is shot from here to get a clean background and eliminate the clutter of moving people behind him. Why? First it is a better portrait. Second, a lot of magazines like dead space around a frame in case they need to run a headline or type. A shot similar to this got me a double page spread in Newsweek.

    #19. Shot from a high angle to get the crowd to fill the frame behind the doll on the cross to illustrate that there were a lot of people there. Otherwise it would have been a cross with a doll and blue sky. I would submit here that IF I had an agenda (I am pro-choice) I would have chosen to shoot it the other way and make it appear as if there was no crowd. THAT would be dishonest.

    #23. President with boy. Was shot from the balcony of Statuary Hall in the Capitol. Do you see the police and secret service around him? We did not have access to the floor. Only the White House Travel pool did. Prefer not to get shot and keep my credentials.

    Finally, anything shot in a hearing room during a hearing HAS to be from a low angle. We sit in the “well” between the Congressmen and the people appearing before the committees. We are required to stay below the Senators or Representatives line of sight.

    I would suggest that some are spending way too much time analyzing with preconceived notions instead of just taking it for what it is, objective photojournalism while working with the situation I am presented.

    While I welcome comments and constructive criticism, but I would prefer that if someone has a question about how or why something was done, to just ask instead of making statements about intent without all of the facts.

    More than happy to answer anything anyone wants to know.

  15. A long time ago I came to the conclusion that it is usually not that people cannot be taught, it is that they don’t want to learn.

    I am not going to get into a linguistic and semantic discussion about this. I am trying to explain to readers here, who do not spend time on Capitol Hill, how it works and what goes on there (as opposed to people’s opinions, impressions or beliefs about it).

    I am also trying to explain, to people who might be interested to learn, how photojournalists work within a strict ethical framework and how we adhere to the belief that the work be both honest AND impartial in telling a story. At least that is how I work as do the people with whom I associate.

  16. I think I’m seeing the problem here. Lest anyone think otherwise, in all my dealings with Pete Marovich he has been nothing but straight forward and honest. I believe his integrity is unquestioned. I just happen to associate myself with the thoughts of those like HST (and he’s far from the only one who feels that way) when it come to the quaint notion of journalistic objectivity. C-span cameras in the back of the Senate chambers are objective. Stenographers are objective.

    I was in no way attacking or questioning Pete’s integrity. Sorry if it came off that way. Totally not intended.

  17. Pete:

    First: In regard to my comments about image #5, it wasn’t your positioning I was referring to, but the scrum itself. I realize the limitations and restrictions you endure in Washington, which flows into our comments regarding #23.

    Second, I think your impartiality IS your editorial bias. This comes through loud and clear in your opening statement. You deal with powerful Democrats and Republicans who have to fight one another and work with one another. It makes sense to remain neutral; that comes through.

    Don’t confuse impartiality with objectivity; don’t think subjectivity means taking sides through your images. Your subjectivity is the thought behind your work. It includes your impartiality just as much as it includes the way you take all the limitations and restrictions, like lighting, distance and space, and wrest good images from all that.

    Let’s face it – if you didn’t think through your photography, if you weren’t subjective about it, then how is it your work would differ from that of anyone else?

  18. Wonderful work! Love your eye for composition and your ability to capture those mini-decisive moments that would be so easy to overlook in such frequently-mundane circumstances.

  19. I will avoid the philosophical discussion to state how greatly I admire this work. To the degree time allows, I am a bit of a news junkie and I see most of the people pictured here on a regular basis on my tv screen, iPhone, computer monitor, iPad and occasionally on paper, but by and large you show them to me as I see them nowhere else.

    And I am most impressed to learn you live with two cats. My admiration for you only grows…

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