The White House through a Lens: Photographer Joyce Naltchayan Boghosian


By Aram Arkun

Mirror-Spectator Staff

WASHINGTON — Joyce Naltchayan Boghosian has not only seen people and places most people only see on television or the news, but has captured them for posterity through her work over several decades as a photographer. Some of her photographs are used as illustrations in history books, while others may be found in the George Bush Presidential Library and the institution dedicated to the work of his son, the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum, which will open in spring 2013. She is from a well-known family of photographers, with her brothers Haik and Neshan H. Naltchayan also working in the field. It was their father, Harry (Harout) Naltchayan, who initiated the siblings into the world of photography. Born in Beirut, he and his brother had a photography studio and photographed prominent people, including the Lebanese president. According to his daughter, he began working with the American embassy and after marrying came to the US in 1958 for a safer life. He had already made some contacts with magazines such as National Geographic and Life, but when the Washington Post had a temporary opening for a photographer he started working there. His knowledge of five languages, combined with an outgoing personality, led him to end up working for the Post for 35 years. He covered national news in Washington, including important episodes of the Civil Rights movement, Watergate and presidential events, though he also traveled occasionally to places like the Middle East. He covered presidents from Dwight Eisenhower to Bill Clinton and took an award-winning photograph of four American presidents called the modern day Mt. Rushmore. Several decades later his daughter took a similar historic photograph of five living presidents.

Harry Naltchayan was the photographer of the 1978 National Geographic article, “The Proud Armenians.” He won many prizes, including four first place awards from the White House News Photographers Association.

Naltchayan lent his American-born daughter, Joyce a Leica, a high-end German camera often used by professionals, when she went on a field trip in fifth grade. Joyce Boghosian commented, “I remember my dad taking me to art galleries and saying, look at how the artist drew his pictures. This can inspire you and give you ideas.”

Boghosian continued taking pictures in high school, where she became the yearbook photographer and had an experience decisive for her future. She said, “What really inspired me to take this route was that during my senior year of high school, after the Challenger space shuttle disaster [in 1986] with Christa McAuliffe, President [Ronald] Reagan came to our school to address the students. As the yearbook photographer I was able to work next to photo journalists and the press corps and photographed President Reagan…It really gave me the bug.”

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Boghosian would accompany her father on assignments to photograph celebrities, such as Tom Cruise or Wayne Newton. She said, “I thought my dad’s job was like a front row seat. It was really exciting to see TV personalities in person and work with them.”

After high school she started working as an intern and freelance photographer with the Alexandria Gazette Packet and Fairfax Connection newspapers and began studying journalism at Northern Virginia Community College. She then got an internship at the White House for three months, during the very end of Reagan’s presidency in 1988, working for David Valdez, the photographer for the vice president.

With a small staff, Valdez relied heavily on his interns for filing, preparing contact sheets, ordering photos and responding to requests for photographs. Beyond that, Boghosian was given a special pass and allowed to take pictures of the vice president and even the president when possible. The president’s staff photographers would take her on their events, letting her shoot from a wider angle. Boghosian’s father already knew many of these people, but although he opened the door for his daughter through his contacts, Boghosian still had to work hard to succeed. She said, “You could work 12-hour days without blinking an eye in the White House because it was so exciting and interesting.”

Boghosian had just been accepted to start Marymount College in the winter of 1989, but was given a difficult choice to make. Valdez had become director of the White House Photo Office and personal photographer to the new president, George H. W. Bush, and asked Boghosian to stay on for the next four years as a photo staff assistant. She took night classes, but had scheduling conflicts when she had to travel on work to places like Oslo with Vice President Dan Quayle.

She said, “I couldn’t do both and chose my job. I don’t regret it. I think though that if I did go back to school I would study history, or, I would love to work in the National Archives.”

Valdez had three staff photographers under his direction. The president could meet anywhere from 200 to 1,000 people a day, and they all had to be photographed, because the White House photography office had to document all official business and meetings of the presidency, as well as occasional personal moments. Boghosian thus had great opportunities for work. Not only did she continue to work with contact sheets and files for Valdez, and handled some of his press requests, but she also occasionally filled in for Quayle’s photographer. During the last two years of Bush’s presidency, Boghosian got to photograph him often because one of his photographers quit and that position was never filled. Boghosian said, “In his second term I traveled a lot with him on Air Force One. I was 23, 24 years old, and thought it was so cool.”

She got to photograph many historic moments, such as when Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev met with Bush.

When Clinton was elected as president, the staff of the White House Photo Office largely changed and Boghosian traveled in Europe for six months. Upon returning to the US, she began freelancing for the Agence France-Presse (AFP) wire service, covering news events in Washington. AFP was known for seeking unique perspectives in its photos. A year later, they hired her as a staff photographer, with the White House, Capitol Hill and the Pentagon as her beat. She worked for eight years, traveling to cover Clinton in places such as Ireland, Macedonia, Kosovo and Russia.

Boghosian described what this entailed: “You look to tell a story in your pictures that newspapers want to run (unlike working in the White House). Every day was a contest with AP and Reuters to see who would be picked for covers and newspapers. I had a great time being a news photographer. It was competitive. You want to transmit your photo first on the wire while the president was still speaking. You are competitors but you are also good friends. When you are in Spain at a summit with 30 other countries all with press corps, the Americans then help each other out. But we each have a job to do, with mutual respect.”

Among her favorite memories of working at AFP was traveling to King Hussein’s funeral in Jordan with President Clinton. Boghosian said, “I was probably the only woman photographer there. I think women were not permitted at the funeral so I had to try not to attract attention to my being a woman there. My handlers were aware but did not make a big deal about it.” She covered celebrities like Elton John and Stevie Wonder playing together at a dinner for Great Britain’s Prime Minister Tony Blair and photographed the historic moment when President Clinton denied having relations with Monica Lewinsky. However one of her favorite pictures from this period is a scene of the Vietnam Memorial in Washington in snow.

Boghosian quit AFP in February 2004 to spend more time with her children. However, before President George W. Bush’s reelection campaign, Eric Draper, the president’s photographer, asked her to join his staff, and Boghosian could not turn down such an opportunity. She covered Laura Bush more and more, and tried to avoid traveling unless absolutely necessary. She left again in 2005 to have her son Armen, but when he was 1 1⁄2 years old, she went back to work for the last two years of the Bush presidency as an official White House photographer — one of the three photographers covering the president. She worked from 6:30 a.m. to 2 p.m., covering anything taking place in the Oval Office.

Boghosian recalls that “the highlights were getting to know the president better and feeling more comfortable around our leader. It was a privilege for me to be there every day, and there were a lot of candid moments I had with President Bush.” Of course, she was able to continue to photograph various world figures like Queen Elizabeth or the pope. Bush would sometimes chide her when he saw her working late at night, reminding her of her children. Once he said, “let’s take this picture with Tony Blair so that Joyce can go home.” On another occasion, he signed a baseball for her son Nareg’s birthday. Despite these exchanges, Boghosian noted, “The nature of photography at the White House is not being noticeable. You have to decide when you want to be noticed and when you do not.”

The Obama administration asked Boghosian to continue. Among other things, she did an official portrait of Michelle Obama, and she was once invited to lunch with her. Boghosian said, “It was great to watch the transition up close and get to know the first lady and president.” However, she felt that her schedule was too tiring considering her family obligations and decided to work part-time as a private photographer. Boghosian has a wide base of clients now and does portraits for law firms and even photographs the occasional wedding. However, she also still works with some of her old contacts, including the Bush family through the Bush Institute and various Washington organizations. She recently worked with the Corporation for Public Broadcasting at a launch of a documentary about oppressed women and with the Meridian International Center in Washington.

Boghosian has had the occasional encounter with Armenians while on the job. One important occasion was a delegation of Armenians coming to thank Reagan for America’s help during the earthquake. Valdez, knowing Boghosian was Armenian, asked her to photograph the event. Reagan was not available, thus President- elect George H. W. Bush took his place. Prior to the meeting Boghosian mentioned that it was Armenian Christmas and Bush asked her for an appropriate Armenian greeting. When Boghosian said, “Shnorhavor Dznunt,” he asked for something easier to say, and she substituted, “Parev,” which the president used. Boghosian also photographed Frederic (Frid) Sogoyan, who presented Bush in 1990 with a replica of the bronze sculpture “Armenian Earthquake” expressing Armenian gratitude for aid (the original is located on the north lawn of the American Red Cross National Headquarters). She had to escort him in from the White House gate as he only spoke Armenian.

Boghosian’s dream is to prepare a book from her father’s photographs of Armenians around the world. He used to do a slide show with some of those photographs, and Boghosian has permission from the Washington Post to choose from 10,000 photographs.

She thinks that it is important to document the Armenians in Washington photographically. She said, “A lot of the older ones who built our Armenian community are passing on. I think it is important to have this photographed. I do occasionally take pictures at events in our church of various individuals, and keep them on file.”

Boghosian said she feels that she has grown more mature as a photographer, and this makes it easier to get shots in situations where time is critical. She said, “Now I feel that there is so much more time, whereas before a minute would seem too short.”

She concluded, “I just want it to be known that I felt very fortunate to have witnessed the history I did from 1988 to the present. I started photographing these events of a movement for women, and also just for the younger generation. I feel fortunate to be invited into an event or the White House and document it.”

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