How a Former White House Photographer Documented a Marriage-Equality Battle
Having worked as Time magazine’s White House photographer through three presidential administrations, Diana Walker is used to capturing intimate views of history-making moments. Her images of a different kind of political drama are highlighted in the documentary “The Case Against 8,” which debuted at The Sundance Film Festival this year and has recently been shown on HBO.
During the four-year court battle to overturn Proposition 8, the law banning same-sex marriage in California which ended in the Supreme Court a year ago last month, Walker had total access to the plaintiffs, Kris Perry, Sandy Stier, Jeff Zarrillo and Paul Katami, and to the legal team working on their case, including lead attorneys David Boies and Ted Olson. Walker was on assignment from American Foundation for Equal Rights (AFER), the non-profit that funded the lawsuit. Walker calls the assignment “ideal”: “I got to do what I like to do, which is showing people doing their thing in hopes it leads to an understanding of what they do and why they do it.”
She was contacted for the assignment by Chad Griffin who was then heading AFER (Griffin is now president of the Human Rights Campaign). Walker had met Griffin when he worked on the communications team in the Clinton White House. When Griffin said he wanted to hire her to document the progress of the case to throw out Prop 8, Walker recalls, “I said, ‘What’s Prop 8?’” Though she was unfamiliar with the issue, she says, “I knew I liked Chad enormously and any project he had would be something I’d be interested in, so I said ok.”
Walker’s responsibilities were typical for an assignment for a non-profit: “Chad wanted evidence of what they’d all been through and what it looked like,” including images to share with the press and AFER donors. She photographed demonstrations, rallies, the plaintiffs going in and out of court, behind the scenes shots of meetings of the legal team and prepping the plaintiffs for testimony. Walker, who divides her time between Washington, DC, and a vacation home in Idaho, says she typically had a few days’ notice of when a verdict would be announced, or when the lawyers or plaintiffs would be making a public appearance. “I had to be available whenever they needed me,” she says. AFER allowed her total access, she says, and the plaintiffs in the case allowed her to photograph them and their families at home .
One part of the assignment, however, was unusual for Walker: She asked for a buy out, and negotiated a fee for the copyright to her images. “I said, I’m happy to do this, but I don’t want to be left sitting on my computer, sending out photos to all these different parties who are going to be interested in my stills.” Though Walker has retained the copyright to all her magazine assignments, and published two books using images in her archive (a third, about Hillary Clinton, will be published by Simon & Schuster in October), she didn’t want to handle licensing requests for the AFER images. “I am at the stage in my life where my husband and I travel a great deal. We love to be with our five grandchildren. Being available to handle frequent requests for images seemed more than I could handle or wanted to deal with.” Griffin agreed to her terms (Walker didn’t disclose her fee to PDN). Walker says she did quick edits after each shoot to “get rid of the junk,” but Griffin agreed to consult her when large batches of her images were used. For example, Walker was asked for her input when AFER provided a selection of her images to Jo Becker, author of Forcing the Spring: Inside the Fight for Marriage Equality, published this spring; and to Boies and Olson who published their own book about the case in June.
While Walker was documenting the case, she was often working alongside filmmakers Ben Cotner and Ryan White, who were shooting footage for what would become “The Case Against 8.” The film shows Walker at work, and includes many of her black-and-white portraits of the two couples at the heart of the case.
“It was so interesting to me, because they were these two sets of plaintiffs totally unused to being in the public eye, who were totally unbothered by me or the film crew,” Walker says. After four years in their company, “I got to really love the players. They were all wonderful.”
After attending a screening of “The Case Against 8,” Walker says, “I was simply delighted with the way they used my images.” The only part of the story she regrets being unable to photograph, she says, were the weddings of Perry and Stier in San Francisco and of Zarrillo and Katami in Los Angeles. After the US Supreme Court had ruled that the supporters of Proposition 8 had no standing to appeal the case (on the same day the Court ruled the federal Defense of Marriage Act was unconstitutional), California’s high court had to issue a ruling that same-sex marriages could begin again in the state. Walker was out of town the morning the order was issued, when the plaintiffs went straight to their local court houses to get their marriage licenses and be married.
“But I was there at the Supreme Court,” Walker says. “That was great.”