Veteran AFP Photographer Shares What It Was Like to Document the Singapore Summit
Saul Loeb has been covering the White House as a staff photographer for Agence France-Presse since 2007, covering three different presidencies, but he says attending and photographing the summit between President Trump and Kim Jong Un in Singapore this week was "the most surreal experience" of his career.
"Here you have the North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, who hardly any Americans have seen in person, shaking hands with the president of the United States, Donald Trump, who probably is the most famous man in the entire world," says Loeb, who spoke to Town & Country hours after returning from Singapore with the president on Air Force One.
"After that handshake photo, we photographers just looked at each other and said, 'Wow, did that really just happen?'"
HERE'S HOW LOEB BROKE DOWN THE DAY:
"We were at the site from 6 a.m. until 7 p.m. After going through three levels of security, one for the U.S. Secret Service, one for Singapore's security services, and one for North Korean security (who used little rectangular boxes with antennas that looked like old pocket radios to check out our gear), I accidentally walked into a decorative pond in the hotel's lobby, nearly tripping and falling with all my cameras trying to get out.
It was one of those zero entry water fountain features, but someone had turned off the fountain part so the water was perfectly still and completely invisible in the predawn hours. It would've been difficult to explain to my editors why all my camera equipment got fried, but luckily all I lost was my dignity and soaked the lower half of my pants and shoes. Water and electronics do not play well together."
"The summit itself began at 9
"They came out from opposite sides and walked at almost the exact same speed to end up
BOTH LEADERS SEEMED STOIC AT FIRST:
"For that initial handshake they both had small smiles, but there wasn't a lot of emotion on either side."
THE MOMENT THAT CHANGED:
"After that handshake, they walked off to the side and they had a more unscripted handshake and that photo (above) ended up on the front of the Washington Post and a couple of other papers. They have much larger smiles, there's more interaction between the two of them."
"At one point they put their hands on each other’s backs and there was more genuine emotion. That was the most memorable moment for me. It seemed like they both really wanted to be there."
President Trump walks with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un during a break in talks at their historic U.S.-North Korea summit at the Capella Hotel on Sentosa island in Singapore on June 12.
LOEB'S IMPRESSION OF THE TWO LEADERS:
I think in a lot of ways they’re both—I'm not sure performers is the right word, but they're always very aware of their image.
"They seem to have a very friendly rapport. I think in a lot of ways they’re both
"At one point during their walk in the garden, President Trump stopped to show Kim Jong-un our cameras set up on mini-tripods remotely clicking away hiding in the bushes. I'm pretty confident he's never seen anything quite like that before."
ANOTHER UNSCRIPTED MOMENT CAME WHEN TRUMP SHOWED KIM HIS PRESIDENTIAL LIMOUSINE, THE BEAST:
"It was almost as if they were just two guys with one saying, 'Hey, want to
PRESS ACCESS WAS VERY CONTROLLED:
"The White House had been negotiating for a long time on the press's behalf," Loeb says, but "really up until the night before we weren’t sure how much access we would get. We knew we were going to get that first handshake, but part of the issue was we didn't know how the two leaders would get along, and if it ended after five minutes then obviously that’s our day."
"Usually at big events like this, there are dozens if not hundreds of members of the media. We had come straight from the G7 Summit in Canada, where there were
HE AND THE OTHER AMERICAN PHOTOGRAPHERS TUSSLED WITH THEIR NORTH KOREAN COUNTERPARTS:
Their photographers seemed like they were under immense pressure to get the photographs. As the day went on, they got a little more aggressive jockeying for position.
"Anytime you have a summit like this between two countries and such high interest, there's often jostling to get into position. I work really well with my colleagues at the other wire services—we know each other’s families and there’s a healthy competition between us—but with the North Korean photographers, it’s a different experience. It’s a state-run press, and they don’t have experience dealing with foreign media."
"We usually we joke and banter with foreign photographers, but none of that happened at this event. Their photographers seemed like they were under immense pressure to get the photographs. As the day went on the scrum got bigger and they got a little more aggressive jockeying for position."
Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un arrived for a working lunch during their historic Singapore summit, where Trump appears to surprise his North Korean counterpart by asking to make them look "nice and handsome and thin" pic.twitter.com/J4DeUcjILY— AFP news agency (@AFP) June 12, 2018
TAKING THE PHOTOS WAS ONLY HALF THE BATTLE:
"It's pivotal to get those pics back to your editors as fast as you can," he says. "If you can’t get those pics back to your editor then they’re not going to get used."
"My cameras have wireless transmitters that get connected to a cell phone or a wireless internet device, so we're able to send these pictures straight to our editors from our camera within seconds."
"In this case, I was sending them to editors at a desk in Hong Kong. They cropped them and added captions and then sent them out on the wires, where then they picked up by hundreds of newspapers, websites, magazines, and TV networks, all of whom are clients of ours."
ON HIS MOST NOTEWORTHY EXPERIENCES WITH PRESIDENTS BUSH, OBAMA, AND TRUMP:
"I went on Bush's secret trip to Iraq and Afghanistan, right before President Obama was sworn in, and that’s where [Iraqi journalist] Muntadhar al-Zaidi threw the shoes at him. In all the videos you can see me two rows in front of him when he throws them."
"With Obama, going to Kenya was quite an experience both because it's the homeland of his father and because he was the first African-American president to go back to where his family originally came from."
"But in terms of anticipation, this summit probably had the most worldwide interest, probably more than anything else I've covered. I would put it on par with presidential inaugurations. It's definitely the most memorable assignment I’ve had with Trump."
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un puts his hand on U.S. President Donald Trump's back as the pair leave a signing ceremony during their summit in Singapore.
Saul Loeb, 34, has
This story originally appeared on Townandcountrymag.com.
* Minor edits have been made by the Townandcountry.ph editors.