Elon alum photographs ‘The Embrace Seen Around the World’

Al Drago '15, now working for The New York Times, captured a heartfelt moment between Michelle Obama and former President George W. Bush, which generated significant online buzz in the days that followed.

When Al Drago ’15 captured a touching photo of first lady Michelle Obama embracing former President George W. Bush on Sept. 24 – surely anyone on social media has already seen the moment – his initial thoughts weren’t that his image might go viral. Rather, he was just relieved to meet the deadline hanging over him.

Al Drago ’15, a contract press photographer for The New York Times, captured this image of an embrace between first lady Michelle Obama and former President George W. Bush, which went viral in the days that followed. Photos courtesy of Drago
But that doesn’t mean the School of Communications alumnus didn’t realize the image’s potential when he spied it in his viewfinder.

“It was one of those times when all the pieces came together,” said Drago, a contract press photographer for The New York Times in its Washington, D.C., bureau. “It happened in a second. The first lady went for the hug instead of a handshake. Then W leaned into it a little bit, and it was this really nice moment.”

​While shooting on rapid fire, Drago snapped three or four frames of the embrace, picked the one with the best facial expressions, and got to work sending it to his waiting editors.

So as the audience settled in for the opening ceremony of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, Drago was hastily editing and uploading the image in time to meet the Times’ morning deadline for its U.S. edition. The night before, Drago’s editor said the news outlet needed an image from the ceremony by 11:30 a.m. By 11:20 a.m. Drago was battling poor hotspot service to upload the image from his laptop. Finally, the image mercifully transferred.

Drago actually snapped several frames of the embrace. Here’s a look at his computer screen and photo archives. 
​Quickly shooting and uploading images on site is commonplace for Drago these days. And as one of three Times photographers who rotate on the presidential press pool, he’s grown accustomed to traveling in President Barack Obama’s motorcade, usually alongside 12 or 13 other journalists and photojournalists.

In the days and weeks leading up to the Sept. 24 ceremony, Drago worked 19 consecutive days, many of them following the president, both to Philadelphia and New York City and around the capital. “We’re with him everywhere,” Drago said, casually referring to Obama as “him.” “If he is going to a meeting down the street, or if he is going on a trip, we are the photographers there with him.”

Drago said he’s always in a race against wire services – AP, Reuters and AFP. Such was the case during “The Embrace Seen Around the World,” which the Times dubbed the hug one day later.

“To be honest, I was deadline-focused when I took the viral photo,” said Drago. “But as I shot it, I was thinking, ‘This is not something that you’re going to get every day.’ That’s definitely the goal of working in Washington and photographing politics – looking for the unusual or something that sticks out.”

But he didn’t give the image much more thought after uploading it, instead focusing on his next Times deadline at 3 p.m.

By the time Drago posted the image the following morning on his own Instagram account, the hug – which several other photographers also captured, he said – was on Twitter, Facebook and seemingly everywhere else.

The image’s reach exponentially grew when the Times’ official Instagram account posted the photo, noted Drago. The post received nearly 38,000 likes and 600-plus comments – many alluding to its tenderness.

It’s more than accurate to say that Drago has a front row seat to the final days of the Obama presidency.
​The photo’s circulation wasn’t limited to online sources either. Scott Pelley of “CBS Evening News” ended his Sept. 26 newscast referencing the photo with a short segment.

Asked, if while on assignment, he’s ever concerned about missing a prominent moment, Drago explained that deadline pressure always exists, but that his editors encourage him to seek creative, descriptive shots instead of documenting every interaction.

“The New York Times subscribes to a plethora of wire services, so the editors stress that I don’t need to be worried about getting the traditional behind-the-podium shot because we can get that from anyone,” he said. “They are pushing me to look beyond what’s on stage, to turn around, and try to make photos that give context to the situation or what’s happening, or the mood.

“That said, I’m always very mindful of what photos are being made. And I often look at what the competition’s done.”

Having covered the Obama presidency, 2016 presidential race and Capitol Hill since June for the Times, Drago has enjoyed his up-close view of Washington’s political scene. (He also worked as a photo intern for a year at Roll Call.) At the same time, he understands his journalistic role for one of the country’s most prominent news organizations.

“It’s a blast, and I’m loving every minute of it,” he said. “And I can’t say that the ‘wow’ factor rubs off. But I do understand the responsibility of the Times and our news organization – and the news in general – to report what we see and what is happening.”