Al Drago ’15: Purposefully focused

It has taken Al Drago ’15 only two years to earn his place in the nation’s capital press corps, amassing an impressive social media presence along the way.

These days Al Drago seems to be everywhere. Wherever POTUS goes, the 2015 Elon graduate goes, too. 

Watch live coverage of the White House and Congress—take for example former FBI director James Comey’s testimony before the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee—and you’re likely to see Drago in the background or crouched on the floor amid a sea of photographers. It’s one of the demands of his job as a New York Times contract press photographer in its Washington, D.C., bureau and a dream come true for the North Carolina native. 

That’s not to say Drago’s positioning in the field is surprising. One can argue nothing in his career has happened by coincidence. “I was 16 when I said to myself, ‘I am going to be a newspaper photojournalist for the rest of my life,’” Drago recalls. “I consciously and purposefully dedicated everything to work, and it worked out. … I love the daily grind and the constant hustle and fighting to make the front page the next day.”

Indeed, many of Drago’s photographs have landed on The Times’ front page and been featured in other news outlets around the country and the world. Perhaps one of his most well-known and endearing photographs is that of former first lady Michelle Obama embracing former President George W. Bush during the opening ceremony of the National Museum of African American History and Culture in September 2016. After being posted on The Times’ Instagram account, the image received more than 39,000 likes and 600-plus comments.

Besides having a sharp eye for framing the perfect shot, Drago has a nose for sniffing out engaging social media content. He embraced Snapchat early in his career, becoming one of the first photojournalists to harness the multimedia mobile platform’s potential to reach audiences in more meaningful ways. “Al has what the best journalists have: curiosity,” says Rich Landesberg, an associate professor in the School of Communications who worked closely with Drago. “That curiosity extends beyond the story and into how the story is told. He is always ready to embrace a new medium and try stretching its capabilities.”

This desire to stay ahead of the game is something he perfected while at Elon and what has distinguished him as one of the best in his field. “Al is a hustler in the best sense of the term,” says Associate Professor of Communications Anthony Hatcher. “He is a whirlwind of energy and activity, seeking out opportunities rather than waiting for them to come to him.”

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Drago’s passion for photography traces back to his childhood. He was 10 when, while taking photos of flowers during a trip to Boston, he wondered how he could make the background look blurry. His curiosity for learning more about photography led him to a journalism class in high school. That’s when he heard the term “photojournalism” for the first time. He was intrigued and soon fell in love with the prospect of a career that offered to combine his passion for photography with the adventure and discovery inherent in journalism. “It was the perfect marriage,” he says. 

From that point on, he made a commitment to learn all the skills he needed to be successful. He worked in his high school newspaper and started covering sports, something that put him in contact with local professional newspaper photographers. By his senior year, he was working for The Independent—the “alternative hipster paper in Durham,” as he calls it, which later became Indy Week—shooting college sports. Always looking to network, he continued befriending professional photographers on the sidelines. When time came to choose a college, he picked Elon University for the reputation of its journalism program and proximity to his Durham home.

From the first day he set foot on campus, it was apparent Drago had a clear vision of what he wanted to do. He photographed his own Move-in Day, which meant leaving his parents to do all the work, though not because he was lazy. He knew college was going to be an important part of his journey, and he wanted to make sure it was well documented. He also reached out to folks at the student-run newspaper, The Pendulum, and started shooting for them right away. He later became chief photographer for Elon Local News. Meanwhile, Drago kept working for Indy Week for gas money and to keep his skills sharp. “Al has never hesitated to get ahead,” says Senior Lecturer in Communications Randy Piland, who met Drago before he came to Elon and became one of his mentors during his undergraduate years. “His set answer when he’s asked to photograph something is ‘I can do that.’”

To make money to buy equipment, he started a DJ company with his brother and a close friend. He bought his first camera, a Canon 7d, and little by little, started building up his gear. After his first summer at Elon, he had landed an unpaid internship at The Herald-Sun newspaper in Durham. (Remember all that networking on the sidelines at high school and college games? A photographer he met there helped him get that internship.) Looking for ways to save money to buy more equipment, he got a night shift job at a newspaper distribution plant. There, while counting and packing newspapers from midnight to 5 a.m., he read all the bylines from The News & Observer in Raleigh, North Carolina, The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times while eating Cookout double cheeseburgers, corn dogs and fries. He started paying attention to the photos they used and began to develop an eye for what photo editors look for. 

By his sophomore year, he was interning in the photo department at the Times-News in Burlington, covering sports and everything else that comes with working at a community newspaper. He eventually landed an internship at The News & Observer and later at The Baltimore Sun. His work started earning him state and national honors, ultimately leading to a student-of-the-year honor by the White House News Photographers Association. 

While each award marked a milestone in his career, it was a story he covered near his hometown that had a deeper impact on his development as a photojournalist. 

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On the afternoon of Feb. 10, 2015, three Muslim students were fatally shot by a neighbor inside an apartment complex near the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Drago was a freelance photojournalist with The News & Observer at the time and one of the first to arrive at the scene. He returned the following day to cover a vigil on the university’s campus. He didn’t know then the story was going to become national news. Through that experience he learned the importance of being effective and the impact his work can have in a community. 

“People might not want me to have my camera in their face while they’re grieving at a vigil. I get that,” he says. “But your job is so important to keep the community and the public informed accurately, especially with so much stuff on the internet and nobody knows what’s what. Establishing yourself through years of experience as a credible, reliable source that people can trust, I think it’s the best way you can serve your community.” 

Armed with that knowledge, Drago traveled to Baltimore three months later with a team of journalists, including fellow Elon student Eric Halperin ’15, to cover the aftermath of Freddie Gray’s death from spinal cord injuries after being arrested by Baltimore police. The event sparked statewide protests, some of them violent, which led authorities to use tear gas. It was a dangerous situation, but the team was prepared with helmets and gas masks. Though he only spent a day there—it was Reading Day at Elon—he was able to help a fellow photojournalist with The Washington Post run his social media account while protests unfolded. When he returned to his reporting class the following morning, “I had a raspy voice due to the tear gas,” Drago recalls. “But we didn’t have any negative experiences because we were safe about it and worked together.”

Meanwhile, there were classes to attend and papers to write. His senior year, he made sure to take only early classes so he could work in the afternoons. When breaking news occurred, he made sure to let his professors know. Having flexible professors who understood he was working to get better at his trade made all the difference in his development as a professional, he says. “The best thing at Elon for me was that nobody said ‘no.’ Nobody told me I couldn’t do something,” Drago says. “There was a mutual level of respect between myself and my professors and that helped me grow so much professionally.” 

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After graduation Drago spent a year covering Capitol Hill daily as a credentialed member of the U.S. Senate Press Photographer’s Gallery for CQ Roll Call. Since joining The New York Times in June 2016, he’s been one of a dozen or so photojournalists who go with the president everywhere—in every motorcade, every trip on Air Force One, in and out of town. Whether they see him or not, the pool of photographers stays with the president’s entourage at all times. That means spending countless hours waiting, sometimes in crammed quarters, regardless of the time of day.

One memorable day in his career is the day prior to the 2016 election. Drago started the morning in Washington, D.C., then flew to Michigan and later to New Hampshire before ending the day in Philadelphia as President Barack Obama campaigned for Hillary Clinton. On Election Day, he covered activities outside the White House until 5 the following morning, only to head back to the White House by 9 to cover President Obama as he addressed the nation. 

In an attempt to show the hectic nature of his work, Drago started using Snapchat, a social media platform that allows users to capture 10-second videos and pictures that disappear a few seconds after they are viewed. The medium grows followers predominantly through word of mouth. First he started posting a behind-the-scenes photo here and there. Then he started adding commentary to put the images in context, applying skills he learned when he took Landesberg’s “60 Minutes” master class. “He came to me seeking new challenges and boy did he ever reach beyond his comfort zone,” Landesberg recalls. “He shows an absolute fearlessness when it comes to trying new things.”

Drago now handles the Times’ Snapchat account and his personal stories have received millions of views, which put him alongside some of the top Snapchat users. He’s even managed to encourage politicians like New Jersey Sen. Corey Booker to embrace the medium and learn how to give short answers in a lighthearted way. “It’s really hard to grow [followers] but there aren’t a lot of journalists who are doing this new, mobile, vertical 10-second journalism,” Drago says. As one of the few who does, Drago often speaks about Snapchat at national media conferences, including College Media Association and Associated Collegiate Press. He has also given invited lectures on the topic at Elon, Syracuse University and George Washington University.

No matter what tool he uses, Drago is cognizant of the importance of his job, whether it’s covering the president or a vigil in a small town. “I’ve realized how important the press is for keeping the public informed and keeping our elected officials accountable,” he says. “What we do matters and what we do keeps everything running smoothly. … There’s never been a more important time to be a journalist.

“And for me, there’s nothing else I could see myself doing.”