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Magazine Spring 2011

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arun chaudhary / tsoa ’04

by Kevin Fallon / CAS ’09

With his sony EX3 camera draped over his right shoulder, filmmaker Arun Chaudhary gives a tour of his set. He cruises past the Rose Garden and around the South Portico. Inside, he continues past the President’s Study, Roosevelt Room, and Situation Room. No one blinks an eye as he cruises through the West Wing labyrinth. The staff is plenty used to seeing Chaudhary because, as he puts it, he is paid to be a professional “fly on the wall.” Officially, he is the White House videographer.
Arun Chaudhary (right) is the first person to hold the title of White House videographer.

As the first person to ever hold the position, Chaudhary captures candid moments of President Barack Obama and his staff on the job that serve as both historical record and messaging tool for the administration. In 2010, he used the footage to launch a Web show, West Wing Week, to answer the question: What did the president do this week? It marks yet another frontier in presidential communication and has included clips ranging from a trip to Afghanistan to Obama filling out his own census form (“Old man. Old, old man,” the president mutters while scribbling “48” under the age section of the form). With news programs such as 60 Minutes and The Rachel Maddow Show also using some of Chaudhary’s footage, the role of videographer continues to redraw the lines of transparency in the White House.

A self-proclaimed Internet news junkie who had gained attention by creating spec scripts for political ads in New York State campaigns, Chaudhary was teaching Location Sound Recording as an adjunct at NYU when the opportunity to join the Obama campaign presented itself. He booked the gig in May 2007, thinking at the time that he’d be back in New York soon enough. “Don’t worry,” he told graduate film chair John Tintori, “I’m just going to miss one semester.”

Four years later, Chaudhary recalls his role on the Democratic primary campaign trail as one of “machine meets moment.” By 2007, cameras were small enough to run around with but could shoot in broadcast quality. So as the appetite for social media increased, the campaign was able to meet it—posting clips on YouTube and the campaign website. As for the “moment,” Chaudhary credits then-Senator Obama. “Putting him in front of people just made sense,” says the filmmaker, who routinely shot behind-the-scenes videos of the candidate interacting with voters just prior to walking out for victory speeches. These clips became wildly popular, providing just the kind of intimate connection and accessibility that voters yearned for.

After Chaudhary made the transition from the campaign trail to the White House, he initially began filming the president’s day with an eye toward the archive. But he soon realized the leftover material made for a perfect White House reality show—strangely voyeuristic, often funny, and, of course, always dramatic. West Wing Week—which garners 5,000 to 10,000 hits for each episode—is inherently a one-man rush job, with Chaudhary spending long Thursday nights editing in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building. But the show’s success is a testament to the president’s comfort with the filmmaker. “The trust between us developed slowly, organically,” Chaudhary says. “But over the course of the years, it’s become unshakable.” Obama confirmed this in a quip to The New York Times last fall: “Arun’s a very cool guy, though I have to tell him to get a haircut once in a while.”

Last May, Chaudhary decided the long hours and grinding travel were taking a toll on his family life, and announced he’d be resigning from the groundbreaking position. When asked how the president took the news, the typically animated Chaudhary takes a long pause before reflecting: “We had a very good conversation. He at least pretended to be upset about it, which is all anyone could ask for.”

photo © David Katz

Chaudhary recalls his role on the campaign trail as one of “machine meets moment.”