New York Times videographer AJ Chavar talks about Newhouse lessons, White House interview

By Paul Sarconi

October 27, 2014

Newhouse School alumnus AJ Chavar is a videographer covering politics in Washington, D.C. for The New York Times. Chavar, who attended Newhouse from 2005 to 2010 has won multiple awards, including a White House News Photographers award. Chavar was recently at Newhouse to be a coach for the Fall Workshop, an annual workshop weekend for photo students. He took some time to talk about what’s been keeping him busy.

What’s your favorite part about covering politics?

My favorite part about covering politics as a beat is that it is not an inherently visual beat. It's a lot of problem solving and a lot (of) saying, “What’s the most creative approach I can take to this? How do I take something other people are covering through congressional hearings and make it something that has a human element, that is visually moving and that if I watched it I would want to share it with other people?” I always try to think about my videos like that. Not just “Is this the right story?” but “Is this a story that if I watched it I would send it off to someone in email or would I put it on Facebook or tweet it?” That's the real challenge and that’s what I like about it.

You have a certain set of opinions, how does that jive with covering people who publicly disagree with those opinions?

That is one of the hard things about politics—compartmentalizing what your views are and trying to have them not affect the story that you’re doing. That’s really important because just because I have a point of view about something doesn’t mean that I am right or that I have the right point of view. It doesn't mean that the other person is wrong, either. It also doesn’t mean that the other person is 100 percent right. I always just try and talk to the most diverse array of people that I can.

You recently shot an interview between President Barack Obama and columnist Thomas Friedman. What was that like?

Going to the White House is very interesting. We (arrived) several hours before the interview was starting. Setup was really crazy. One interesting little note is that everything in the White House is a historical artifact, so your tripods can’t touch the ground. So there are these carpet coasters that you put under everything that touches the ground except for your feet. So, not only did we have to move everything and get it in the right position, but every time we moved it we had to re-position the coasters.

One thing about the president is that he comes off in person exactly as he comes off on TV. He’s nice and friendly and talked with us for a little bit afterward. But it’s also very clear that he is a politician and that he has a 100 other things in his head and he’s coming in and has a very controlled idea of what he wants to say and how he wants to present himself.

Watch The New York Times interview with President Barack Obama here.

Is there one core thing that you were taught in Newhouse that you still use today?

Yes, 100 percent. David Sutherland, one of the most fantastic professors Syracuse has, has a mantra that every Syracuse photo student knows. I use it every single time I pick up a camera and it is: fill the frame, control the background and wait for moments. It’s such basic information, but every time I go to do a shot those three things run through my head.

Watch another of Chavar's recent projects, which included an interview former president Jimmy Carter.

Paul Sarconi is a sophomore and broadcast and digital journalism major.