AJC photojournalist Ben Gray and his family pose for a photo with the Carters following Sunday school at Maranatha Baptist Church in Plains on Aug. 23, 2015. Shown from left are: Everett and Adrainne Gray, President Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter, and Ben and Sylvia Gray. Jill Stuckey / Special
Photo: Jill Stuckey / Special
Photo: Jill Stuckey / Special

Behind the Lens: Photojournalist Ben Gray on covering President Carter

When former President Jimmy Carter announced that he had been diagnosed with cancer, I was asked to go to Plains to cover the story. One of my goals while there was to get to know the people in Plains and to let them get to know me so that I would be able to tell the story of the community and of Carter.

As a photojournalist, I normally want to blend into the background as much as possible so that I can document events as they unfold. In this case, though, I knew I would be returning to Plains over and over and I wanted people to recognize me and know that I was taking a deep interest in covering the story. I wanted to differentiate myself from other media outlets that blasted into town when the story broke, then left a trail of dust as soon a bigger story hit the airwaves.

The Sunday following the initial announcement, I attended bible study at Maranatha Baptist Church with Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter Jill Vejnoska, hoping that Carter might show up. Since he wasn’t scheduled to teach, the crowd consisted of about 25 members and a couple visitors with the two of us being the only media. Sure enough, the Carters came to church and I was able to make a few intimate frames of him greeting close friends and family. Following bible study, Carter turned to me with his hand outstretched and asked who I worked for … then he commented on my mustache.

Fast-forward a week to last Saturday when Jill and I attended a fundraiser and birthday party for Rosalynn Carter in Plains. As Jimmy Carter arrived at the small café for the event, I positioned myself to photograph him shaking hands and greeting people on the way in. As he moved down the line, he locked eyes with me, flashed his trademark smile and said, “Mustache still looks great!” I was a little stunned that he had recognized me considering the number of people he meets, but was thrilled that I — or my mustache — had made an impression.

On Sunday morning, I joined the throngs of media and fans at Maranatha to photograph Carter teaching Sunday school. I knew I would have limited access to photograph and would be shooting the same situations as everyone else. When Carter finished teaching, the church announced that he was going to teach the same lesson for the overflow crowd that had been sent to the old Plains High School. I immediately slipped out of church and high-tailed it down the road to try to photograph him there.

When I got to the high school, the doors were locked and there was a crowd of people outside because the auditorium was packed to capacity. I went around to a back door and tapped on the window until a Secret Service agent looked out. He cracked the door and said, “You’re with the AJC” and ushered me in. I was the only media representative in the building and was able to make exclusive photos of Carter teaching and posing for photos with all those in attendance. I can only assume that Secret Service agent recognized me by my mustache.

When the Carters left the school, I went back to Maranatha and joined my family in the church to wait to have a photo taken with the former president and his wife. When our turn came, Jimmy Carter flashed that smile and again commented on my mustache. Jill had been sitting nearby so she could listen in as people had their photos made and later told me that as we left, Rosalynn Carter turned to her husband and asked who I was, and Carter told her I was the AJC photographer.

I had wanted to make sure that the people of Plains knew who I was and it turned out that a well-waxed mustache and a couple cameras had done the trick.

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