Eight years and 1 million photos: What Eric Draper learned photographing George W. Bush

New York CNN  — 

It was the year 2000 and George W. Bush had just won the presidency after a divisive recount.

Eric Draper, a veteran news photographer, had watched it all unfold from his home in New Mexico, where he’d retreated after covering Bush’s election campaign. He had no idea his life was about to make an astronomical change.

“Out of a stroke of luck,” Draper says, he was invited to a post-recount Christmas party in Austin, Texas, with other journalists and members of Bush’s staff. A friend had asked Draper if he could see himself as Bush’s official photographer. Draper, a self-described “kid from South-Central Los Angeles” whose life was already at a peak, wasn’t sure it was even a possibility.

Bush family photographer Eric Draper and former first lady Laura Bush.

But he knew Bush would be present, and he came prepared with a pitch. Borrowing a line from Bush’s campaign speech – “I want to be your President” – Draper met Bush, looked him in the eye and said, “By the way, I want to be your personal photographer.”

Bush looked at Draper “like he’d never thought of it before,” Draper recalls.

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A week later, Draper was interviewing for the job that would send him on a wild ride through history, lasting for eight years and producing almost 1 million photos. The gig took him to nearly 70 countries, plus 49 states. (“We didn’t make it to Vermont, unfortunately,” he says.)

At one point Draper was assigned an office steps away from the Oval Office — a place where, as he puts it, he became “the professional observer” of the commander in chief.

“President Bush had the trust in me to be present during some of the toughest days — (the) most emotional days — and I tried to be sensitive to all aspects of his life,” Draper says.

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He captured countless photos of the President during virtually all phases of his administration. Through his lens, Draper witnessed what he calls “a sense of innocence ” from the pre-9/11 President Bush, a man who enjoyed driving his pickup truck around the family ranch.

Then-President Bush while touring the family ranch in 2001.

Then, just hours after the terrorist attacks in 2001, he witnessed a wartime President Bush as he comforted staffers aboard Air Force One. “(He) was there to be a comforter in chief, he was there to be commander in chief, and he was there to lead us through a very, very hard time,” Draper says. “President Bush never took himself too seriously. He took the job very seriously.”

Draper captured this famous photo of Bush aboard Air Force One on 9/11.

Draper spent eight Christmases with the Bush family and became very close with them. “They treated everyone like family and if you’re in their realm, if you’re together with them, they always brought you into their world and made you feel very comfortable,” he says.

Draper also shot this iconic image of Bush at ground zero, a few days after the 9/11 attacks.

Last year, Draper was called back into service again, to be the family photographer after the death of Bush’s father, President George H.W. Bush.

Covering a memorial service in the nation’s capital and then traveling to Texas for another service as well as a funeral train was an honor, he says.

Former President George W. Bush touches his father's casket after speaking at his memorial service in Washington.

Looking back at the experience of a lifetime, Draper says he accomplished what he set out to do during his eight years with Bush.

“I had a story to tell and I wanted to finish it,” Draper says. “It’s an amazing story but I always knew there was an end to it.” In the end, Draper has a body of work that he’s very proud of that serves as a witness to history. Some of Draper’s best images make up his 2013 book, “Front Row Seat.”

George W. Bush and daughter Jenna Bush Hager share a tender moment aboard Bush 41's funeral train.

“Having these images to study is very important … especially on days like 9/11 and all those major decisions that the President made. They bring people back to those emotions so they can remember what that time was like.”