When he was standing on a busy street as a boy, Mannie Garcia’s attitude toward life came into focus.
“My mother always told us not to play on the boulevard,” said the award-winning photojournalist who grew up poor in Albuquerque, N.M. “If I pushed the button to change the light at the crosswalk, I could go across the street. I learned how to push the button. I’ve been pushing that button ever since.”
From his first Brownie camera (“I still have it”) to working side photo jobs while in the Air Force to save money to buy the best equipment (“I knew I would never do weddings, portraits”) to being embedded with U.S. troops before it became commonplace, Mannie tells life’s stories with his images.
In all its horror and sadness, glory and beauty — from children starving in Somalia to President George W. Bush looking out Air Force One at a devastated post-Katrina New Orleans — he is always looking for the next street to cross.
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“I was fascinated by the notion of pictures and history and lives, forever,” he said.
Friend and fellow photographer Bob Houlihan, editor-in-chief of Airman Magazine, said it simply: “Mannie is a storyteller.”
Now 62, Mannie has settled with his wife, retired Reuters political reporter Vickie Allen, in Alton. His 1800s home on the bluffs has a view of the Mississippi River.
“I shot barges this morning,” he said.
Married almost 20 years, Mannie and Vickie moved from outside Washington, D.C., where he remains a member of the White House press corps and covers Congress as well.
“I go back every three weeks.”
It’s quite a ride — the safest aircraft in the world. (The press) is toward the back of the plane. The seats are assigned and leather and fully retractable, which is cool. They treat us very well; call us by our first names. It’s an impeccably beautiful airplane.
Mannie Garcia on flying in Air Force One
Before his wife retired, they decided to find a new place to live. “I could live anywhere,” Mannie said. “We took a road trip, a fun vacation” that took them across the country. Stopping in Alton to visit Vickie’s best friend, they liked the community.
They’ve been in Alton about a year. The walls and shelves on the main floor are filled with the artwork and crafts Mannie collected from places he’s worked: Haiti, Egypt, Africa, India, Morocco and his home state New Mexico. Several of his paintings hang in the kitchen and dining room.
But it is his workshop in the basement that holds the journeyman mementos. Camera equipment lines shelves. Photos, including one of Tipper Gore holding a refugee baby and a controversial portrait of President Obama, are scattered on tables and chairs. Dozens of laminated credentials for The White House and the Pentagon dangle from lanyards on hooks. One of the largest IDs, for an inaugural ball, shows Bill and Hillary Clinton dancing.
Somewhere, Mannie said, is a gold medal he won from the World Press in Spot News.
He flipped open a box, thinking it was the right one. Nope, but still a medal.
“This one I got at the United Nations,” he said, in 2006 for his work shooting a traveling nurse.
A tragic start
It’s easy for Mannie to pick the turning point in his career. He knows the exact date: Aug. 28, 1988.
A struggling freelance photographer in his 30s living in Germany, honorably discharged after eight years in the Air Force, he got a freelance assignment through the military to cover an air show at the U.S. Ramstein Air Base.
“I was paid $125,” he recalled. When three Italian Air Force jets collided in midair, then came crashing down around spectators, Mannie captured it, very briefly, then set about helping the injured, he said. Seventy people died.
“This awful accident happened and I was there,” he said. The resulting images were transmitted worldwide, and Mannie began to get work with wire services and newspapers. The Nikon camera he used that day was destroyed by shrapnel that hurtled at him as he shot photos. He kept the camera for many years.
On the front lines
The Air Force was good to Mannie. He got a degree in engineering and when he left, his ability to work with the military served him well.
After the airshow photos, “Sipa Press in France signed me. I had a contract with them,” he said. “I had a relationship with the military and they thought I knew the military and would I ask if I could embed” with troops.
He worked for media outlets such as Stars & Stripes, Reuters, the New York Times, USA Today and Newsweek. At times, he was a freelance photographer for McClatchy Newspapers, which owns the News-Democrat.
Two cataclysmic events he covered that still weigh heavily on his mind happened in Africa.
In 1992, Mannie hopped a U.S. military plane filled with food to photograph (Irish) Catholic Relief Services in Somalia. Working for Army Times Publishing Co., he was first embedded with the U.S. Army, then the Air Force.
“Sometimes I was with troops and sometimes I was on my own,” he said.
Somalia was a patchwork of conflicting armies, warlords, clan alliances and bandits. Villages saw the destruction of water sources, crops were burned and livestock was killed.
“I was documenting the famine there,” Mannie said. “I’d get dumped off somewhere the food was being distributed.”
He saw starving children unable to digest the rice and beans delivered because not enough time was allowed to cook it properly. He showed his photos to doctors in Mombasa, Kenya, who were involved in the process. He believes his photos spurred them on to create food that was more nutritious and could be better digested.
“I was happy I could at least show them the pictures,” he said. “The camera is very powerful.”
Working for Reuters in Rwanda in 1994, he photographed tribal people fleeing to Zaire to escape the genocide in their war-torn country. A short media trip turned into seven weeks of work.
“I’d never seen so many dead people,” Mannie said. “I’ve got photos of bodies stacked high and the length of a football field.
“Those people were being herded to a mountainous area. They had to keep going and they were dying on the road. Children were displaced and NGOs (non-governmental agencies) were collecting these kids, babies and infants, finding them and putting them on a truck.”
Back at a compound where the children were being kept safe, Mannie got a car and driver and took off to see it firsthand.
“I was going out to do a story on the NGO that was helping the children.” Along their way, a man stepped out of a field along the road and pointed a machine gun at them. His driver was robbed and beaten. “Then the guy stuck the AK-47 under my chin and cocked it. The driver yelled, ‘American! American!’”
And Mannie was let go. “I started walking. I knew not to turn around.”
Down the road several miles, an Israeli doctor picked him up. They went back to the site.
“My camera and equipment were still there. They took the car. I don’t know what became of the driver.”
After being in and out of the country — mostly out — for the better part of 16 years, Mannie decided to come home in 1992. He chose Washington, D.C., after briefly living in New York.
“Didn’t care for New York. I thought D.C. was cool, though, the monuments, the metro. ‘Think I’m going to cover this place.’ I was there and it was a new adventure.”
Mannie shook his head and looked down. He was ready for a change.
“I’d truly had enough of war and starving babies,” he said. “The time in Rwanda was particularly difficult. The images are still hard and it’s been 20 years. Sometimes I can smell the feces, urine and blood. When I came back, I couldn’t get clean enough.”
I still respect the office. It doesn’t matter to me who is the president. I want to do the best I can. It’s just as exciting as when I started.
Mannie Garcia on being a member of the White House Press Corps
With his work background and help from Reuters, he got his White House press credentials in 1992. He had had Pentagon credentials for some time — it was the only way to embed with troops. In 2001, he would travel with U.S. Marines during the invasion of Afghanistan.
In 2010, he documented the work of scientists, volunteers and crew on board Greenpeace’s Arctic Sunrise as it surveyed the environmental damage from an oil spill in the Gulf.
“He’s very good at what he needs to do professionally, but the other side is that he’s very good around people,” said Tim Aubry, director of visual communications for Greenpeace, who hired Mannie. Not only did he photograph ongoing work, but the people on board in everyday situations.
Covering the White House brought its own challenges. There’s a lot of sitting around and waiting, Mannie said, whether you’re at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, or aboard Air Force One.
Of course, if you leave the White House to make a coffee run and a vice president’s office catches fire on your way back, what do you do?
“I put down the coffee,” he said, remembering the 2007 electrical fire in Dick Cheney’s office next to the White House. He took pictures.
Technology makes it easier do his job.
“That’s about taking pictures,” he said. “I make pictures.”
This stuff is normal to me: In a Jeep that has three bodyguards and you in Africa. A guy sticking an AK-47 under my chin. ... Hanging out of a helicopter and shooting — it’s perfectly safe if someone has your 6.
Mannie Garcia on business as usual
Back when he still shot film, White House press photographers devised a way to get the news out without leaving the grounds.
“You’re tossing your film in envelopes over the White House fence,” Mannie said. “The (Reuters) office was three blocks away. A bike courier would come along and pick them up. You’re always trying to beat everybody. Still are.”
His photo kit in 2016 contains two cameras, four lenses, the “fastest, biggest chip,” the “fastest and smallest laptop” and a hard drive.
“I’m carrying less. It all fits in a backpack.”
It’s made lag time almost nonexistent when traveling.
“When you’re with the president at Air Force One, you run and get in your seat and by the time you’re rolling, you’ve filed four images. He lands and you’re transmitting. Your computer is right next to you.”
A photo Mannie captured in August 2005 of President George W. Bush peering out the cabin window, surveying damage from Hurricane Katrina, was the single shot he took in seconds and was allowed to submit, as did each of the other photographers on board.
“We never landed. We were on the way to D.C. and it was transmitted to our offices for us. I don’t know why mine was chosen by the wire services, but it took off.”
Mannie Garcia shuns attention and publicity. As a Buddhist, he is a man of peace. So, he’d prefer that two recent high-profile events related to his work not become the focal point of his career.
In April 2006, he was working for the Associated Press, attending a media event raising awareness about the war in Dafur. Actor George Clooney and then Sen. Barack Obama were among those on the dias. He was there to shoot Clooney.
Two years later, a photo he made of Clooney and Obama, with Clooney cropped out, became the basis for the “Hope” poster created by artist/activist Shepard Fairey. The image of Obama became one of the most widely recognized symbols of his campaign message.
It wasn’t until 2009 that another photographer recognized the image used in the poster as one shot by Mannie, who said that he did not remember it. Fairey sued AP in 2009, seeking a ruling that his work was protected from AP’s potential claims over the copyright of the original photograph. AP countersued for copyright infringement. The suit was settled in 2011.
The second controversy, in June 2011, happened when Mannie was standing on a street and taking photographs in Wheaton, Md. He saw police arresting someone and when he began shooting, one of the officers grabbed him by the neck, struck him, slammed his head onto a police car, and removed the memory chip from his camera, according to media reports. Mannie was charged with disorderly conduct, the police report claiming that he “threw himself to the ground, attempting to injure himself.” He was acquitted of the charge several months later.
His White House press credentials were not renewed by the Secret Service because of the outstanding charge, but were renewed after the acquittal. In 2012, Mannie sued Montgomery County, Md., its chief of police and several officers of the Montgomery County Police Department. In March 2013, the Justice Department filed a statement of interest with the district court hearing the lawsuit, noting citizens have a First Amendment right to peacefully photograph law enforcement officers in the exercise of their duties. It urged the court to rule against a motion to dismiss filed by the defendants.
Mannie brings the lawsuit up to date: “It’s going to trial.”
Retirement is not something Mannie predicts anytime soon.
“I don’t know if I’ll ever put the camera down,” he said. “It’s never been a job. I’m working a lot less in this last year, but I’m still working.”
He still paints, is “crazy insane” for golf, likes to fly-fish and has produced five CDs for a friend who is a singer. He’s also handy. He pretty much gutted and redid the kitchen in the house.
On his wish list: Cuba. “I’ve been trying to get there for three years. In November, I had an interview at the Cuban Consulate. I’ve done all the paperwork.”
Mannie also is sharing his visual storytelling.
“He’s so willing to give back,” said Bob Houlihan at Airman Magazine, who is involved in two workshops for young military photographers and videographers, the DC Shoot Off and the Department of Defense’s Worldwide Military Photojournalists Workshop.
Mannie has been both mentor or judge for many years, taking students beyond the technical expertise they arrive with to seeing the story and the people they are photographing.
“There was somebody who took the time to mentor us,” Bob said as a veteran photographer. “Now, he’s helping set up the next generation.”
It’s been an honor to be selected to work with them, Mannie said. It all goes back to his philosophy of “making rather than taking photographs. It’s head to the hand to the heart. You may know the technical stuff, but if it’s not through the heart, what good is it?”
In 2013, he was the recipient of the Morris Berman Citation, which is given by the National Press Photographers Association for special contributions advancing the interests of photojournalism.
“I don’t think I’d be the person I am without photography — the camera has enlightened me,” he said. “It goes back to being that little boy and pushing that button.”
About Mannie Garcia
- On expressive politicians: “Sen. (Ted) Kennedy was always fun to shoot. His face had so much character.”
- On staying healthy in difficult circumstances: “Beer is the safest thing you can drink anywhere in the world. The water is filtered. And, you eat when you can and sleep when you can.”
- On places he has set up a news bureau: A tent in a parking lot of the airport at Goma, Zaire, to cover the genocide in Rwanda. “We were near the French (journalists). They had really cool showers. They’d take pity on us. We’d trade MREs for French showers. We’d trade anything for a shower.”
- On-the-job trauma: “Nothing too serious.” River dengue fever (from mosquitoes in Somalia), broken elbow, broken ankle. “I’ve been sick a few times. I’ve got years of shots on my health card. If I was embedded and (troops) got shots, so did I.”
To see some of Mannie Garcia’s work, go to www.manniegarcia.com and Facebook