'I Shoot What It Feels Like': Oakland's Sarahbeth Maney on Her Iconic Photo of Ketanji Brown Jackson's Family

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Sarahbeth Maney, photography fellow in the Washington, D.C., bureau of The New York Times, pictured on the job photographing Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson's confirmation hearing to the Supreme Court. (Michael McCoy/Bloomberg)

The photo was instantly iconic: Supreme Court nominee Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson sits at her confirmation hearing, smiling broadly. Her husband, Patrick Jackson, sits behind her.

But the camera's focus is on the person next to him: Jackson's daughter Leila Jackson, who gazes at her mother with a smile and a look of intense admiration and pride.

Patrick Jackson, left, husband of Supreme Court nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson, center, and daughter Leila Jackson, right, listen during Day One of Jackson's confirmation hearings at the Hart Senate Office Building in Washington, D.C., on Monday, March 21, 2022. (Courtesy Sarahbeth Maney/The New York Times)

The photographer who captured that image — which traveled swiftly around the world — is Oakland's own Sarahbeth Maney, photography fellow at The New York Times' Washington, D.C. bureau. If her name and talent are familiar to you, you may have seen her featured in KQED Arts and Culture's 2021 story about the Black Women Photographers network.

KQED's Tara Siler spoke with Maney about the logistics of capturing the scene, the weight of covering Jackson's confirmation hearings and the journey from the Bay Area to covering Washington, D.C.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

The moment the photo was captured

I was on the sidelines of the room and I was standing on top of the steps or peeking over the wall, and I had a really good view of the front row and the people, the family members sitting in the front row. And during that time, there were senators making comments to Judge Jackson and mostly comments of praise and admiration of her.

I immediately looked towards her daughter, who was seated behind her, and I noticed this expression. And it was one of just pure admiration for her mother — and excitement. And it really made me feel just a sense of pride to be in the room and share that moment as well, as a Black woman.

Whenever I'm making photos, I try to document moments from my experience as a Black woman photographer. So I really saw that moment as an opportunity to make something that could provide just an intimate scene into this hearing that's very public — and just show a moment that's different than what we had been seeing already.

The experience of going viral on social media

I've been covering the hearings all week. I've been working long, 12-hour days.

I covered Judge Jackson's meeting with senators for the past three weeks, and also the official nomination by President Biden. And so the hearing was a very big deal: I had photographed all of the things leading up to this moment.

When I left work [on Wednesday night] I checked my phone and I had a text from a New York Times reporter who told me, "Hey, you better tweet out that photo that you took on Monday, because it's going viral and you need to get photo credit for it." And I was honestly sort of on the fence about tweeting it because it had already gained so much attention from other people who had tweeted it.

I just decided to go for it. I'm like, "I don't know what's going to come out of this, but I'll tweet it and see what happens." And it was just like a thunderstorm.

From there, I was getting thousands of notifications. I tried to keep up in the beginning, but then I just, I couldn't keep up anymore. But the comments I was reading were so powerful, they just brought me to tears. There are a lot of women saying that that's how their daughters look at them, or they hope their daughters look at them that way. Or that this photo shows that this young girl, she knows that she can do anything now.

And that's sort of the message that I was hoping it would send.

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How it felt to be in that room

It was a roller coaster to witness that moment in history. For myself, I was just thinking about my own experiences. And I just sort of allowed my coverage to be informed by my perspective.

That's sort of what I try to do. Whenever I'm making photographs, I look for things that make me feel something — and I have this thing that, I don't shoot what it looks like, I shoot what it feels like. And so that's what I went in with the goal of doing.

This was also the first time in my career where I had worked in a room alongside more than one Black photographer. Which was a major deal for me, and for the other photographers in the room, because we were sort of able to understand where the other person was at.

And also just how significant it is for us to be in the room, and document history from our own perspectives, and provide this cultural nuance — when historically we have not seen ourselves represented in those spaces.

I worked very hard to get where I am in my career. Also it just felt like a very proud moment, to be witnessing that moment.

The journey from Oakland to The New York Times

[Oakland is] my hometown, and I love documenting news happening there. But I felt like it was time for me to take a leap and try something new. This is a goal that I've always had for myself: to end up in D.C. one day and cover politics. And luckily, it happened a lot sooner than I expected.

My first internship was with The San Francisco Examiner, and then from there I went on to intern in Flint, Michigan. And then after that, I went to the [San Francisco] Chronicle.

In between there I was covering a lot of the Black Lives Matter protests in 2020. So that experience sort of prepared me for what it feels like to have an image go viral unexpectedly, because that happened to me during those protests.

This was the third time that I applied to the New York Times Fellowship, and I got it this time. So it's really been an honor to be here, and document what's happening on Capitol Hill and in the White House.

I am actually the first D.C. fellow and also the first Black New York Times fellow. So it's just a very exciting moment for me to be able to do this work.

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