Work, Journal

Daniel Ellsberg for New York Mag

Daniel Ellsberg, photographed at his home near Berkeley for New York Magazine. Ellsberg is considered the first modern whistle-blower, and is the figure behind the Pentagon Papers, a leaked document he singularly amassed from a 7,000 page classified government review of the Vietnam War.

The document, commissioned in secrecy by the US government in 1967, conceded that the war had become a pointless stalemate, yet the government continued to tell its citizens the war was going swimmingly, even as thousands of soldiers were being killed. Ellsberg would secretly go to a friends West Hollywood ad agency in the middle of the night and painstakingly Xerox each individual page of the report he deemed pertinent. Ellsberg attempted to first pass it on to several sitting US Senators and Henry Kissinger, but none of them understood the importance of the document, so he eventually leaked the Pentagon Papers to the New York Times and then the Washington Post.

Ellsberg is now 86, about to embark on a book tour. On the day I photographed him, he was still recovering from a severe cold and had no voice whatsoever, so we communicated by writing on a legal pad, and eventually, laptop. We photographed in his basement office, which for all intents and purposes is a library, lined with thousands of books that run the length of the house, labeled into all-caps categories like FIRST USE THREATS, CATASTROPHE, ETHICS, BOMBING CIVILIANS. As someone who does not often photograph such important historical figures, I at once felt humbled and awed to be in this kind man’s presence.

Daniel was barely well enough to be out of bed for more than an hour or two, so we made it quick, shooting a couple different setups, some showing his office, and some focusing on just him. I was expecting to meet a hardened, serious man, but Daniel was quite the opposite: jovially self-deprecating (he jotted “SORRY I’M NO FUN TODAY”), earnest, aware. In that spirit, some of these portraits represent the weight of his past work, and some represent the mood of that present moment in time. Thank you for the wonderful afternoon Daniel, and I hope you got your voice back.