Giffords' photojournalist describes photo session and response to images, 'That's Gabby, she's back'
P.K. Weis was boarding a plane to Havana, Cuba, for an assignment when he heard the false reports that Gabrielle Giffords had died after being shot in the head at an Arizona constituent event in January. From his hotel room in Havana, he followed reports about the shooting and tracked the U.S. representative's progress.
Months later on May 17, Weis was in Texas photographing Giffords at TIRR Memorial Hermann Hospital the day before she had her successful cranioplasty there. His photographs were released on Sunday and are the first published images of Giffords since the shooting.
Weis, who has known Giffords for more than a decade, said in a phone interview that he didn’t know what to expect when he arrived at the hospital.
“There were a lot of emotional highs and lows going into it, but once I saw her, all that melted away,” said Weis, a longtime photojournalist who was photo editor of the Tucson Citizen until the paper folded. “A lot had changed since [the shooting], so it was a pretty dramatic experience to walk in there and see her smiling and happy and enthusiastic and just absolutely full of life.”
Weis got to know her staffers well when he photographed Giffords during her 2010 campaign. Shortly after the shooting, he told Giffords' staff that he would be willing to photograph her once she felt ready. Giffords' press adviser Mark Kimble later called Weis and asked if they could take him up on his offer.
“It wasn’t unusual for me and Gabby to sit down and grab a beer. I’ve known her for a long time, so that’s why they called me,” Weis said. He elaborated in a statement released published on Giffords' Facebook page and on his Southwest Photobank site, which he started the day he left the Citizen.
“Any photographer in the country would have loved the opportunity to take these pictures and I was delighted to be asked,” Weis wrote. “I’ve known Gabby for more than a decade and they asked me to do it because they wanted someone who was not a stranger to the congresswoman -- someone she would be comfortable around.”
Using a Nikon Du Jour, Weis spent three hours photographing Giffords in her hospital room and in an outside area of the hospital. Giffords’ staffers, her mother and a close friend were also there, and doctors and nurses stopped by. Weis said he sent the photos to Giffords' staff shortly after taking them, but didn't find out which ones would be chosen until two days before they were published.
“I'm sure that Mark [Kimble] and Gabby went through those images, and I’m sure that once they went through them, the campaign went through them and they narrowed it down to what they needed at the time," he said, noting that Giffords owns the photos.
One of the two photos they selected shows Giffords looking directly at the camera and smiling. The other shows Giffords with her mother Gloria -- who she called her "greatest inspiration" in a 2009 blog post. Weis said Giffords' mother has been taking unpublished photos of her daughter to document her recovery.
Weis' photos capture Giffords' resilience and the progress she's made while facing the effects of the shooting. Weis said he wanted the photos to reflect moments of survival, not sickness.
“When I work, I’m not trying to pose something, and I'm not trying to set something up,” he said. “I'm just trying to capture the moment, so I'm looking for things and anticipating things and trying to catch life in action.”
According to the Arizona Daily Star, Giffords Spokesman C.J. Karamargin said the photos were released now partly because “there have been rumors of a ‘bounty’ for photos of the congresswoman.”
Weis said that since the photos were released, people have told him how relieved they felt to see them.
“Really, it's the relief that everybody is reacting to now that the pictures are out. Everyone looks at them and says, ‘That's Gabby, she’s back. She was never gone. She's just been away from us for a while,’ “ Weis said. “It was the same for me. It just happened a little sooner, and that's the advantage of being a photographer.”