Issue 5.4: August/September 2002

Surfing the Halls of Power


by Derek Ferrar
photos by PF Bentley

Waiting to speak to Congress after 9/11 

When PF Bentley enters a room
to take one of his trademark political portraits, his approach, he says, is a lot like surfing. "I’ll kind of go in and check it out before I ‘paddle out’ to get the shot," says the fifty-year-old Bentley, who grew up in Waikiki and still spends about half the year living in Kona. "I try to scope out the biggest wave—the best shot—and then I just take off on it."

The approach has worked. Renowned for his ability to capture the nation’s leaders in intimate moments behind the scenes, PF has won seven Picture of the Year awards, as well as a Pulitzer nomination. His pictures have appeared regularly in top news magazines, and his books have helped forge a new way of documenting American political life.

Once and future presidents:
Inauguration day, 2001

How does he gain such privileged access to some of the most powerful people on the planet? "The standard joke," says PF, who speaks with a stutter, "is that I’m a s-s-smooth talker." His wife, New York publicist Cathy Saypol, has a different take: "What can I say? He’s just PF. His unique personality gets him access." Helpful, too, is PF’s reputation for discretion. "People know that I’m really into doing a first-class job with the pictures," he says. "And I have a long track record of not talking about anything I hear."

Born in New York City, PF moved to Honolulu with his mother when he was ten. When he was eighteen, he says, he started taking surfing pictures as a hobby, and his passion took off from there. While earning a degree in phys ed at the University of Hawaii, he worked as a staff photographer at a weekly newspaper called Sunbums—now long defunct—which he describes as "a hippie rag that dealt with rock ‘n’ roll and the surfing scene. It was the early ’70s, a great era in the Islands. I didn’t earn a great deal, but I got to go to every concert in town."

Clapton rocks Honolulu, 1975

After college, he tried to get work at Honolulu’s daily papers, but they turned him down for lack of experience. So, in 1976, he lit out for the big time in the Bay Area and then New York. As a struggling news freelancer, he got an assignment to take some shots of Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan during the 1980 presidential campaign and discovered that he had a talent for dealing with political people. At the heart of that skill, he believes, is his ability to keep his "tank-top-and-slippers" Island attitude even amid the buttoned-down "guys in ties" world of the nation "east of Hilo."

"I suspect they’re intrigued by this guy from Kona who comes East in his hula girl ties, all tan, and then goes back to his tropical home when he’s done," he says. "I think they’re put at ease by how casual I am. They know I’m not there for the power or prestige."

When the 1984 campaign rolled around, PF got some stand-out shots of John Glenn’s presidential bid for Newsweek. Soon afterward, he was hired away by Time, whose editors had grown tired of being scooped by him. As a Time contract photographer for the next eighteen years, he covered every subsequent presidential campaign.

In 1992, he was in the press pool following the Clinton campaign when he pitched the candidate on a bold proposal: Would Clinton be willing to let PF accompany him everywhere, 24/7, so that he could really get an inside view of the campaign? "At the time, having a press person witnessing everything ‘back stage’ was unheard of," PF says. "But one night when we went out to eat, I told him my idea and he liked it. So we shook hands on it, and I told him that if it didn’t work out, I would just go back to the press pool with the other photographers."

For ten months, PF shadowed Clinton every day ("an incredible experience," he understates), resulting in a breakthrough book, Clinton: Portrait of Victory. The best-selling status of the book took PF to a whole new level. Soon, other top players came knocking, and in subsequent years he did behind-the-scenes projects with Bob Dole, Newt Gingrich, Tom Daschle and George Bush, among others.

To this day, PF says, he and Clinton remain friendly. At the end of the former president’s turbulent term, PF was welcomed into the White House to document his last ten days in office. One powerful image from that time—of a pensive Clinton in the back seat of the presidential limo—made Newsweek’s cover and helped earn PF yet another Picture of the Year award.

PF in Haiti, 1987

In addition to his political focus, PF has worked in a variety of trouble spots around the world, and his stories are hair-raising—though he manages to pepper them with humor. In particular, he has made repeated trips to Haiti, where he says, "I almost got my okole blown off a few times."

The closest call came during violence-ridden elections in 1987, when he went to photograph the scene of a massacre by the dreaded Tonton Macoutes militia. He and several other journalists followed an ambulance to a school where the Macoutes had just murdered more than twenty people who were trying to vote. PF was standing in a courtyard, photographing the bodies, when the Macoutes pulled up again and started shooting.

Several press people were killed, but PF managed to escape by running out the back door, then hopping over two ten-foot walls topped with cut glass. "I never knew how high I could jump until the bullets starting hitting that wall," he says. Beyond the walls, the journalists found themselves in an unfamiliar part of town, with the Macoutes still looking for them. "I was totally lost," PF says, "until I suddenly heard someone saying, ‘Mr. PF! Mr. PF!’ It turned out to be the bell captain from the hotel, whom I constantly overtipped. He lived right there, and he helped me get back to the hotel. I guess it only proves that you can never tip too much."

Asked to share the stories behind some of his best-known political pictures, PF recalls shots he took of Clinton in a New York hotel steam room: "I heard he was going to be down there, so I just showed up. The Secret Service agent at the door happened to be an ex-TV camera guy. He looked at me and said, ‘Man, if you get this, you are too cool.’ I poked my head into all this steam and said, ‘Is this OK?’ Clinton said, ‘Sure.’ The lens kept fogging up, so I had to keep going in and out to let it clear. When I was done, the agent at the door just said to me, ‘You are the man.’"

Letting off campaign steam, 1992

More recently, PF captured President Bush praying alone just before he delivered his speech to Congress after the 9/11 attacks. "He was in a holding room off the House floor," PF recalls, "and his escort group hadn’t come to take him in yet, so it was just him and me. We had got done talking, and I had turned the other way, when something told me to look back—and I saw that he had lowered his head to pray. It was a very private moment, but I clicked off a few shots, and he didn’t object. I guess that’s where the trust and comfort come into play."

Two years ago, PF ended his contract with Time and began freelancing again as a "hired lens." Lately, he has started branching out into documentary filmmaking, producing pieces for ABC News, Nightline, National Geographic TV and others. In addition, he teaches videojournalism workshops for professional photographers.

But that’s all in that other world, the one "east of Hilo." When PF is home in Kona, it’s a whole different life, one filled with sunshine and the sea. At times, he admits, his dual existence "can be really strange. I can be kayaking in Kona one day, and the next day I’m in the Oval Office. It’s as if I have two alter egos. People back home don’t have any idea who I am in a coat and tie, and people back East have no idea of who I am in board shorts and slippers."

To view and order PF Bentley pictures online, visit