Countless photos have been taken of President Obama greeting military brass after departing Air Force One. But only a handful show him giving the so-called challenge coin via the “secret handshake.”
Chris Stone of La Mesa apparently was the first to get that picture in November 2011 — at least during the current president’s term. (The coin has been handed out by previous commanders-in-chief.)
“I didn’t realize it was such a rare thing,” Stone said after reading an AOL story Thursday morning by Andrew Tavani.
She wrote Tavani, who added her shot to his accompanying gallery.
Later, she discovered the coin handoff in another photo — taken May 8 when Obama came to San Diego for a La Jolla fundraiser.
A teacher and freelance photographer, Stone was working for Coronado Patch on Veterans Day 2011 when she captured the image of Obama handing the coin to Vice Adm. Rick Hunt, commander of the U.S. Naval Surface Forces, as the president and first lady arrived at North Island Naval Air Station for the Carrier Classic basketball game.
AOL’s story noted: “For photojournalists who cover the president, immortalizing the exchange that takes place during that ‘secret handshake’ in a still image is something of a white whale. It’s exceedingly rare that clear photos of such a delivery are captured. Yet, just two weeks ago, the feat was pulled off twice — on consecutive days.”
The first was May 7 at Little Rock Air Force Base by veteran Associated Press photographer Susan Walsh, who caught the coin being handed to Col. Patrick Rhatigan, commander of the 19th Airlift Wing.
The second was May 8 by AFP and Getty Images photographer Brendan Smialowski after Obama arrived at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar — also covered by Stone as contributing photographer for Times of San Diego.
But Stone’s image from Nov. 11, 2011, may be the first of the Obama administration.
And the May 8 photo could make her the first to capture two handoffs.
According to a Reuters blog post on the “secret handshake,” top presidential and Pentagon officials also hand out the coins. Getting pictures of the handoff is tough.“Watching [Obama] pass one off is a treat to see,” wrote Larry Downing in the Reuters story. “He enjoys giving it more than the other does receiving it and he always ends the handshake with an electric smile.”
Obama carries his “private stash” inside the front, left pocket of his pants “and he retrieves one quickly with his left hand before transferring it to his right hand in a slick motion.”
Downing said the president’s delivery is better executed now, “after a rough start when he dropped one while awkwardly trying to give it to a Marine at the bottom of Marine One’s steps, at Joint Base Andrews.”
Photographer Walsh, part of an AP team that won a Pulitzer for its coverage of the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal, has worked for the news service for 23 years. She told AOL: “This was the first time I successfully made a photo of the president exchanging a coin.”
“I knew that the coin shake was going to happen,” she said. “You never know if you’re going to get it. It is kind of like photographing somebody winking. For me, making a picture of the coin exchange is just like photographing a magician when you can see how they do their trick. It is just very rare and cool to know that you made that photo.”
The coins themselves aren’t that rare, however.
As AOL said: “Souvenir coins are also available online for purchase in the White House gift shop, ranging in price from $3.50 to $21.95.”
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