Correction appended, Dec. 9, 2015
President Barack Obama has Pete Souza, Lawrence Jackson, Charles Kennedy and Amanda Lucidon. Chancellor Angela Merkel has Jesco Denzel, Sandra Steins, Guido Bergmann and Steffen Kugler – four photographers who follow her in Germany and around the world, recording her every move – or at least those they can get access to.
While in the U.S., Souza, Obama’s chief photographer, has virtually unlimited access to the president, in Germany, where Angela Merkel is known for her aversion for photographs of herself [she declined to be photographed for TIME’s story], the job is a little more complicated.
Denzel joined the team of four photographers and one photo editor – Nicole Dartsch – five and half years ago. A documentary photographer with 15 years of experience, Denzel has always worked discreetly, he says, “putting the time to get to know people I’m working with and to then be as invisible as I possibly can.”
That approach is even more important when working for the German government – all four photographers share duties between the Chancellor and the country’s Federal President, Joachim Gauck. “There’s two different situations for us as official photographers,” says Denzel. “The first one is when everything is controlled. It usually means waiting in front of some door to be rushed into the room – that’s usually the case during conferences and bilateral or multilateral talks.” At that point, the official photographer on duty will have a few minutes, if not a few seconds, to get the required shots. “This speed and very limited radius were new to me and it took some time getting to terms with that,” he says.
The second setting is what the photographers call “in-between” moments when the Chancellor is with close members of her staff before or after official events. “That’s where we, as photographers, can actually use our skills to create a proper frame, to wait for the right moment,” says Denzel. But that also comes with some limitations. “We have to avoid by any means interrupting or disturbing the situation. I think all four of us would rather take one photo less than one too many.”
Through the job can be hard at times, Denzel and his colleagues have travelled the world and met with world leaders from Queen Elizabeth to Benjamin Netanyahu and Vladimir Putin. But for Denzel, his most memorable moment was when he found himself in a White House meeting room with President Obama, Chancellor Merkel, and his counterpart: Souza. “Here we were,” he says. “It was surreal.”
Correction: The original version of this story misstated the location of a meeting between President Obama, Chancellor Angela Merkel and their respective photographers. It was at a restaurant.