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By Andrew Tellijohn, State Capitol Bureau, Published May 02 2010

Photographer records Minnesota Senate history

ST. PAUL – David Oakes met and snapped photos of the Dalai Lama, the Clintons, Arnold Schwarzenegger and countless other celebrities, politicians and athletes who visited the state Capitol.

But the Senate’s longtime photographer is as proud of the work he has done documenting the lives of average citizens who have made the trek to St. Paul to share their stories with lawmakers.

Oakes started photographing the Senate in 1985 as a temporary hire for the legislative session. By that summer, he had been hired full time. He has seen people celebrate good times and mourn bad, in public, through countless meetings and events.

One of the job’s challenges is making often-dull meetings come to life. Sometimes he gets lucky and people will bring in props, such as defibrillators or other gadgets, when they talk to lawmakers.

Other times he waits for the exact moment to catch the right expression to capture the moment.

“I do enjoy capturing faces, the people, the citizens that come in and have a compelling story,” he said.

Oakes’ boss, Steve Senyk, director of Senate Media Services, said his photographer has a knack for getting great pictures without disrupting the work around him.

“He really brings to the forefront how people in Minnesota bring the Capitol to life,” Senyk said.

But shooting meetings and events is only part of his job. Senators schedule him for official portraits and for photo shoots when they meet with constituents and others.

He also documents Capitol maintenance work. He has been on scaffolding in the upper reaches of the dome atop the building and again to shoot the restoration of the Senate chamber in the late 1980s.

“I still appreciate the architecture,” he said.

He has lasted longer than all but six current senators. One of his favorites is retiring Sen. Steve Murphy, DFL-Red Wing. They live in the same town, and Oakes has even taxied him to the Capitol a couple times when Murphy’s car was being repaired.

Oakes plays a vital role in documenting the state’s legislative history, Murphy said.

“One hundred years from now, somebody is going to look back and say, ‘How did MinnesotaCare come into play?’ ” Murphy said. “They’ll be shuffling through some pictures and they’re going to find pictures of Linda Berglin and Duane Benson huddled over a table” working out the details.

Given how well Oakes’ colleagues say he blends into the background at work, it might surprise some to learn he also has a passion for community theater.

Murphy definitely likes his work, both on stage and at the Capitol. “He’s one of the nicest guys you are ever going to meet.”


Tellijohn reports for Forum Communications Co.