The flight itself was commonplace for Andy Mills as the Cessna flew over the New Jersey shoreline. If he’d flown once over that area, he’d flown it a hundred times. But this weekend was different.
In the short time he was in the air, Mills captured photos of Governor Chris Christie lounging in a beach chair on a state park beach, surrounded by only his family on a holiday weekend. Because of a government shutdown Christie had ordered, the beach was closed to the public, but not to the first family.
Nearly a week after those photos went viral, they were still drawing attention to Christie and to Mills and his employer, NJ Advance Media. The widespread sharing was impressive, but the news value of the photos was what Mills focused on.
“This is an example of very good photojournalism. This is where the fourth estate shines,” Mills said.
However unexpected the attention, the photos of Christie were not a happy accident or a “right place, right time” coincidence. They came about from a combination of a newsroom already on high alert and a photographer who brought strong journalistic instincts into play.
The budget crisis in New Jersey had been brewing since the first of the year and July 1 was the deadline for an approved budget. The state legislature was squabbling and Christie – a lame duck with historically low approval ratings – was not making headway either. On Friday, June 30, the legislature still had no budget. At midnight, Christie ordered the state government shutdown for the first time in more than 10 years.
The staff at NJ Advance Media went into crisis staffing that weekend, with all hands on deck. Park rangers were forcing campers to leave the state parks as politicians continued with their deal making on the budget. The stalemate was a huge story and on Saturday, the nj.com website had record traffic.
On Sunday, Mills was on shift and considering flying aerials, an assignment he often draws. There had always been a plan to fly on the Fourth of July for the traditional crowded beaches, but he thought they could fly on Sunday when the weather was perfect. While his editors thought it was a good idea, they still wanted to hold off until the Fourth.
On the phone with the flight service, the pilot he knew well told him “Your buddy’s chopper is on the tarmac.” It was the governor’s helicopter and it was in “go mode.”
Christie had said earlier in the week that he and his family would be going to the governor’s residence on the beach at the state park, but they wouldn’t be using state resources or staff. When asked if that was fair, Christie was quoted as saying "Run for governor, and you can have a residence there.”
Mills wanted to see if the governor had indeed made it to the state beach that was closed to taxpayers. On the way to the airport, he tried to get upper editors to approve the flight, but couldn’t get the message through. He made the decision on his own.
“My instincts said to go and we went,” Mills said.
The Cessna 152 he flew is smaller than Mills prefers, but it was what was available. In the air with the passenger-side window held open by the slipstream, they headed down the beach. Mills had his 100-400 mm zoom ready.
They flew over crowded municipal beaches that Mills knows well. In addition to his staff job as a photojournalist, he has been a lifeguard since the ‘80s and still works on his days off. As they approached the state park beaches, he could see the distinct line where crowded masses stopped and empty sand began.
About two miles farther down, they came to the governor’s residence and Mills saw people on the beach. He shot photos on the first pass and was 90 percent sure he’d seen the governor with the group.
On the second pass, Mills shot tighter and could see for sure that Christie was there. Over the years, Mills has shot a number of stakeouts, trying to catch someone someplace where they shouldn’t be. And he knows what it’s like when those subjects notice the photographer and they know they’re caught. Christie looked up at the plane.
“He and I both knew,” Mills said. “We made eye contact.”
Back on the ground, Mills went back to his house and transmitted the photos. Mills’ decision to commit to the flight had paid off. After a few hours of vetting, reporting and calling the governor’s office, the photos were posted on nj.com Sunday night. Then the calls started.
“Instantly, everything lit up,” Mills said. His email and social media exploded. The posts hit 30,000 then 50,000 then 60,000 shares. Every broadcast outlet was calling for permission to use the photos.
Soon, the memes started appearing, cutting out Christie on his beach chair and pasting him into other often absurd landscapes. Mills said he has no control over the memes and has no opinion about them, good or bad.
“It was a newsworthy image that was used in other ways. It’s the world we live in, I guess,” Mills said. He prefers to focus on the authenticity of his photos.
“This story is championing what we do. There’s no fakeness. It’s what happened,” Mills said.
The photo of Christie on the beach was the centerpiece of Monday morning’s Star-Ledger. The governor downplayed the optics, saying he had said he would be at the beach, but there was undeniable power in the image of the governor enjoying the beach he had closed to the public.
The legislature had been having backroom meetings over that weekend and on Monday, they worked into the night before having a deal. Christie signed the budget around 2:45 a.m. and the shutdown was over in time for the Fourth of July.
“I’m proud to work for an organization that never, ever shies away from going after a big story,” Mills said. “The impact has been tremendous. The state government is back and running.”