As soon as President Joe Biden nominated Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson to become the first Black woman to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court, I knew I wanted to be in the room where history would be made, as a photographer for The New York Times.
Traditionally, the most iconic photographs from such court nominations are taken on the first day of congressional hearings, with the nominee raising his or her right hand to be sworn in under oath before the Senate.
Those historic photos typically are taken from a prime center position on the floor in front of the judge’s table, but I spent much of Judge Jackson’s hearing standing on wooden risers on the side of the room that overlook the Senate committee and guests.
Little did I know my less desirable location would work in my favor: I had a unique vantage point to something the photographers on the floor couldn’t see–Leila Jackson.
The judge’s 17-year-old daughter looked on as U.S. senators offered both praise and skepticism of her mother’s nomination to the high court.
For hours, I carefully listened to the committee testimony as Judge Jackson sat quietly, no matter the line of questioning, nodding and waiting to respond until the end of the senators’ remarks. Throughout the hearing, I scanned the room for any facial expressions that could reveal to our readers what the room felt like.
The mood shifted when Senator Dick Durbin, Democrat of Illinois, by contrast offered compliments of high praise. Judge Jackson’s expression changed from a pondering look to a full smile.
But it was Leila’s reaction I noticed most–how proud she seemed to be in the presence of her mother on such a monumental day. It caused me to stand up straight in attention.
Before lifting my camera, I paused to process what her grin might mean.
I thought about how I might feel if it were my own mother sitting in that historic seat.
I was raised by a single mother who juggled three jobs, so I knew what it felt like to be deeply loved and inspired, but also to understand the reward of hard work—even if that meant accepting the sacrifices that came with it.
Judge Jackson addressed that very topic during the hearing: “I’m saving a special moment in this introduction for my daughters, Talia and Leila. Girls, I know it has not been easy as I’ve tried to navigate the challenges of juggling my career and motherhood, and I fully admit that I did not always get the balance right. But I hope that you’ve seen with hard work, determination, and love, it can be done.”
To me, Leila’s smile reaffirmed that the sacrifices her mother had made were worth it, just as the long hours my mother worked stocking shelves have made it possible for me to be there that day.
“You were standing in the room and doing everything you do now, because you worked so, so hard to get there, and I always believed in you!” my mother texted me afterward.
The first time Leila beamed with pride during the hearing, I didn’t take a picture. I just smiled.
Perched on a small step stool on my side of the room, I then raised my camera against my face, holding my focus on Leila.
“Come on, come on, come on,” I whispered under my breath, hoping she would make the same expression again.
As I watched Leila, I could feel myself—as a 26-year-old mixed-race woman—relating to her.
My mother is Mexican, and my father is Creole. I grew up in Martinez, California, a predominantly white community in the Bay Area, which made the concept of identity difficult for me to grasp as my peers often dismissed me for being different.
Perhaps that’s part of why I noticed Leila’s smile when many others in the room did not.
Beyond the feeling of pride and admiration, Leila’s expression translated into, for me, affirmation for Black and brown women. Her gaze told me that we did indeed belong in that room, even though that room was not historically designed for us.
As someone who knows firsthand what it takes to create a seat for myself at the table and often has been “the first” or “only” of something, watching how Leila looked at her mom made me feel represented.
As I stood on my step stool, camera pressed to my face, I worried that I had missed my chance, that Leila wouldn’t flash that smile again.
But I held still and kept my camera focused solely on Leila, her famous mother slightly blurred by the lens. Then, Leila did it again.
I pressed the shutter button down quickly as my camera shot several frames in succession to ensure that I had captured the moment.
I stepped down from my stool, feeling satisfied that I had made a photograph that made me feel something special
Over four days of covering hearings for Judge Brown’s nomination, I couldn’t help but feel emotional.
For the first time in my many months of covering Capitol Hill, I truly saw myself represented.
I saw myself represented in the diverse audience that packed the hearing room, adjacent to a majority white Senate committee.
I saw myself represented by the first Black woman nominated to sit on the Supreme Court.
And I saw myself represented in a D.C. press pool, where for the first time I was working alongside more than just one other Black photographer—on one day, there were five of us.
Since the beginning of my career in photojournalism, which began eight years ago at San Francisco State University, I made the main goal of my work to broaden the diversity of people represented within the stories we tell.
Much like my experience in the D.C. press pool, I usually was the only Black woman in my college classes. In four years, I had just one Black professor.
It quickly became evident that the topics I wanted to pursue were different from what my peers were interested in documenting.
Some of the earliest stories I chased were about excessive police violence in Vallejo, California, the houseless population in San Francisco’s Tenderloin District, the tragic death of Nia Wilson in Oakland, and other stories that I felt had not been adequately revisited by local or national news outlets.
I also noticed a trend: The stories most often forgotten by the general public were the ones that left a permanent scar on the community.
As a one-year photography fellow for The New York Times, my work has shifted to D.C., which often feels closed off and far away from the rest of the world. But I still rely on my life experiences and my own personal identity whenever I lift my camera to take photos.
I consider all of my work, no matter how big or small, to be an extension of my heart. So, during Judge Jackson’s confirmation hearings, I found pride and purpose in being able to document this major milestone in society from my perspective as a Black woman.
It felt even more special to know there were other Black photographers in the room to provide a cultural nuance within our coverage. Other photographers noted that it did make a difference.
Sadly, my demographic is still among the least represented in photojournalism.
It wasn’t until the Black Women Photographers organization formed in 2020 that I found a network of other Black women pursuing photography or photojournalism.
My profession is a tough business to break into. It requires resources, long hours dedicated to building a portfolio (often for little or no pay), and expensive equipment that is not accessible to most people. As Black women, we also have to navigate uncomfortable spaces or encounters with racism and cultural incompetency.
Perhaps that’s why Senator Cory Booker’s speech on the final day of Judge Jackson’s hearings struck a chord.
“You and I—we appreciate something that we get, that a lot of my colleagues don’t,” Booker, a New Jersey Democrat, told Judge Jackson. “You got here how every Black woman in America who’s gotten anywhere has done.”
Booker then talked about the obstacles and discrimination overcome by Black women trailblazers like Harriet Tubman and Constance Baker Motley, the nation’s first Black female federal judge.
“You’re here, and I know what it’s taken for you to sit in that seat,” Booker said in his speech.
I can’t begin to imagine what those words mean to other Black women who carry a much heavier burden than me. But once again, I could relate through my own experiences.
I worked hard to sit in that hearing room, too, advocating for myself as a photojournalist. I thought about all the Black women who have had to fight to be seen, fight to be heard, and fight to be respected.
Crammed together with a dozen other photographers, I watched Judge Jackson fight back tears as Senator Booker spoke. My camera focused on the tears welling up in her eyes, as I patiently waited for a single one to fall down her cheek.
At one moment, she glanced into my camera. Despite what I was feeling, I kept the viewfinder against my eye, locked into completing the job I was there to do.
As a photojournalist, that job is to accurately document what is unfolding in front of me, without interjecting myself as part of the story or showing my own emotions.
But when the hearing was over and I left the room, I found a quiet space, set my cameras down, and began to sob. Judge Jackson’s hearing marked the first time in my 10 months working in Washington where I heard the experience of a Black woman truly acknowledged.
As I finished up editing my images for the day, I received a text message from a Times reporter.
It turned out that the photo I had taken three days earlier of Leila admiring her mother had started to get shared more widely on social media. I had posted it on Instagram earlier in the week, but my colleague suggested I should take credit for my work by sharing the image on Twitter.
As I left the Hart Senate Office Building, I hit send on the tweet. Before long, the photo that had given me such personal joy to make drew a flood of elated responses.
“We marvel at our children this way all the time, but how often do we catch this level of pride and adoration from child to parent?” one commenter on Twitter said beautifully.
Of course, as photojournalists, we want our pictures to resonate in such a widespread way, but what was most important to me was why this photo meant so much to so many.
Tens of thousands of mothers and daughters could see themselves reflected in that photo.
And for Black women, Leila’s gaze toward her mom represented an endless portal of opportunities they and their daughters can achieve for themselves.
Sarahbeth Maney is a photography fellow for The New York Times based in Washington, D.C. In addition to the Times, her work has appeared in The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, the San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian, and The Flint Journal. She is a graduate of San Francisco State University and will begin work as a photojournalist for the Detroit Free Press later this year.