AAPI Heritage Month: Charles Dharapak

headshotCharles Dharapak was born in New York and studied print journalism and economics at New York University. He joined the Associated Press in 1995 as a staff photographer based in Southeast Asia. While in Bangkok, he covered the Cambodian civil war and the pro-democracy movement in Burma and later became AP’s chief photographer and photo editor in Jakarta, Indonesia, where he covered the unrest in the archipelago that led to the fall of Suharto, East Timor’s independence, various communal and religious conflicts, and the rise of Muslim extremism. In 2002, he spent considerable time photographing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Since 2003, Dharapak has been based in Washington, D.C., covering national politics, including the Bush administration, the 2004, 2008 and 2012 presidential campaigns, and the Obama White House. His work in Gaza in 2002 was recognized by the Associated Press Managing Editors, and he has received awards for his Washington political coverage from the National Press Photographers Association and the White House News Photographers Association. He was named the 2012 White House News Photographers Association Still Photographer of the Year.

Charles Dharapak

How long have you been in photojournalism?

I started my photojournalism career with the Associated Press in Bangkok, Thailand, in 1995.

How and why did you decide to become a photojournalist?

It happened by accident, really. Coming from a family of doctors, I was naturally pre-med and had already been accepted into New York University School of Medicine. But I was doing a print journalism major which led to taking one photojournalism elective class. There we discussed the potential effectiveness of still images and how they communicated. My science background also allowed me to quickly excel in the darkroom!

What do you love most about photography?

Having a camera in hand and the title of “journalist” allowed me to be up front and close to history as it happened. In covering conflict I wasn’t a combatant, but a witness. In chronicling politics my lens was partisan and tried to show public figures as who they were.

How has being an AAPI helped/hurt your photojournalism career?

I grew up in New York City with Thai parents who always instilled the importance of retaining my heritage. Language was a big part of that. Having that skill and understanding of the culture was instrumental in landing that first job with AP in Bangkok.

What advice did you wish someone gave you when you were starting out?

You are a journalist before you are a photographer. Anyone interested in getting into journalism must be voracious consumers of news and current events. It’s a total commitment. You have to live it and breathe it.


Indonesians run out of a ransacked ethnic-Chinese owned store with goods in Jakarta, Indonesia, Thursday, May 14, 1998. Rioting continued in the capital as people vented their anger and frustration over the country’s worst economic crisis in decades. Dictator Suharto would resign after decades of authoritarian rule the following week. (Charles Dharapak | AP)


Khmer Rouge soldiers who split with leader Pol Pot ride on a tank to join other breakaway Khmer Rouge factions in Phnom Prouk, northwestern Cambodia, Friday, August 16, 1996. Spirits were high as the men were to join their peace desiring compatriots since after their Khmer Rouge loyalist commander fled his stronghold on Thursday. (Charles Dharapak | AP)


Fabian Charles, an indigenous Dayak, stands in front of two Madurese settlers he said he and his gang killed and beheaded just half an hour ago, on the outskirts of Sampit, central Kalimantan province, on Borneo Island, about 800 kilometers (480 miles) northeast of Jakarta, Indonesia, Sunday, Feb. 25, 2001. Thousands of refugees fleeing ethnic slaughter by Dayaks are being evacuated from Sampit by naval ship after violence which has claimed at least 270 lives this week, according to officials. (Charles Dharapak | AP)


Palestinians show young boys how to properly hold their assault rifles during a rally organized by the Palestinian Public Resistance in Rafah, southern Gaza Strip Monday, Feb. 25, 2002. Headbands read: “Friends of Martyrs” and “Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade.” (Charles Dharapak | AP)


East Timorese nuns walk during a candlelight vigil for peace in the provincial capital of Dili, about 2,000 kilometers (1,200 miles) east of Jakarta, Indonesia, Thursday, May 13, 1999.  Hundreds of East Timorese on Thursday held a peaceful procession in the capital of the troubled territory to commemorate the victims of recent clashes between pro-independence and pro-Indonesian groups.   A year and a half later East Timor would vote for independence from Indonesia. (Charles Dharapak | AP)

George W. Bush

President Bush and graduate Theodore Shiveley from Plano, Texas, bump chests at the United States Air Force Academy graduation ceremony in Colorado Springs, Colo., Wednesday, May 28, 2008. (Charles Dharapak | AP)


President Barack Obama shakes the prosthetic hand of U.S. Army Sgt. First Class Leroy Arthur Petry of Santa Fe, N.M., who received the Medal of Honor for his valor in Afghanistan in a ceremony in the East Room of the White House in Washington, Tuesday, July 12, 2011. Petry lost his right hand as he tossed aside a live grenade during a 2008 firefight in Afghanistan, sparing the lives of his fellow Army Rangers. (Charles Dharapak | AP)


First lady Michelle Obama, wearing a hat and sunglasses to avoid being identified, pushes a shopping cart as she walks from the checkout lane after shopping at a Target department store in Alexandria, Va., Thursday, Sept. 29, 2011. (Charles Dharapak | AP)


President Barack Obama drops his BlackBerry while heading to greet well-wishers in Memphis, Tenn., Monday, May 16, 2011. (Charles Dharapak | AP)

Barack Obama

Marine One helicopter kicks up snow and ice as it lands on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, Tuesday, Feb. 22, 2011, prior to President Barack Obama’s departure to Cleveland, Ohio. (Charles Dharapak | AP)