Through My Lens


My name is Tami Heilemann and this is the first attempt at writing a blog. 

I’ve worked as the photographer for the Secretary of the Department of the Interior for over 26 years. This week, I will turn half a century old, and lately I have been thinking a lot about my professional career. I’ve been a federal employee for over half of my life and a professional photographer even longer. In all that time -- camera in hand -- I’ve had the opportunity to tell amazing stories through pictures. It’s been an honor to witness history and to document the stories of so many dedicated employees working hard towards Interior’s mission. 

To give you a better idea of what I do, I’ll share my experiences over the last couple of months. 

The temporary memorial at the Flight 93 crash site in October of 2001
The makeshift memorial at the Flight 93 crash site in October of 2001. Photo by Tami A. Heilemann.

On September 9, 2015, I made my way to Shanksville, Pennsylvania -- the site of the Flight 93 National Memorial. It’s hard to describe what you feel when you visit a place like this. Standing on top of a hill, overlooking the impact zone of that tragic flight, my mind couldn’t help but go back to that moment that changed our world. I’ve been here several times over the years and every time feels different. My first visit was in October of 2001, shortly after that terrible day in September. There was a somber feeling, viewing the makeshift memorial. Fourteen years later, I am back again to photograph the opening of the new visitor center. The National Park Service worked with many partners and the victims’ families to honor the heroes who died here. Through my lens, I can see the emotions of the people as they read the displays and wander the grounds. It is an impressive and important place.

A large boulder marks the impact area of Flight 93
A large boulder marks the crash site of Flight 93. Photo by Tami A. Heilemann.

On September 22, 2015, morning news reported traffic congestion and large crowds in Washington, D.C. The reason: the first official visit of Pope Francis to our nation’s capital. The Papal parade traveled around the White House and down Constitution Avenue. Knowing the area so well, I carefully planned my shots. When the parade began, the crowd erupted with cheers, chanting “Papa Francisco” as he approached in the popemobile. A baby was lifted to the Pope to bless. It was an amazing feeling to witness the Pope in person.

The papal parade on Constitution Avenue with the Washington Monument in the background
The Papal parade on Constitution Avenue with the Washington Monument in the background. Photo by Tami A. Heilemann.
Secretary Jewell and students hiking in Saguaro National Park
Secretary Jewell and students hiking in Saguaro National Park.
Photo by Tami A. Heilemann.

On a beautiful day last week, I was in Saguaro National Park, just outside of Tucson, Arizona. The sky was crisp blue, and I watched a hummingbird feeding on cactus blooms. The natural beauty of our national parks never ceases to amaze me. Nearby, 25 Native students were waiting to go hiking with Secretary Jewell and learn about the Every Kid in a Park -- an initiative that gives all 4th graders and their families free entrance to federal lands and waters for a year. For most of them, this was their first visit to the park. The children were excited and very vocal on the hike, asking questions and making comments as we climbed higher into the hills. When we reached the top of Signal Hill, we marveled at a magnificent view of the Saguaros. Our attention was turned to a member of the Tohono O’odham Nation, who explained the history of the petroglyphs and Hohokam people. The students got to hear firsthand about their culture and tradition. It was really impressive.

Over the years, I’ve worked all kinds of events: ribbon cuttings, ceremonies and celebrations. Every new place is a story to be told. Every return trip reminds me of what is special. I have had quite a history lesson and feel proud knowing that the photos I take will be a part of the archives for years. 

Follow more of Heilemann's travels with the Secretary on Flickr at