If you log into Instagram or YouTube and see an official White House video of Kamala Harris in a casual moment or speaking directly to camera, that video was almost certainly shot by Azza Cohen ’16, the principal videographer for the Office of the Vice President.
Cohen joined the White House last year as the video equivalent of the still photographers who record the president and vice president’s every move. Whether Harris is flying to Africa for a historic trip by the U.S.’s first vice president with African heritage, or meeting U.S. airmen in Arizona , Cohen, a history major at Princeton, is usually close by, chronicling the moments, both for immediate online distribution and the nation’s archive.
“My job is to record history as it’s happening,” Cohen says.
It’s never far from her mind that she’s documenting the life and work of the person who is the first woman, the first Black person, and the first person of South Asian descent to hold that office. Years from now, when scholars research this period, they will be studying Cohen’s videos.
“As a historian, that is so deeply meaningful to me,” she says, “and a little intimidating.”
Cohen, a documentary filmmaker, originally heard about the job from Purcell Carson, a documentary film specialist who teaches in the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs.
Carson gave Cohen her first taste of filmmaking freshman year in a class called Documentary Film and the City, in which students partnered with local nonprofit groups to produce short films. Cohen’s project, Refugee, Refugee, profiles a young Rwandan mother struggling through Trenton’s public housing system.
“It was the first time I understood how documentary film could tell a story and be used for social good,” Cohen says. “It helped tell this woman’s story to her social worker, who didn’t even know what country in Africa she was from.”
In the fall of her senior year, Cohen made a film about the Black Justice League’s takeover of Nassau Hall and its demands that Woodrow Wilson’s name be taken off the School of Public and International Affairs.
“It was a way for me to help tell the story of the students and what they were calling for,” she says.
The following spring at Princeton, Cohen was elected as a young alumni trustee. Four years later, in Cohen’s last-ever vote, the Board of Trustees approved a decision to remove Wilson’s name.
Cohen’s favorite project so far has been a short film she made as a graduate student at Stanford University. Now streaming on NewYorker.com, Float features Cohen’s 82-year-old grandmother learning to swim.
“I had been trained in oral history techniques at Princeton,” Cohen says, “so this film was a special opportunity to use that history training.”
There have been equally meaningful moments for Cohen in her current job. Last winter, she captured Harris speaking to the American people about the Respect for Marriage Act, which President Joe Biden signed into law in December.
“I teared up a little bit,” Cohen says. “As a gay woman, being able to know that marriage equality is my right as an American, it was very special.”
Cohen was similarly moved when she filmed Harris and the second gentleman, Douglas Emhoff, who is Jewish, lighting Hanukkah candles in the vice president’s residence.
“Representation matters,” she says. “Getting to see that on the internet is very special for a lot of Americans.”