Many of the most iconic photos of Barack Obama’s presidency came from Pete Souza, the official White House photographer. Granted extensive access to Obama, he shot the Osama Bin Laden war room photo, moments the president shared with Michelle Obama, the many famous images of the president interacting with kids, and countless more. These carefully composed photos so defined the public image of Obama that it nearly made Souza a household name.
In its visual representation, as in so many other respects, the Trump administration has made a break with the past. Most of what we see of Trump comes from either the traveling pool of press photographers or the smartphones of his staff. On the one hand there are Getty Images or Reuters shots of Trump standing at podiums (or pretending to drive a truck). And on the other, we get unusually informal images of him posing with world leaders or appearing to be caught off guard. In the meantime, the White House’s Flickr account was purged, and the “Photos” section was removed from the official website.
The new administration does have an official photographer in Shealah Craighead, who was hired in late January. She was the personal photographer for first lady Laura Bush, as well as the photo editor for Vice President Dick Cheney. So far very few of her photos have been published. The majority exist in one 50-image gallery on the president’s official Facebook page or are scattered around Instagram. A few others seem to show up in the graphics created for the official @POTUS Twitter account. Wherever they can be found, the pictures we see appear to show Craighead has little in the way of special access to Trump.
If you look at the archive of the White House’s Flickr account under Barack Obama, Souza was already taking a wider variety of photos of Obama, from loosening his tie on Inauguration Night to stressing during a budget meeting two weeks later.
Craighead’s photos are instead mostly taken from a distance. She appears to be situated with, or even behind the White House press pool. Even the few photos of Trump or his daughter Ivanka that you could consider behind the scenes are still taken from far away. If anyone has the access that Souza had, it’s people like Sean Spicer or Kellyanne Conway, who are only armed with smartphones.
Considering Trump’s desire to circumvent the traditional media, it’s surprising that he has not taken advantage of the position of official White House photographer, which gives the president a powerful way of controlling his image directly.
Some of the changes in the role of White House photographer can likely be attributed to organizational chaos in the administration. Outgoing Obama White House photo editor Al Anderson told the National Press Photographer’s Association that the Trump administration “didn’t take the time to build a team before Inauguration Day,” and that Craighead asked him to stay at the White House while the photo department was restaffed. Anderson says that military photographers had to be brought in to help cover the inauguration, while Craighead tried to both organize coverage and take photos herself. Craighead declined to comment and the White House did not respond to inquiries.
If the administration continues to downplay the official photographer role, it might not necessarily be a bad thing, according to Liz Losh, an associate professor at William and Mary who has written extensively about the visual culture of government.
“From the standpoint of photojournalism, a lot of people would argue this is better,” Losh tells The Verge. “The control that the Pete Souza image had, it created an image of surplus and abundance of images of the president, but it became invisible how much those images were controlled.”
John Bredar wrote the book about the history of White House photographers, and he agrees with Losh — to an extent. “I remember from interviewing [Pete Souza] back in 2010, that he was saying something like 90% of their selects, 90 to 95% of their selects, meaning his and his picture editor, were being uploaded to Flickr, and that maybe 5% were being filtered out for a variety of different reasons by [Obama’s press secretary] Josh Earnest at the time.”
In 2013, Obama came under fire when photojournalists from mainstream outlets noticed that Souza was uploading large numbers of photos from events and engagements to which they hadn’t been invited. The White House Correspondents association and 37 news outlets sent a letter to then press secretary Jay Carney that compared the behavior to that of Soviet Russia. The New York Times described the protest as a “mutiny.”
Instead of leveraging the White House photographer, Trump’s team has published large numbers of photos taken by phone-wielding staffers. We often see the same pic collages, thumbs-up photo ops, and phone conversation photos. This is in keeping with Trump’s campaign. Trump kept the campaign press pool on a different plane, so the only behind-the-scenes looks we got of him were informal, often taken casually and at a distance. The photos were typically blurry, underexposed, and poorly composed. The campaign appeared to prioritize graphics, screenshots of tweets, and videos over high-quality photography.
Some of the most iconic images of the administration have also come from bystanders taking photos with their phones, like when a Mar-A-Lago guest snapped a photo of Trump using his cell phone’s flashlight to look at what appeared to be sensitive documents.
Losh argues that viewing Trump mainly through spur-of-the-moment cellphone snaps and the editorially independent photojournalists means we’re getting a more accurate portrayal of the president than we would if the official photographer was more active. Often these offhand photos can drive small news cycles of their own.
Bredar says he’s holding his judgement on Craighead’s role until he sees more of her work. What’s more, he says it’s hard to define the role of a White House photographer, because it’s not a position that’s prescribed — it’s more of a kept tradition. Bredar says it wasn’t until the Johnson or Ford administrations that we “really knew what kind of access the photographer had.”
“There was no Flickr stream, there was no kind of way to put photos out, and to some extent, the official White House photographer’s work was kept under wraps except for under some rare circumstances,” he says.
As for the smartphone photos, Bredar says he’s a bit wary about how they’re being handled since it’s unclear if they’re being managed or archived by the White House picture editor. It’s also not clear if one’s been hired — after being asked last minute to stay on, Al Anderson left the post after two weeks.
“From the perspective of someone who looks at history kind of with a student’s eye, those are valuable documents to understand what was going on,” Bredar says. “And if nobody’s kind of avidly collecting or managing that, that’s one issue, and potentially a significant loss to the country.”
Bredar and Losh both agree that the Trump administration is off to a bizarre start visually. “Usually when a new president comes in, there’s a huge amount of buzz ahead of time about who the photographer’s going to be within that photo community,” Bredar says. “And you didn’t really hear that kind of conversation through this campaign.”
The Trump team could settle in, and Craighead’s role could evolve. But sometimes, Bredar says, that takes a very long time to happen.
“If you look at Ollie Atkins, who was Nixon’s photographer, he reported to [press secretary] Ron Ziegler, and they had total control over him. He wasn’t allowed to go in [the Oval Office] without Ziegler’s approval,” Bredar says. That’s why Nixon’s presidency is often remembered for stiffly posed photos with people like Elvis Presley. Sound familiar?
It wasn’t until Atkins learned that Nixon was telling his family about his decision to resign in 1974, Bredar says, that the photographer protested enough to get access to a truly intimate moment. He was rewarded with a set of iconic, if awkward, photos of the Nixon family’s darkest hour. “Those are the best photos that I’ve seen from Ollie’s work.”
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