What it’s like to be President Trump’s White House photographer
From the start of the presidency of Donald Trump, it’s been photos not snapped by the official White House photographer that have gotten the most attention. There were the press images that confirmed his inauguration crowd size was smaller than the first Obama inauguration, that showed the president’s tie held in place with Scotch tape, and that revealed a stone-faced Pope Francis in his meeting with Trump at the Vatican. As the weeks passed, media reports began to suggest that Trump was actually avoiding Shealah Craighead, his new photographer, as many pictures posted to social media by the White House were taken by other members of staff. And after day 50 of the presidency, when Craighead released her first real set of photos, photography websites declared her a rigid, boring photographer, unable or willing to take candid or unguarded photos of the president.
But critics really had little to assess, with Craighead and her staff releasing far fewer photos to the White House Flickr account or other social media than her predecessor, Pete Souza, who had photographed two administrations and been granted extraordinary access to Barack Obama. (Since leaving his position, Souza had kept posting photos of the former president, often in an attempt to show Obama in a better light than Trump). Craighead herself also gave almost no interviews — just one short talk with a Catholic television network. In recent months, however, the Flickr page has slowly begun to fill up. With more to go on, we spoke to Craighead, who has previously photographed a slew of Republican politicians, about her background, approach and the side of the president she’s gotten to see up close. In a second conversation, she also answered criticisms about her lack of access. This conversation has been edited and condensed slightly for length and clarity.
ELIZABETH FLOCK: Tell me a little bit about your background. How did you first get interested in photography?
SHEALAH CRAIGHEAD: My background started out in the family business, because my family owned a photo lab in Connecticut where I grew up. As I went through college and life I also realized I had always wanted to do something that involved traveling the world and living in hotels. And that involved photography.
After college I freelanced with the Boston Globe, AP, and Getty Images. That’s where I earned my chops. And then, through friends and colleagues, asking around if anyone knew of job openings in D.C. area, I ended up in D.C.
ELIZABETH FLOCK: And from there you began photographing politicians, almost all of them Republican. How did that happen?
SHEALAH CRAIGHEAD: In 2005, I was working under David Bohrer, Vice President Dick Cheney’s photographer. Four months into that, another photographer went on maternity leave and decided not to come back. So I put my resume in, and under Bush’s photographer Eric Draper, I became the photographer assigned to Mrs. [Laura] Bush. It was a huge change for me — I didn’t know what to expect. I grew exponentially as a photographer and person in that position.
But in my early stages of photography I shot weddings, sports, events, news, portraits, spot news, the whole gamut. And all of that comes into play in a position like this. In the White House, you’re not just documenting history, you’re also putting other caps on. You’re an event photographer, an operations director — establishing where the team should be to get all the angles. You’re a documentary photographer, you’re a family photographer, you shoot portraits. If the president is athletic, or doing sports, you’re a sports photographer too.
After Mrs. Bush, I was asked to be Alaska governor and then vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin’s photographer, and then after that for Texas Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, who was running against Rick Perry for governor in 2010. Then I became Florida Sen. Marco Rubio’s photographer, through his Senate career and into his campaign for president. I don’t know that I specifically set out to make that my niche or genre, Republican clients, but being in the White House in a Republican administration offers that foundation as colleagues branch out and network.
In addition to that, I also did corporate work because I had colleagues that went into the private sector. I had Fortune 500 clients and clients that were private families in the top executive world. When people see that you can photograph presidents, and kings and queens around the world — that you can navigate an environment that is more high society — then your clients trust you. They know I won’t ever exploit their images. They know I keep a very tight hold on the archives of photos I take of them.
ELIZABETH FLOCK: Has that trust been key to working with President Trump? Some have said your photos suggest you don’t have much access to the president. Do you think he trusts you?
SHEALAH CRAIGHEAD: For both of us, it’s getting to know your client, as much as they’re getting to know you as a photographer and a person. There’s a level of trust we have to establish with each other. That in time will unfold into a level of comfort and access. Then once that’s established the comfort level comes.
And with this particular situation, with the president and myself not having known him before, not having a relationship on the campaign, or a working relationship, it takes a lot longer to have someone comfortable in your personal space. I would say, for the first month or so he’d say, “Why are you here?” Or: “What are you doing?” Or, “You have more golf photos of me than [anything else].”
So then it becomes explaining and showing why you’re doing it. You’re earning the trust of your subject, so that they’re confident that you’re not going to send out a photo that’s not going to make them look bad. Sometimes I’m invited into a space, sometimes I move in quietly, and sometimes I’m disinvited.
But the president’s personality is gregarious. What you see on TV is exactly what you get off camera. I appreciate that. He likes photos, that’s no secret. I’m happy to engage in that. Both for him and the administration and the country, and his private archives later on down the road. You learn what they like or don’t like, preferences in terms of space or lighting.
ELIZABETH FLOCK: One media story said you carry a stool to photograph President Trump, because it makes him look better.
SHEALAH CRAIGHEAD: I’ve used a stool for years. I’m short, so when I was with Mrs. Bush, to get a better angle I brought in the stool that I carry, to be a little higher up. So that I’m not photographing from the ground up but sky down. I’ve brought that into the White House as well, because the president is six-foot, and I’m five-two. I carry that in order to be at least at eye level advantage. Plus the air up there is a lot nicer. (Laughs)
ELIZABETH FLOCK: How is photographing President Trump different than photographing Mrs. Bush?
SHEALAH CRAIGHEAD: He’s a different person for many reasons. With Mrs. Bush it also took some time, but she would invite me to her private residence to take photos regularly of teas and lunches or residence with friends and colleagues, in her personal space. And sometimes I photographed and sometimes I didn’t. I remember once, there were eight of us on an airplane, and she was telling us about first date with the president. I was sitting there with a camera, but that was a moment I chose to not to photograph. I didn’t really want to photograph that.
Here with the president, my relationship is more professional, casual, comfortable. He’s comfortable with me, he certainly looks around, he makes sure I’m there, he looks for me when he’s ready to take a photo. We have candid conversations now and again, but in terms of telling me about his first date with Mrs. Trump, I’m sure that’s not a conversation we’re going to have anytime soon.
I think it’s slowly been worked into over time, my style is different, and I didn’t come in cameras and gun blazing, saying, “this is my job and I’m entitled to do this or that.” I came in with the expectation that I’m going to need to gain the trust of a client and person who I have not worked with before, who’s thinking, why am I following him around 16 hours a day with a camera? Once we got through that part, he was able to see my style and gain the trust that I’m very protective over the images that go out for both of our sakes. His failure is my failure, if he gets flak for that that’s on me. I err on the side of caution.
ELIZABETH FLOCK: You’ve been criticized for not releasing as many photos as previous administration have.
SHEALAH CRAIGHEAD: There are a lot of photos taken in private moments that the president would just like to have for his archives, like any family photo. Or family events, you’re just taking photos for the family. Or someone he’s golfed with, it’s his private time, it’s his personal time. Sometimes I’ll ask him, “Hey, can I release this to our website?” And I’ll show him, if I’m hesitant. He’ll say, “Yeah, that’s fine,” or no for whatever reason. But nine times out of 10 now I don’t run it by him.
ELIZABETH FLOCK: Can you tell me a story about working with President Trump? What’s your relationship like now that you’ve built some trust?
SHEALAH CRAIGHEAD: I see him as a person, not as a president, first. One thing he likes is to bring people into the Oval Office. He’ll give the history and the tour, and then make sure it’s documented for them. So he’ll call me up to take photos while they’re in the Oval Office.
I remember on the day of the health care vote [to repeal Obamacare], it was May 4th, and it was my birthday. This was not on the schedule, but he’ll say: “Everyone come into the Oval, let’s take photos.” And that day I got swamped and engulfed by everyone trying to get in the door at the same time. And so he said: “Where’s Shea, let’s get Shea, make way for Shea, she’s getting trampled.” I thought: he’s trying to make sure I’m in there for the moment. It’s endearing. He’ll come out with some really endearing comments. And he compliments me on the job I’m doing.
ELIZABETH FLOCK: Does the president see the photos you take before you put them out there?
SHEALAH CRAIGHEAD: Often times I’ll show him photos. At the beginning, I did a lot more hands-on work with the photos. He likes to see them. He likes to see what I do.
Now we have four photographers in total including myself. It’s a really strong team that incorporates a fashion background, a military background and an administration background. The fashion background I thought would be good for the first family.
It’s more a family environment than in past administrations. There are more lighthearted moments, family dinners, and the president’s grand kids are running around with bare feet on state floor, which is phenomenal for hide-and-go-seek. (Laughs)
ELIZABETH FLOCK: What’s it been like to photograph him on foreign trips? How is the president different there than he is at home?
SHEALAH CRAIGHEAD: When we were on the Saudi Arabia trip, I remember how incredibly busy it was. They packed in a lot of face-to-face time with foreign leaders. I think it’s best when you meet people in person, and I think that he finds that as well. He’d rather do a lot of negotiating and conversing in person. The days are long — it’s such a concentrated period of time — and you’re trying to fit everything in. But in terms of his presence there, I noticed as a close observer that his time with the king in Saudi Arabia was the most personable. They really connected not only as leaders but really as people.
It’s also great to see Mrs. Trump unfolding in her role. That trip was her first coming out. I’ve watched her sort of slowly come out at her own pace. One thing I really like about this administration is that they’re doing it their way. It’s not always a popular approach. But I see them genuinely try to work from their heart. That’s something that I’d like to show more of. That unfolding — as a strength.
ELIZABETH FLOCK: There has been so much negative news about the president, though, from his policies to his inability to get things done. Do you feel like it’s your job to try to counteract that perception through photos?
SHEALAH CRAIGHEAD: People are going to love or hate no matter what. I just try to grab the moments as light and as endearing or as serious or profound as the moment is. And it’s still going to be taken however anyone wants to take the image and run with it. At the end of the day it’s about him. His image is going to captured in the images I take. I want to show him in the best light as a person.
What I’ve also learned in this business, is, unless you’re in the room, do you really know what happened? It’s all sort of projected. I’m just a documentary photographer. I just try to show him and what happened in the most honest light.
ELIZABETH FLOCK: In that way, it seems like you’re very different from your predecessor, Pete Souza, who really tried to capture the intimate, private moments of being president, and who also maybe tried to get across a certain perception of the president. People have criticized you as only documenting Trump’s public face, in a rigid way —
SHEALAH CRAIGHEAD: I am a fan of Pete Souza’s photography. I think the job he did is amazing for our country. I think Pete and I approach this situation differently. I’m defining my role as a documentary photographer, as a historian… I guess the way I’m doing it is with neutrality. I feel like the moments are going to unfold no matter what I do, and if I see them I’m going to capture them. If I can see something happening, and think that’s a great moment for history.
Pete developed a different relationship with his subject than I will have with mine or Eric Draper did with Bush 43. In terms of private space, that definition can be so wide. Does that mean the president’s private office, or private time in the Oval Office, or his residence? Are there meetings more sensitive than others? And am I in those? Sometimes, sometimes not. I’m certainly not going to go in and take photos while he’s privately eating lunch. Nobody likes to be photographed while they’re eating.
ELIZABETH FLOCK: In a previous interview you gave, you said never talked politics or religion with people you worked with, when you were photographing Sarah Palin —
SHEALAH CRAIGHEAD: That’s not my job, my job is to document, job is to keep it simple. I’m not hired to be a policy adviser. This goes back to journalism days. A professor in photojournalism said you should always be neutral, talking about when you let personal beliefs in you sway the eye. So I decided I would make a conscious effort to keep my personal beliefs separate. I’m very set on making sure my career is very neutral. If you’re able to separate yourself from your issue, then you can make an image that is strong and compelling and informative, strong and honest in the moment.
ELIZABETH FLOCK: How much sleep do you get? Do you get any days off, free time?
SHEALAH CRAIGHEAD: I’m on my fourth day off right now since January when I started. The hours start in the morning and go very late.
The weekend I had off after we got back from Paris I slept from 5:30 p.m. to 5:30 a.m. the next day, pretty much solid. That was supposed to be 30 minute nap. (Laughs) I do yoga, try to stay in shape. It’s a physically demanding job, because sometimes I’m carrying 10, 20 pounds in a backpack, and you’re on your feet 16 hours a day. I also ride a motorcycle, which is the most calming space for me, because you can’t do anything on it, you just have to focus and drive.
This is the toughest job I’ve ever been in. You’re not only making photos every day, you’re managing a team, from the ground up, like a startup. I think everything tends to take six months in this world, until you get comfortable. You get your foot in the door, there’s shock and awe, then it’s: “Oh crap, how do I sustain this?” Then finally you get to that stage of sustainability, and the air is a little bit sweeter, and the sleep is more than four hours a night.
Below, see more of Craighead’s photos and her stories behind them.
This was my second day photographing President Trump. What was leading up to that was pure jumping in with both feet, going in a thousand miles an hour, figuring out where you’re supposed to be. I was sort of trying to observe him and Mrs. Trump at the same time, and find quiet moments in between. I knew inauguration was going to be pure chaos….At one point, I thought, “I don’t see him in the room, where did they go?” They were in the Blue Room having tea with the Obamas, and I stepped back because there’s only so many interaction photos you can take. Stepping back while taking photos gives you a better perspective. But all the sudden he was gone, and I found him in the Red Room.
This was also one of the first few weekends the president was in the White House. We were waiting for him to come to the movie theater to watch a family movie, and I went to scope out who was there, to get bearings on the space. And I saw Ivanka there with her son, and I just love the light in that room. I was observing a little before I took that to see how she moves. I was taken with the grace [she shows], and she’s slender and tall and in heels and carrying a baby and on the phone. I thought “who can do that, amazing.”
To be honest, I don’t watch the news, and I’m not on social media anymore — let alone sort of follow what’s going on, [so I didn’t know the image of Trump with other foreign leaders gathered around a globe had gone viral]. I figured out that staying off social media was the best way to keep my head down and do my job. If people are going to make fun, you can take the sweetest photo and somebody is going to find a way to criticize you. I just remember it being incredibly crowded in that moment, getting elbowed.
I try to show a signing that’s not the same photo you can do every time, which is a redundant image. But it’s not a redundant event. The signing is important every time, but the visual works the same — and it’s not the same. This was the executive order around the pipeline, and I think I moved around the room on my stool. I bring the stool everywhere, lose all pride. (Laughs)
That moment was spontaneous. Each time Mrs. Trump goes out in public, she becomes more comfortable. Being in that space, it was a nice moment of watching her and the child she was sitting next to.
The president was eating and then the flight was landing. It was a very, very short flight. And the press wanted to photograph him in office on the first flight. The press was rushed in there, so I thought the moment was more about press documenting his first flight in office, than just a portrait of him on Air Force One.
It’s often easy to get caught up in the press pool — they have such a short amount of access and time. When they come into a space, it’s so easy to get swept up in the high energy. So it’s a challenge to pull yourself out and pause. You think: what does the moment look like from this side of the room. You step out of the scrum, which is sometimes not possible because you’re packed in so tightly. But what I love about working with the press pool it it’s seasoned vets, they challenge me, and sometimes I think: “How did I miss that?”