How to Shoot a President:
Advice from Susan Biddle
Former The Washington Post photojournalist Susan Biddle spent five years working in the White House. When she first came, she documented Ronald Reagan’s presidency, and later she became the personal photographer of George H. W. Bush. Susan Biddle gave a lecture on how to shoot a head of the state, and Bird In Flight summarizes it.
Photographer and journalist from Washington, D.C. Worked as a photojournalist for The Washington Post. Worked as a personal photographer in the White House for Ronald Reagan in in the last year of his presidency and for George H.W. Bush. Currently lives in Silver Spring, Md.
— One photographer once told me: “Photography is a ticket into other people’s lives.” I am kind of nosy, but little did I know that I would end up in the life of the President of the United States. When this call came to work in the White House, I wasn’t sure I wanted to do it. I was very happy at the Denver Post, and working at the White House sounded more like public relations to me, and I was more interested in journalism. When I was going to take the presidential photographer job, Pete Souza told me: “If you’re going up the journalism track, the White House means diverting from it.”
In addition, you have to go through a background check by the FBI for your security clearance. A friend of mine told me that they called her up and asked: “Do you think she could be bribed? Do you think she has money problems?” It was very uncomfortable. Despite it all, I decided to take the job. I thought that I’d only do it for a year, but I ended up spending five full years at the White House.
Find Your Way to Do It
I think journalism is a ‘love it or else’ profession, you really have to hang with it, and you have to do every assignment that comes along. Coming to the White House, I tried to approach it from a journalistic point of view. To show as much as I possibly could about this man who was President was my goal. I tried to show his character and his expressions and all of that.
Now a lot of people are complaining because the photographs that are coming out of the Trump White House are all meetings, and very formal settings, and there is sort of no behind the scenes stuff. I remember that every time Papa Bush, Vice President at the time, would come into President Reagan’s Oval Office, they always sat in the same two chairs. Vice President Bush would always go for the jar of jelly beans, because President Reagan loved jelly beans, and he always kept a jar. My job was to document the presidency for history.
Be Ready for Trouble
At the White House, when we were traveling out of the country, because I was a woman, I was discriminated against by security guards often, who would push me out of the way until they found out that I was with the President. I remember one time in China I was slammed against a wall, although they later apologized.
I wouldn’t say I experienced any discrimination working at the White House. Although, when Mrs. Reagan was the First Lady, she wanted all of us to wear dresses. And you know as a photographer it’s not easy wearing a skirt. I just tried to wear things that I wouldn’t trip on. And then once Bush came in, we could wear pants.
Be Friends with the President But Remain Objective
You inevitably become friends with the President with time, but I always tried to stay a journalist, an observer from the outside. One time, I was out on a boat with President Bush in the summer in the state of Maine. And he started asking me about my boyfriends. And it was one guy, and he said — okay, how would you rate him on a scale from one to ten. It’s kind of like going to camp: you are all in the same place for a long time, for four years we were all traveling together.
One time, Bush was fishing, but he was simultaneously working on his briefing papers about the fact that Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. He loved to fish, but everybody said he was a terrible fisherman because he was so impatient. And one day, he actually caught a fish, and he was walking with this expression of ‘oh yeah, I do it all the time.’
Forget About Your Personal Life
The schedule of a White House photographer is insane. And it’s not very good for relationships. That one boyfriend that President Bush asked me about — that ended. I was just gone all the time. And sometimes you get no sleep, like two hours of sleep — and then you are on the plane again. The President has a bedroom and a shower on his plane. But the rest of us stayed in a hotel, had to pack our suitcases at a certain time, and moving around just took us a whole lot longer.
Mostly very formal photographs from the White House are released to the media: handshakes, smiles for the camera. I was always interested in something personal. Something I wanted to show was the relationship between the President and Mrs. Bush. They were very close, but they never made public displays of affection. I knew that every morning she went swimming in the pool which was off to the left from the path that he followed into the Oval Office. So I thought I was going to wake up very early and go out there to see if anything happens. And he kissed her goodbye.
Know Your Place
Working in the White House was a little militaristic in that it was regimented. I knew what I had to do every day. I knew where I could go and where I couldn’t go. When you are in newspapers, it’s harder, because a lot of times you are making something out of nothing. You tend to have preconceptions, which is not a good idea. It’s better to go there with an open mind and not be disappointed when you get there and find that what you had in your mind isn’t really there. When you are with the press, you have to push through boundaries: if there is a gate, you have to learn to push your way through it.
I have always thought that humor was a very important part of working at the White House. If you don’t have a sense of humor, I don’t think you can get through the stress. I remember a meeting between Bush Sr. and Gorbachev. At that moment, I was the only person there, and they were looking at their watches. In America, we have Domino’s pizza, and if they don’t deliver in 30 minutes, you get a free pizza. So we joked that that’s why they were looking at their watches.
Remember That You Are There to Take Pictures
I wanted to record everything that I could even if it were a little awkward. I knew: since I was a White House photographer, it wasn’t necessarily going to get out. I wasn’t the person to decide whether to let it out, but I was going to photograph it.
One time, the President was talking on the phone with Gorbachev, who was then under house arrest in Crimea. The press secretary wanted me to release one of the photographs to the press and he told me to pick the picture. So I did. It looked real: his hair was disheveled, Mrs. Bush looked concerned, they were in the bedroom. And then the press-secretary asked me: “Why didn’t you do something about his hair?” And I said I was not going to touch the President’s hair. The press secretary didn’t like that picture.
To take a good picture, the first thing is to be there. As my colleague said, every chance you get to be some place, just get there. Just get there and do what you can. One time, Bush Sr. met with the Secretary of State James Baker. And when the press was there, they were all smiley and light. But when I was the only one who stayed there, they definitely had a look of concern. Something must have been off.
I loved the situations like this, when I was the only person there with a camera.
Don’t Burn Bridges
If you’re just starting out, don’t burn bridges. You never know what’s gonna happen in the future. When I was working at The Denver Post, I had a call from out of the blue from a guy I had known at another newspaper who asked me if I was interested in working at the White House. So, you want to be careful about your relationships and not ending things.
I know Shealah Craighead who recently became Trump’s photographer. I congratulated her on that and I advised her to stake out her territory right away, to have as much access as she possibly could. She told me that was really good advice and asked me if I was interested in coming back. And I said no. Because I’ve already done it, plus frankly I don’t want to work for Trump.