What It's Like Photographing the President: Behind-the-Scenes Smiles, Wrangling the Dogs and 'Tough' Moments
"You really have to be able to predict what people are going to do," Adam Schultz, the White House chief photographer, tells PEOPLE
A typical day at the office for Adam Schultz begins much like that for anyone else: get into work, check emails, plan out the day with colleagues — but by 9:30 a.m., he's shifted gears.
"That's when I grab my cameras, memory cards, equipment and start following the president around," Schultz tells PEOPLE.
As the chief White House photographer, the 37-year-old Schultz is tasked with capturing history as it happens. He joins President Joe Biden in meetings with world leaders, while Biden works in the Oval Office and when Biden travels. (Schultz spoke with PEOPLE on Thursday morning aboard Air Force One.)
"As someone who's documenting a presidency, you just have to be there," he says.
Schultz serves as the head of the White House's seven-person photo team, which includes archivists, photographers, printers and editors. They work as in-house history-keepers, recording the commander-in-chief as well as the vice president, their spouses and families of those in the White House.
A newly launched Instagram account, as Biden crosses his first 100 days in office, offers a window to some of the photography staff's favorite images.
Schultz describes it as a way of documenting the daily life of the president — without, he says, any political messaging.
"The president has his Instagram, and the first lady has one, and the White House has one and they're all very important avenues of communicating," Schultz says. "What I want to do with this Instagram account is ... create a place where the photographs just live and stand on their own."
As Shultz explains, the most challenging aspect of his role in the current climate is taking candid photos amid a pandemic — one that frequently sees the president and vice president donning face masks and standing at least six feet apart from each other and anyone else.
"This type of executive photography typically includes a lot of handshakes, hugs, photo lines, greeting in happy moments — the social distancing and the masks make it very difficult to shoot around," Schultz says. "So you have to wait for really great moments, where you can see that they're smiling or laughing, even in the mask."
But there are plenty of other challenges, as well — namely, being able to forecast what might happen in any given situation and gauge the mood of all of those in room.
"You have to pay attention to whatever's going on, especially in meetings," says Schultz, who has been photographing Biden since 2019. "That might mean that sometimes, after I get what I need, it might be appropriate to step out during a meeting. But it's also just being ready for any moments that might happen in a meeting — so you can catch that laughter or a particular facial expression."
Schultz describes a recent scene of a meeting that would almost be mundane were it not for the presence of the president of the United States, which makes every moment potentially memorable.
"He had a protein shake on his desk, and that's what I wanted to capture. You know at some point, he's going to pause and take a sip from his shake — you just don't know when. You have to be ready to get that shot when he picks it up," Schultz says.
While he photographs both candid shots and portraits, Schultz says the everyday moments are his favorite — particularly of Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris.
"They know each other, they know each other's families ... when you're in my capacity, you kind of learn to read the room and know what the feeling is," Schultz says, "but there have not been many times when I'm in the room with them when there's not laughter or a joke. Their work is very important work, but they are very good about keeping it cordial and having fun."
More challenging as a subject, however, are the pets — like the Bidens' two dogs, Major and Champ. (The former has already gained a bit of a reputation after he had a "biting incident" with security and subsequently received training.)
"Biden was working in the Oval Office and the two dogs happened to be there, so I said, 'Sir, we should take a picture with the dogs,' " Schultz remembers.
While the end result turned out well — depicting Biden perched at the edge of the Resolute Desk as both dogs pose proudly in front — it wasn't an effortless shot, Schultz admits.
"Pets are tricky to photograph because they move around a lot. Major, the younger one ... he's a dog that has unlimited energy," Schultz says with a laugh. "Trying to capture him in a moment where he's just sitting there was not easy."
"You're with this person everyday, so you experience the highs and the lows," he says, recounting a recent photograph that illustrates the sadness that can accompany the presidency. "It was St. Patricks Day and we had just gotten back to the White House after a weekend away. There's a photograph I took of him [Biden], in his private dining room, on a call about a recent mass shooting."
Schultz continues: "It was just a really tough moment and he has his head down, looking at a briefing and he's on the phone with the FBI, and it's this really telling moment of what the presidency can be, and how tough it can be. This great joyous day of celebration — yet he's had to sit there and deal with this heartbreaking moment."
Even amid the serious moments, Schultz says he feel privileged to get a front-row seat to history — and to connect with the president on a personal level, bonding over things like a shared love for classic cars.
Biden, an avowed aficionado, has an enviable collection — the star of which is a Godhood-Green 1967 Chevrolet Corvette, a wedding gift from his father that he houses in Delaware.
"One of my top five days, definitely, was when we were at his house, and he showed me this Corvette that was a gift from his father," Schultz says. "He's had this car since I can't even remember when — he's been the only owner. And I was an auto mechanic in college and am kind of a car nut so to be able to pop the hood and look underneath, that's right up my alley."
Schultz continues: "And to sit there and walk through all that stuff with him — what size the engine block is, the difference between carbureted and fuel-injected engines and talk about fuel standards that he actually helped implement — that was very neat. It happens to also be a really cool car. But to see it with the president, in his driveway, that was pretty great."
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