There is a tradition of presidents having a single photographer chronicling the experience of their administration. There are obviously lots of photographers taking photos of the administration for various news outlets, and there are White House staff photographers, but only one is tapped to be the chief White House photographer to the president. It has always been considered a bipartisan position, chronicling the day in, day out moments of one of the most powerful people in the world. One can argue that most White House photographers end up partisan to their subjects regardless of their personal politics, but in general they are the fly on the wall with the most intimate access to photographing the administration they are covering.
Shealah Craighead was Donald Trump’s single-term chief White House photographer. According to The New York Times, Craighead was given the job after someone else fell through. She came to the Trump White House after having worked as a staff photographer under George W. Bush. She had also done a lot of work with Republican senators like Marco Rubio and Joni Ernst. Craighead, like virtually every other chief White House photographer in recent memory, had planned on publishing a collection of the photos she took during her time in the White House as a book. Guess what? Donald Trump figured out a way to screw her over and profit off of her work.
The Times reports that right away, unlike previous presidents Reagan, Bush, and Obama, Trump wanted some kind of financial deal in exchange for writing a foreword for Craighead’s proposed book. Previous presidents have written forewords for these collections for free, and for good reason: It’s a historical document, and doing nice things for the person collecting your legacy in images tends to be a relatively intelligent thing to do. There’s also the idea of someone being a human whose interactions are not simply transactional with the people with whom you spend almost 24 hours a day for years. Obviously that is not true for Donald Trump.
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Craighead had reportedly secured Trump’s commitment to write the foreword and had negotiated a contract with a publisher when she suddenly heard from a Donald representative that Trump would have to wait before he wrote a foreword for her. How come? It turns out he had scooped up her photos and then began selling his own book for $75 a pop and $229.99 for a signed copy in his “Winning Team Publishing” section of his merchandising operation. Winning Team Publishing is “co-founded by Donald Trump Jr. and Sergio Gor, a former Capitol Hill aide and Republican campaign operative.”
The Donald representative told Craighead that Trump’s publisher had added a “noncompete” clause in their contract, so that meant the foreword for her book would have to be put on hold for a bit. How do you spell gross? “T-R-U-M-P,” of course. To be clear, Donald Trump not only screwed Craighead out of the possibility of releasing her own collection of her work—he did it in the most petty way.
The 317-page book Mr. Trump published in December, titled “Our Journey Together,” includes no photo credits. It does not mention any of the photographers who took the images until the last page, where he briefly offered a “grateful acknowledgment” to “all the phenomenal White House photographers,” listing them by name, including Ms. Craighead, whose pictures make up much of the book.
It is important to point out here that Trump’s 317-page book seems to be the first time a president decided to personally profit from the release of such a document. Other presidents like Bush and Obama have released autobiographies that used some of the photos taken during their administration, but they weren’t selling a photo book of other people’s work for their profit.
Mr. Gor said the company had sold out the first 300,000 copies — which at $75 a piece for the unsigned version suggests gross sales of at least $20 million, assuming many were not given away. In addition to his advance payment, Mr. Trump is likely to earn a share of all book sales.
Craighead told the Times that she wasn’t going to comment on the specifics of their story, but she did say that she had ended her own book project for now, at least. “I stay apolitical as possible, as I am a neutral historical documentarian. By staying neutral I am able to remain a keen observer.”
The impulse to say that this is simply schadenfreude is strong. Donald Trump has a long history of just screwing over anyone and anything that comes into his orbit, but the White House photographer is probably the most objective staff position available to anyone in an administration. The chronicling of the president of the United States is a lot different than taking a job so you can try and secure your fossil fuel profits.