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Donald Trump exploits photographer’s archive

Former US president, Donald Trump, has cut his chief White House photographer out of a lucrative photo book publishing opportunity and gone ahead with it independently, breaking a 30 year tradition.

Trump on inauguration day. Photo: Shealah Craighead

Since Ronald Reagan’s presidency ended in 1989, it has been a tradition for chief white house photographers to publish a photo book after a president leaves office. This photographer travels the world, spending hours documenting the president, resulting in a body of work that is curated into a book to sum up the president’s character and events they oversaw.

‘It’s valuable for each chief photographer to do a book just for the historic record and put it together in a way that it tells sort of their story and contextualises images,’ said Peter Souza, who worked as a chief White House photographer under Barack Obama and Reagan.

The likes of Obama and George W. Bush even had a good enough working relationship with the photographer that they wrote the foreword of the photo book.

But when Trump’s White House photographer, Shealah Craighead, approached the former president’s aides about having a foreword written, the response wasn’t so warm.

According to the New York Times, Trump’s aides asked for a ‘cut of her book advance payment, in exchange for his writing a foreword and helping promote the book’. Trump’s team later requested Craighead hold off on the book project to ‘allow the former president to take Craighead’s photos and those of other White House staff photographers and publish his own book’.

Under US Federal Law, a White House photographer’s images are in the public domain, meaning Craighead doesn’t retain the copyright and is unable to take legal action. A public Flickr account managed by the US National Archives includes 14,995 images from Trump’s presidency, a third which are credited to Craighead.

Craighead initially unsure about following the White House photographer tradition of publishing a book. She didn’t want to release anything perceived as endorsing or disparaging the controversial US president. While weighing up whether to go ahead with the book, Trump’s aides called her to say he cannot write the foreword due to a ‘noncompete’ with his own publisher.

That publisher is Winning Team Publisher, a company incorporated in October 2021, co-founded by Trump’s son, Donald Trump Jr and Sergio Gor, a Republican party campaign operative. By before Christmas, Trump’s campaign team was sending e-mails promoting the book as a Christmas gift.

According to Vanity Fair, Trump wrote all the captions.

The 317-page book, Our Journey Together, includes no photo credits, and only acknowledges a list of photographer on the last page, the New York Times reports. According to Gor, the publisher sold out of the first 300,000 copies, which at US$75 each equals about US$20 million in sales. It’s also available for US$230 signed by the man himself. Not a bad earner – if true.

Craighead is taking the high road with this one. She told the New York Times she won’t comment on matters involving a former client, and confirmed the book concept isn’t going ahead for now.

‘I stay apolitical as possible, as I am a neutral historical documentarian,’ she told the New York Times. ‘By staying neutral I am able to remain a keen observer.’

Before Trump, Craighead was the official photographer for first lady Laura Bush during the Bush administration, campaign photographer for republican presidential nominee, Sarah Palin, as well as other Republican politicians.

When the Times approached Team Trump about the issue his spokesman, Taylor Budowich, didn’t dispute asking Craighead for a cut from the publisher’s advance, amounting to a figure in ‘the hundreds of thousands of dollars’.

Instead, decided to go a more lucrative route and publish the book in-house for a multimillion-dollar advance.

‘President Trump has always had an eye for beautiful and engaging curation, which came alive through the pages of his book,’ Budowich said in a statement.

A few of Trump’s former aides are speaking out against Trump’s actions.

‘Shea’s a very talented photographer and this was really all of her hard work,’ said Stephanie Grisham, who served as the White House press secretary for Trump and wrote her own book. ‘I just keep thinking: What a shame that he is actually now profiting off of it. But then again, this is the guy who is hawking caps and all kinds of stuff right now to raise money for himself.’

Eric Draper, Bush’s chief White House photographer, said it’s a ‘slap in the face’ to Craighead.

The New York Times goes on to highlight how Trump was often rude to Craighead, insulting her in front of officials, and how he was obsessed with selecting photos of himself to release publicly. So it’s not overly surprising how this has played out.

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