President Bush and then First Lady Laura Bush walking down Pennsylvania Avenue to the North Grounds of the White House.
Paul Morse, nicknamed “Pablo” by President George W. Bush, is a Washington, D.C. based photographer. He worked at the White House as Deputy Director of Photography from 2001 until 2007. Prior to the White House, Paul worked at the Los Angeles Times as a staff photographer for six years, covering sports, news, and the entertainment industry.
Today, Paul is working as a corporate and editorial photographer, and continues to produce amazing images of people famous, unknown, and somewhere in between.
I’ve always been curious about the job of “presidential photographer,” and now that the Bush Administration is no longer in the White House, I felt it was a good time to ask Paul. The truth is, I’ve been wanting to ask him these questions for a while, but didn’t want to cause him to break some secret oath or something.
I was also curious about making the transition into, and out of, such a role. Once it’s all over, where do you go from there? How do you resume a normal career as a photographer after you’ve been hanging with the President for years?
Paul was super cool and agreed to answer all my questions. So I thought I’d share…
Grover: You worked for newspapers for a while. I know you interned at
Newsday (like me!), and you worked at the LA Times, then spent some
time working as a White House staff photographer during the Bush years,
and now you’re doing the freelance thing. What am I missing?
Paul Morse: I started out with a degree in Journalism from California
State University Long beach and did 5 internships before getting hired
on as staff photographer for the Pasadena Star-News. I took a buy out
from the Star-News (sound familiar) and went freelance for a few months
before the LA Times offered me a job. Eric Draper, my college buddy,
asked me to come help him inaugural day 2001 and soon offered me a job
at the White House as the Deputy Director of Photography. I did that
till early 2006 and went out on my own to get some balance in my life.
Grover: As a freelance photographer today, what type of work are you producing, and who are your clients? Are you shooting editorial, corporate, or both? What region of the world are you working in?
Paul: I’m shooting corporate and editorial jobs around Washington DC but the wedding side of my business is really picking up. Ideally I would love to shoot more annual reports and had the chance to do one last year for the International Finance Corporation. The great thing about that job is they wanted me document their board of directors in a photojournalistic style like I would cover the President at the White House.
Grover: The story about your start at the Bush White House, at least the story I heard, is pretty interesting. How did it really go down?
Paul: It was strange how I got hired and the unnecessary drama that happened with the LA Times. I never sought out the White House job; I came to DC to help Eric get his office running. Before I left for DC I asked my photo editor if this was OK, he said yes as long as I used my own time. Right before I got on the plane I asked him again if it was OK and if the Director of Photography at the LAT was OK with it too. He said he would tell him and it should be cool. Well it wasn’t cool with the DOP because they thought I was working for a news source and it would be a conflict of interest but no one asked me to come back till a few days later when I called in. I suddenly found out that I was going to be fired if I did any more work for Eric (who had offered me a job). Rather than end my newspaper career by being fired I went back to LA and officially resigned from the staff job there and accepted a job at the White House. The executive editor who had been quoted in a story later in the NY Times about the incident talked to me personally when I came back and complimented me on how I handle the situation and said he would be interested in having me back if at the end of working for the White House. Long story I know…
President Bush. Photo by Paul Morse.
Grover: After you got the offer to join the staff, did you have to go through crazy background checks before it became official?
Paul: I had to fill out a 15-page background check form and list everyplace I lived for the past 15 years! Try remembering all the places you lived in college and you know how hard that can be. Then using my references the FBI called on those people and many others I didn’t list and somehow I was given a top-secret clearance 6 months later. I learn through that experience if you have done something questionable over the years it’s much better to admit it and keep your story consistent. I never talk about my clearance but would love ask TSA agents if they have the same.
Grover: As an outsider, the job sounds really cool. Is it? What’s a typical day like?
Paul: The job is very cool and there wouldn’t be a day when I’d wonder when someone would catch on that we were actually getting paid to do this. We would follow the President’s schedule very closely and divide up the workload depending on that schedule. Typically I would be there at 6:30AM most weeks and cover the first part of the day in the Oval Office until Eric came in. If there were a domestic trip we would divide them up and of foreign trips all but one of us plus an editor would go. There were things always going on and even though the schedule was heavy with meetings and events, the best photos came at moments you didn’t expect.
Grover: What happens to all the images that you shot while working in the White House? Do you have access to them, or are they filed away in some government vault? Do you have access to any of it, or the right to use it in a portfolio, or on the web?
Paul: All the images I shot are considered Presidential Records and are headed to the President’s library in Texas. I don’t own them but I have copies which I can use for self-promotion purposes only. So I have some on my web site and it was really tough to get even those. I have to say it was very frustrating because by being the nice guy and asking permission I had to jump through so many hoops to use images that the public can see already on the White House website which are considered in the Public Domain.
Grover: Security is such a huge concern, so I bet traveling overseas with the President was quite different than traveling for the LA Times. Sure, you got a great plane ride, and no wait at the airport – but other than that, did the Secret Service watch you guys too?
Paul: Security was really tight and we were definitely in the “Bubble.” We would wear “hard pins” which is a symbol to the USSS agents that we were OK and they wouldn’t question who we were. Those pins are only recognized by the USSS and not by other cops or government security forces, ESPCIALLY in South Africa and China 🙂
Josh Bolten and staff meet Bono. West Wing, 2006. Photo by Paul Morse.
Grover: Has your time in the White House helped your current freelance career?
Paul: My White House time has helped my in a few situations but I would have to say it’s really been tough to convince people to look beyond WHO I worked for and look the quality of work I did and my experience. I never took the job for political reasons and the President never asked my opinion so I didn’t develop any policy there. For the weddings it has been great. I think about if I had the chance to refuse the job back in 2001 would I considering how it’s been a tough burden to get from underneath, I still would have done it because the experience was so rich.
President Bush and Sec. Condoleezza Rice meeting with the Dalai Lama. Yellow Oval Room. Private Residence. Photo by Paul Morse
Grover: You’re a PhotoShelter user! (awesome!) What features of PhotoShelter are you taking advantage of?
Paul: I love the flash galleries on PhotoShelter!!! I made one from my inauguration images in 5 minutes and sent it out right away. It was soooooo easy and it looks great. Having the option for people to but prints or for publications to download an image with the pricing parameters built in saves me a ton of time.
Grover: You’ve been on many sides of the industry — college intern, newspaper staffer, White House staff photographer, freelance photographer — what is it like being totally on your own now? How do you promote and market yourself?
Paul: Being out on my own is kind scary right now but I have always believed if you work really hard on any opportunity you are given people will notice. I’m an optimist and feel like waves moving across the ocean there will always be new chances to work. It has taken a bit of pride swallowing in some respects coming from the White House but once I got over that and put my energies in the right direction things have started to happen.
I think being a nice guy, never forgetting how small the photo world is and nurturing relationships is the best way I have found to promote myself. That and viral marketing. Never before has it been so easy to share your images with others and have them share them with their friends and colleagues and so on and so on…
President Bush: Post-election Press Conference. East Room. Cross Hall. Photo by Paul Morse.