WASHINGTON – From settling into her seat aboard Air Force One to walking into presidential palaces abroad to witnessing historic events at the White House, Mainer Samantha Appleton always appreciates the moments afforded by her extraordinary job.
Appleton is one of four White House staff photographers, and her job is to document presidential history.
The 36-year-old Camden native came to the White House about a month after President Obama’s inauguration, leaving her life as a freelance photojournalist for publications such as Time and the New Yorker. She had spent years traveling overseas, including stints covering conflicts in Lebanon and Iraq.
Appleton said she doesn’t take photographs any differently now than she did as an independent journalist.
“It’s all in how I approach things,” Appleton said. “I am not able to be in Libya and Egypt — and part of me is watching what my friends are doing and their incredible work and I am envious.”
But Appleton says she values being on “the other side of the glass and witnessing the White House working on these issues.”
“A picture of the president making a statement about Egypt has great historical presence,” Appleton said. “Maybe the image doesn’t have the same graphic presence as protesters in Tahrir Square, but it does have historical weight. I keep that in mind.”
Appleton covers both the president and first lady Michelle Obama. Sometimes the assignment is simply to be close by, even when Obama is working in the Oval Office, in case an important meeting takes place or a telephone call with a foreign leader occurs.
“Everything is documented,” Appleton said. “It’s history.”
Other times, her job might take her to the school the Obamas’ children attend or to witness presidential golf. Those personal moments generally aren’t for public consumption, and there are times when Appleton knows it’s not a good time to snap a shot, but they have generated up-close and intimate portraits that will go into the presidential archives.
It is up to the White House to decide which images are released, Appleton said.
All of her photos will be available at an Obama presidential library one day, either on display or at least available to researchers, Appleton expects.
Appleton, whose family owns the Waterfront Restaurant in Camden, developed her passion for journalism in high school and then focused on photojournalism at the University of Washington in Seattle.
“When I was in high school, I started reading The New York Times every day and knew that I wanted to be a foreign correspondent,” Appleton said.
But when she went to college and worked on the student newspaper, she also started taking photographs.
“I found photography to be a better fit for my personality than writing,” Appleton said. “It took off from there.”
Alice Gabriner, now photo editor at National Geographic magazine, first met Appleton when Gabriner was a photo editor at Time and Appleton was an assistant to renowned photographer and Time contributor James Nachtwey. When the war in Iraq began in 2003, they worked together on assignments in and out of Iraq.
“She is a savvy and smart journalist, so for me, as a photo editor in an office in New York City, she was an important connection and sounding board for the events happening on the ground,” Gabriner said.
When Iraq became too dangerous in 2005 for her to continue working there, Appleton turned her attention to immigration issues. In 2007, Time did a cover story based on Appleton’s work documenting illegal Mexicans and Central Americans in the United States, Gabriner said.
As her editor, Gabriner says, she heard many stories from Appleton’s journalistic travels.
There was the time, for instance, that Appleton “called from India and nonchalantly described being attacked by pimps at a circus in northern India, where she was photographing young Nepalese girls who it appeared were being kept as prostitutes,” Gabriner recalled.
Did Appleton’s family worry about her dangerous assignments? Of course, says her sister, Ileana Appleton. But the family has confidence in her ability, she said.
“She has this sort of chameleon sense about her, not only in the way she looks, but how she knows what is appropriate in different situations and cultures,” her sister said.
During the 2008 presidential campaign, Appleton returned home to Maine while shooting the New Hampshire primary for the New Yorker. She found the candidate she most enjoyed photographing was Obama.
Appleton freely acknowledges that she likes and admires both Obamas, saying they are genuine people who don’t put on different private and public faces.
“When he is on camera, he is the same as when he is off camera,” Appleton says of the president, adding that it’s the same with the first lady. “They are the way they appear.”
The White House doesn’t publish the salaries earned by its photographers. But they earn in the low to mid-range for a White House staffer, which would be anywhere from the mid-$40,000 level to the mid-$70,000 level, based on typical White House salaries that are made public.
Gabriner, who also worked with Appleton at the White House for nearly two years, said Appleton’s photographs “remind me of Monet paintings” in how she uses color and light.
“Her pictures have impact because they are surprising, portraying familiar situations in a new way,” she said.
Appleton has traveled to Maine with President Obama once, a trip to Portland last April for a health care event. That produced both a presidential moment for her sister, Ileana, and a bit of a presidential chiding of Appleton.
Appleton had brought her parents, Annie and Sam, to the appearance. But she brought her sister, a 26-year-old graphic designer who lives in Camden, backstage to meet Obama.
When she later told the president that her parents were there, too, and she had failed to bring them back, “he got mad at me,” Appleton says, chuckling.
Regardless, it was a “wonderful moment,” Ileana said.
“Even one of Obama’s higher-up Secret Service (officials) came up and introduced himself to me and I realized how close she is to all these people,” Ileana said.
Appleton, who is single, gets back to Maine about twice a year to visit friends and family. Two of her four siblings — three brothers and a sister — remain in the state.
Appleton said she can’t imagine ever getting jaded about what she does and the places it takes her.
Some of her “wow” moments have included shooting Obama at a civil rights-themed night of music at the White House, featuring singers such as Smokey Robinson and Bob Dylan.
Another was a July 2009 Rose Garden event with Nouri al-Maliki, the prime minister of Iraq, whom Appleton had met and photographed when she worked in Iraq.
“Those two parts of my life converging in one place was a deep moment for me,” she said.
Appleton doesn’t expect to move back into her old daily journalistic life, but she still intends to cover foreign nations and war zones.
It isn’t that she views her work at the White House as a barrier toward going back to daily journalism, it’s just that she envisions a career of working on long-term projects involving books and more educational efforts.
For now, while she documents history, Appleton also does some personal documenting: She saves every Air Force One seat assignment card with her name on it, writing the destination and nature of each trip on it to make sure she’ll remember it all accurately.
“You never get fully used to it,” Appleton said of her job. “It’s always very special.”
Washington Bureau Chief Jonathan Riskind can be contacted at 791-6280 or at: