March 20, 2011

White House, local color

Documenting history takes Maine photojournalist from war to 'wow' moments with Obamas

By Jonathan Riskind
Washington Bureau Chief

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.

click image to enlarge

President and Michelle Obama talk with photographer Samantha Appleton, a Camden native, after the National Medal of Arts and National Humanities event in the Blue Room of the White House earlier this month.

Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

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President Obama holds a tortilla from the buffet table at the White House Cinco de Mayo celebration as he and first lady Michelle Obama take an elevator to the private residence after the event on May 4, 2009.

Official White House Photo by Samantha Appleton

Additional Photos Below

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.

(Continued on page 2)

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Additional Photos

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Sadr City Shiites pray and wail in the darkness amid bombing and heavy fighting in the Baghdad slum in April 2004. They had gathered in a home for the funeral of a young man killed earlier that day by U.S. soldiers. The April uprising, in which Shiites took up arms against the occupation en masse for the first time, was one of the bloodiest months since the war in Iraq began in 2003.

Samantha Appleton photo


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