Interview: Joe Biden’s official photographer Adam Schultz – “Every day I get to do this is a special day”

Adam Schultz, oficial photographer for the Biden For President campaign. Photo: Drew Heskett

Adam Schultz is a busy man. Official photographer for Joe Biden’s presidential campaign, he’s traveling all over the US with the candidate, taking and sharing pictures of the campaign trail. We caught up with Adam recently to talk about what it means to shoot for a presidential campaign, how 2020 differs from previous election cycles, and why he can’t wait until it’s possible to take pictures of people without masks on.

All pictures courtesy of Adam Schultz unless otherwise noted. The following interview has been edited for clarity and flow.

How do you end up as a campaign photographer?

Well in 2016 I worked on the Hillary campaign with Barbara Kinney, who was one of the White House photographers in the 90s, and before that I worked at the Clinton Foundation for eight or nine years. I’ve always been interested in politics and photography. It’s a really interesting niche, being able to use photographs to show what these people do on a day to day basis.

An early January shot of presidential candidate Joe Biden with supporters at Simpson College, Indianola, Iowa.

The Biden campaign trialled a bunch of photographers in the early days, but I remember on one of the longer flights back to Delaware, I was showing VP Biden the pictures on my computer, and he was going through them, and he turned to me and asked if he could put some of the pictures on his phone. And that’s when I thought ‘OK, good, he gets it, he likes this stuff!’ From that point on I’ve just stuck close and tried to build trust with him.

What is it about politics and politicians which interests you as a photographer?

I’ve always thought of myself as being a politically-conscious person, I try to keep my ear to the ground, and keep an eye on the issues that affect people. For me personally, I grew up in a household where my parents both had strong opinions, and they always talked about issues, and how important it was to vote, so it’s always been a part of my life.

Being able to combine photography and politics, well that’s a neat job!

A typical ‘pre-COVID’ campaign-trail scene in St Louis, taken in early February, before lockdown measures were put in place.

What does your role as campaign photographer involve?

A lot of it is generating marketing materials, effectively. In this campaign, because of the pandemic, we’ve concentrated a lot more on pictures that show the candidate with people. Whether that’s working on rope-lines or talking to supporters, and making sure that we get the shot of him walking out with the flag of a state behind him, to visually illustrate the fact that he’s at a certain location.

So every day I wake up, look at the schedule, and determine ‘OK, from this event we need a picture of X, Y and Z and from this meeting, we need a picture of him greeting such and such a person’.

If you go to our Flickr account, we’ve done a pretty good job of sharing photos from pretty much every public event that we do. One of the things I wanted to do a lot of in this campaign was to let people see what is actually happening. And Flickr is a great public forum where people can see the photos.

How has the pandemic affected your work on this campaign compared to 2016?

There were a couple of months when we were figuring out our COVID testing, and there were a lot of unknowns around what was safe, and what we could do. Questions like ‘Can we fly?’ And first and foremost, the campaign – and vice-president Biden – has said ‘safety first’. Wear a mask, get tested, all that stuff. There were a handful of times when I saw vice-president Biden before we started rigorous testing, but now, every day before I see him I get tested. So that’s definitely an extra layer, operationally, which has to be built into the schedule.

We always make sure we know exactly how many people can be in a space, what the safe distance is, and of course masks

But this is go-time – we do things every day. We’ve gotten around a lot, and the pictures show it. We’re out at events, being socially distanced, and we’re always following local guidelines, whether that’s state, county or city, whatever. We always make sure we know exactly how many people can be in a space, what the safe distance is, and of course masks. We follow mask mandates religiously. In my opinion, that indicates true leadership. We have to set a good example.

Presidential candidate Joe Biden speaks to his running mate, Kamala Harris, via video call, in August 2020.

Have all of those restrictions affected how you work as a photographer? Are there pictures this time around that you just haven’t been able to get?

One of the things that we used to love to do before the pandemic was rope-line moments. Often VP Biden would spend more time on the line talking to people after an event than the actual event ran for. You have to think about who those people are, who take time out of their day to come to the events and hang out on the line afterwards to talk to him, and tell him about their issues. Unfortunately, this time around, it’s been tough to talk to people like that and shake their hands.

As a photographer, that’s tricky. Events are socially distanced, and group photos always have to have six feet of distance between people. If you look at the photos we’re capturing now compared to this time last year, there’s a huge difference. Last year it was have been pictures of the candidate speaking, working the rope line, group photos, all the traditional kinds of pictures you’d see from a political campaign, but this is a wild time.

I’ll spend a fair amount of time trying to get shots showing what the event looks like from VP Biden’s perspective.

What does that mean for you technically?

One of the things I’ve always tried to do is move around a lot. As much as possible. When we go into a space I’ll move around and get the typical shots, then I’ll spend a fair amount of time trying to get shots showing what the event looks like from VP Biden’s perspective. And that’s where a lens like the 100-400mm is great, you can get those really tight shots. One thing that I’m doing in this role is documenting what the candidate sees, and what he’s thinking about.

If we’re in a smaller room, the trick is to take a picture of two people standing on opposite sides of that room, I’ll reach for the 16-35mm. But I’ll also back up on the 85mm, and for larger events the 100-400mm is great. It’s a really versatile lens. Being able to move around, both physically and in terms of focal length is really important.

Are you looking forward to the day when you can take pictures of people without masks?

We always follow local guidelines, and if the guidelines say ‘wear a mask everywhere, no matter what’ then VP Biden does that. It’s a tough thing to shoot around, because it makes it tough to capture really good moments sometimes. You’ll hear people say ‘I’m smiling with my eyes’ and you can see that, but it’s not the same.

Once we make it through this, God willing, it’ll open up a whole different realm of opportunities for photography. Being able to do normal events again, and shake hands with people again, it’ll be great.

An ABC interview with Joe Biden and Kamala Harris in August, conducted according to social distancing guidelines.

What gear do you shoot with right now?

I have three Sony a9 II bodies, about twelve batteries, and four lenses, including the three I mentioned earlier. The Sony FE 16-35mm F2.8 GM, the FE 24-105mm F4 G OSS, which is mostly a backup, then the FE 85mm F1.4 GM, which is a great lens, and the FE 100-400mm F4.5-5.6 GM OSS. For me, it’s tricky because I never know exactly what kind of an event, or situation I’m going to walk into. So having those three bodies and those three main lenses gives me a really wide range of possibilities.

What’s the most fun thing about your job right now?

Right now [October 15th] we’re about two and a half weeks out, and it’s just the excitement. We’ve gone through ups and downs, and good days and bad days. This is a very exciting time. Every day I wake up, and I put all of the experience of the last year and a half to use. I follow his schedule, I do it, get the pictures, then edit. I’ll review the day when I’m going through my selects and I’ll think ‘Oh wow that was a really cool day!’

Every day I get to do this is a special day, and it’s important to remember that

A perfect day is one where we do an unscheduled stop. We used to do a lot of them, and it’s trickier now, but there have been a bunch of times where we’re on a two or three-day trip, and we’ll stop by a restaurant, or go to a little hole-in-the-wall place and order a sandwich or an ice-cream or something. Those kinds of things are great. They put the candidate in front of people who wouldn’t necessarily have seen him otherwise and they add a local flavor to the coverage of the campaign. Having those images peppered in among planned events, that really makes it fun.

Do you have any tips for staying healthy and sane, when you’re traveling so much?

Eat right! And never forget to take a step back and look at where you are. Paul Morse [White House photographer during the George W. Bush administration] told me that. To be in this kind of role, and to be given this kind of opportunity is such a cool thing. Some people might see it as a grind, and it is, but I don’t see it like that. Every day I get to do this is a special day, and it’s important to remember that. It’s not about me. I’m doing my job to make sure that the candidate is painted in a good light. There are rough days, but it’s a very special thing.

You can find more of Adam’s work on Instagram, and the official Biden For President Flickr page.