Photographing Trump’s Washington

COM alum Sarah Silbiger is documenting history from the front row

Sarah Silbiger (COM’18), a frequent member of the press pool photographing President Trump, outside the White House. Photo by Stefani Reynolds.

On the eve of the 2016 election, Sarah Silbiger was stuck in a corner of the media area at a Donald Trump rally in Manchester, N.H. Blinded by a laser-light show, deafened by blaring music, and gagging from a nearby smoke machine, the aspiring photojournalist came to a decision. “I remember feeling so miserable and so happy at the same time,” she says. “And I realized that I wanted to photograph politics.”

Then a junior on assignment for the Daily Free Press, Silbiger (COM’18) began plotting a postcollege move to Washington, D.C. She applied for about 50 internships, she says, before landing at Roll Call, the Washington newspaper and website covering Capitol Hill, in 2018. She moved to the New York Times a few months later and soon found herself in the Oval Office. Now a freelancer with a steady flow of work from the Times, the Washington Post, the Getty, Reuters, and other major news outlets, Silbiger is photographing D.C.’s biggest names—Trump, Pelosi, Mueller—on a daily basis. Bostonia spoke with her about what it’s like to have a front row seat for this tumultuous and historic time in the nation’s capital.



Bostonia: When did you first consider a career in photography?

Silbiger: I remember that day so vividly: I was in eighth grade and they asked us to plan our lives. I was taking pictures on a little point-and-shoot camera, and I liked that, so I Googled “careers in photography.” It said “wedding photographer,” “artist,” “photojournalist,” and I thought, what’s a photojournalist? Then I Googled “schools with photojournalism” and found BU. I didn’t consider other schools at all. People in the hallways in high school would call me “BU.”

Why did politics appeal to you?

There aren’t many photojournalists that get to travel in a pack the way that political journalists do. I like the community aspect, and because we shoot the same thing over and over, we push each other to make compelling work.

Your second job out of college was with the New York Times. Is it typical for the paper to send someone right into the Oval Office?

Not for other companies, but the Times has been doing this for a while. It’s mostly because they have a guide in [longtime staff photographer] Doug Mills. He’s the most incredible mentor. On my first day at the White House he prepared me to go into the Oval, and he was like, “All right, go get them, kid.”

You’re often photographing the same people in the same buildings, standing behind microphones. How do you differentiate yourself, given those limitations? 

It’s making something out of nothing. I’m trying to find anything that’s going to make my image look less flat. I have one eyeball on whoever is speaking and then the other eyeball is going crazy looking for any little element or spark of light that can make a blob in front of them. It’s also making the photo that they didn’t set up for you. A perfect photo of Trump pointing behind the microphone is not the photo that we’re all waiting for—we’re waiting for when he hugs the American flag when he comes offstage.

There’s a photo I made of [former White House communications director] Hope Hicks getting into an elevator. We waited outside of this closed-door briefing for around eight hours. We didn’t know when it was going to end, so we had to be prepared. That eight hours is spent having your cameras on and ready, shoelaces tied, so you’re ready to run. Those hours are tense, but it keeps you alert and hungry for that photo. It’s the in-between moments, the before and after.

Former White House communications director Hope Hicks in an elevator as the doors close
Former White House communications director Hope Hicks leaving the Capitol after an eight-hour interview with members of the House Judiciary Committee on June 19, 2019. Photo by Sarah Silbiger.

President Trump has frequently called the media an “enemy of the people” and “fake news.” What’s it like to witness that from the front row?

When he’s saying those things in front of me, I don’t feel like it’s attacking me. He’s looking at the reporters. It’s when I’m not working that I really feel the brunt of it. I try not to wear my press pass while I’m in transit because I’ve had issues in crowds and in protests, people being nasty to me. When I’m in the East Room, I’m way more concerned about the lack of light than I am with what he’s talking about. And the insight I have about his rhetoric is that oftentimes, once the TV camera light goes off, his demeanor changes. He turns off the shtick, and while he isn’t buddy-buddy, he’ll tell us to have a good weekend.

What role do you think photojournalism plays in today’s media landscape?

Making an iconic image that changes the world is a little more challenging these days. We don’t look one place for images anymore, like page one of the New York Times—we look at thousands of different places. But I think all the imagery combined is giving people a much clearer understanding of what’s going on in our government. Seeing is believing, and people have an incredible visual knowledge these days because of the images we’re making.

The images you post to Instagram stand out from a lot of political photography. There are many extreme close-ups and candid moments. How would you define your style?

I like things that look like a coloring book. My favorite photo I’ve ever made is of [Vice President Mike] Pence looking rather statuesque. I just love that everything in that photo is either white, red, or black. This is exactly why I love politics, because sometimes it can be so phony and staged. I love that he’s standing on his little marker. It absolutely cracks me up. So I definitely am drawn to certain photos. But if you look up my name on Getty, you’re not going to see the same style. What I’m editing and putting on Instagram has a specific look to it.

Vice President Mike Pence stands during the ceremonial swearing in of senators
Vice President Mike Pence at the ceremonial swearing in of senators in the US Capitol Old Senate Chamber on January 3, 2019. Photo by Sarah Silbiger.

How much time do you get with the president? 

We get an enormous amount of face time compared to other administrations. We’ll see him three or four times in a day. He wants us there as much as possible. It’s been reported that he will Sharpie up newspapers, circling articles and photos and asking for prints of them. He definitely loves photos of himself, so he’s keenly aware of the photographers.

What’s in your camera bag?

I just switched over to a Sony mirrorless camera. I have two Sony a9 bodies, and then the two lenses I have are a 24-70mm, my wider lens, and a 100-400mm. That’s a little different—usually people carry a 70-200mm—but that’s how I get some of my favorite detail shots. I love getting tight on people’s eyes.

A woman's hand with red-painted finger nails is placed on Trump's back
Silbiger sometimes zooms in on details, like this woman’s hand on President Trump’s back, as she greets him outside the White House. Photo by Sarah Silbiger.

As a freelance photographer, what is a typical week for you?

There’s no lack of work and there’s no lack of news. Agencies will use their staffers first and when they run out of staffers, they’ll start calling freelancers. I have my phone on full-volume at all times, which can be a bit of a nuisance when the president starts tweeting up a storm early in the morning. But I need to have his tweets on alert. It helps me know what he’s up to.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

View more images of Sarah Silbiger’s work in the photo gallery below.

Democrats celebrating at the Hyatt Regency in Washington, D.C., after taking the majority in the House of Representatives in the 2018 midterm elections.
Democrats celebrating at the Hyatt Regency in Washington, D.C., after taking the majority in the House of Representatives in the 2018 midterm elections.
President Trump on the photo during Thanksgiving Day
President Trump gesturing to his staff about a broken phone during a 2018 Thanksgiving Day call with members of the military from his Mar-a-Lago resort.
A group of protesters holds balloons depicting Trump as an orange baby
A group of protesters outside the White House holding balloons depicting President Trump as a baby in a diaper on October 18, 2018, before Secret Service personnel asked them to leave.
President trump holds his hand up blocking the frame
President Trump scolding the press during an event in the Oval Office on October 23, 2018.
a pile of Wendy's burgers next to white house napkins
President Trump welcomed the national champion Clemson University football team to the White House on January 14, 2019, with a fast-food feast.
Someone holds a sign reading Protect Mueller during a protest
Clay Michaels participating in the Protect Mueller Campaign protest in Lafayette Square in Washington, D.C., on November 8, 2018.
President trump at the podium announcing an end to the government shut down
President Trump announcing the temporary end to the government shutdown in the White House Rose Garden on January 25, 2018.
President Trump and First Lady Melania Trump handing out candy to trick or treaters at a White House event in 2018.
President Trump and First Lady Melania Trump handing out candy to trick or treaters at a White House event in 2018.