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More Access, More Anxiety: The Job of Photographing Trump

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Over the past four years, Doug Mills, a photographer in The New York Times’s Washington bureau since 2002, has taken tens of thousands of shots of President Trump. With a new administration coming in, Mr. Mills reflected in an interview on his nonstop job, as well as the pressure and anxiety that come with his role. The following comments have been lightly edited.

In what ways have the past four years been more challenging for you than in previous administrations?

It’s been the most consuming four years in memory for everyone in the White House press corps. President Trump was the most unpredictable commander in chief in my 38 years of covering the White House. He drove news cycle after news cycle each and every day, and I was there for the majority of them.

Was your job easier in any way?

In many ways it has been easier because there was never a shortage of photo-ops, news conferences or world stage events to photograph President Trump. The White House press photographers have never had so much access to the Oval Office and Cabinet Room meetings. Many times, we were in Oval Office events for more than 30 minutes and in Cabinet Room meetings for over 90 minutes. Photographers can take a lot of different images during that time.

You’ve talked in the past about how President Trump was iconic. Can you elaborate?

President Trump was by far the most iconic president I’ve photographed. President Obama was the most photogenic. Mr. Trump’s hair, black jackets and red ties, along with his physical figure, makes almost any part of his body recognizable.

What was your own personal interaction with him like?

President Trump does know me by name and has pointed me out on a number of occasions. During a G7 summit in Canada, he told French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel that I was one of the world’s best photographers, but that I worked for The New York Times. While I was covering President Trump’s dinner with the Queen of England at Buckingham Palace, he pointed me out to the queen and said, “That’s Doug Mills of The New York Times.” I was shocked and just looked at the queen and said, “Your Majesty,” and the photo-op was over.

Did you develop a rapport with him, and what was that like?

Like many presidents I’ve covered, I did develop a rapport. He would often say hello when he came back on Air Force One to talk to reporters and called me a “genius.” Yes, my colleagues would give me a ton of grief about it.

I’ve seen President Trump praise our senior White House reporter Peter Baker on Air Force One about one of his stories and then criticize him weeks later for another story. Mr. Trump has praised me a number of times and has also questioned photos that were published. During a meeting with the prime minister of England, President Trump said, “Hey, Mills, I hated that photo on the front page the other day.” I truly believe he respected my work and thought I was fair and unbiased. I strive to do that each and every day. I learned to tune all the rhetoric out and focus on taking photos.

How about Covid and the lack of precautions by the president? How nervous did that make you feel?

I’ve had so many sleepless nights worrying about getting Covid. Thankfully, I haven’t contracted it. I’ve been tested over 150 times and still worry every time I sneeze or feel achy. The president didn’t wear a mask regularly, and his staff followed that lead. Most of his followers didn’t wear masks either. It scared all of us traveling with him when we would attend an indoor or outdoor rally with only a handful of people wearing masks. I wear a mask all the time and many times have two of them on at once and sometimes for 12 to 14 hours a day.

Out of all the shots you took, is there one in particular you’re proud of?

I have a number of memorable photos. Mr. Trump, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and “the clap.” Mr. Trump with a lightning bolt. A shot of Mr. Trump walking to St. John’s Church from the White House after protesters were removed from Lafayette Park.

How would you summarize the past four years for you as a photographer?

It’s been a great four years for presidential photography — incredibly exhausting but very rewarding. I’ve enjoyed every minute of it.

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