“President Biden looks out of Marine One at the foothills of a sacred island landscape in Japan as we fly from Hiroshima to Miyajima Island to visit the Itsukushima Shrine and attend a dinner with G7 leaders.”
— Adam Schultz / May 19, 2023
Written by Charles McNair
Adam Schultz (B.A. ’06) moves in a blur. To catch him in a photo, you need a high-speed shutter — 1/2000 or 1/4000 — like those that freeze the wings of hummingbirds in flight.
He often moves at the speed of Air Force One. As the chief official White House photographer for President Joe Biden, Schultz jets into action with the 46th chief executive of the United States almost everywhere Biden travels.
One day, Schultz documents Biden at a NATO summit in Lithuania. A click of the lens later, he photographs the president dedicating a national monument. The next, he captures for the public record a sparkling state dinner for the visiting prime minister of the Republic of India, Narendra Modi, or clicks a heart-rending moment as Biden phones the family of someone we’ve lost.
Schultz often finds himself alone with Biden, in and out of the White House. Once, he snapped shots as Biden lifted the hood of a beloved vintage car, and the president and Schultz talked the nuts and bolts of car engines as Schultz collected candid photo-album-style shots.
During Biden’s presidency, Schultz will likely snap a million photos. His personal philosophy as a photographer is behind each one.
“I see myself as a silent participant in a conversation,” he says. “I never interact unless I’m interacted with. I’m simply there to observe and document.”
One easily spots a paradox in the dramatic labor of a man behind a camera assigned to chronicle history itself, to make certain the world will forever notice a presidency’s meaningful moments and events.
“Most people never notice me,” Schultz says. “If I’m doing my job, I’m invisible.”
One Monday afternoon, Schultz sits blessedly still.
He’s in his office in the West Wing, just back from photographing a Biden tour that included a visit to newly crowned King Charles II in London, the NATO summit in Lithuania and a state meeting in Helsinki with the president of Finland and other Nordic leaders.
Schultz appreciates the rare still. He takes time to taste — no, savor — a cup of chocolate frozen yogurt with Oreos from the Navy Mess, the café at the White House.
He answers a first interview question with a question of his own, raising the spoon like an exclamation point.
“How the hell did I get here?” he asks, laughing. “I ask myself that every day!”
If there’s a natural path for photographers to reach the White House, Schultz surely never took one step down it.
He grew up in the Virginia-Highland neighborhood of Atlanta, attending public schools. His mom worked in communications for an engineering firm. His dad tuned pianos for a living, often bringing home the big ornate actions from inside the instruments.
“He was a mechanic for pianos,” Schultz says. “It was cool and unique.”
The tinkering gene passed to Adam. He learned to fix cars, and he worked in college turning wrenches.
Schultz points to several educational moments that brought him close to photography.
First, a film photo class at Grady (now Midtown) High School.
“It taught me all the technical photography basics of what to do and how to print,” Schultz says. “I learned how to work in a darkroom, and I learned about f-stops, shutter speeds, how to dry prints, how to enlarge them, all the ABCs.”
Schultz adds, “I also took a high school news broadcasting class. Students put together a weekly show where we created video packages and pieced them together. That was a great foundation for building technical expertise.”
Schultz made good grades, though with scattered interests. He entered Georgia State in 2002 like a bouncing ball.
“I spent a fair amount of time not knowing what to study,” he confesses. “I’d pick a trajectory, then find out, ‘Wait! Is that what I really want to do?’”
Example? He launched into a physics and astronomy track — a “false start,” as he terms it now.
But GSU had something perfect for a bright kid just coming into focus.
“I landed in a brand-new program that combined an international economics degree and a modern classical languages degree,” Schultz says.
“The economics part focused on international trade and monetary policy — macro stuff, how things are actually conducted between currencies and economies. And for language I went to Spain and studied in Seville two semesters, and then stayed longer and almost didn’t come back. My mom finally told me, ‘Adam, you should probably finish school.’ She was right, so I did.”
Schultz graduated in 2006 with a B.A. in Economics and a B.A. in Spanish, and he began to look for work. He had also honed his photography skills by taking an elective course at GSU. By then, he also had a big-league camera.
“My first camera was a Pentax K1000 with a 50 mm lens — the gold standard for anyone in high school,” he recalls. “In 2001 or 2002, I moved up to a Nikon FM10 with various lenses, then on with the digital revolution to digital cameras. Canon’s 5D was the first flagship full-frame digital camera that really did a great job.”
“This was at the crack of dawn. The president and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan were riding the train into Ukraine from Poland. I found out about this mission four hours before I had to leave because it was so secret — we didn’t want the Russians to know where the president was. They won’t even let Biden ride a train in the U.S., so you can imagine how on-edge everyone was.”
— Feb. 19, 2023
Schultz’s mom told him about an article she’d read in Forbes magazine. It mentioned the work of the Clinton Foundation, in particular how former U.S. President Bill Clinton and another Bill, Bill Gates, had launched a global initiative to lower prices for drug treatments for HIV/AIDS.
That kind of good-hearted work appealed to Schultz. He applied to the internship program at the Clinton Foundation — a cold call, no inside contacts.
To his delight, the foundation accepted him as an intern, and he moved to New York City in 2007.
Schultz spent a year doing what interns do, and he made an impression. In 2008, the Clinton Foundation hired him full time to help out on the marketing and communications team.
“This happened just as digital photography and internet videos were taking off,” Schultz says, “and the communication and technical skills I’d developed, and my international experience and economics knowledge, fit perfectly with work that brought me constantly into contact with influential figures and international events.”
For the next seven years, Schultz worked various roles in multimedia, in still photography and video, at the Clinton Foundation. His camera work caught the attention of the Clinton team.
“Within a short time,” Schultz says, “I became President Clinton’s staff photographer. And that instantly meant a lot of on-the-job education from other photographers who worked with the Clintons during their time at the White House in the 1990s. I got the chance to work with them, watch them, watch the events they shot and watch how they would work a room.”
Schultz credits three photographers, in particular, for their inspiration and mentoring. Ralph Alswang had worked with President Clinton for many years. Barbara Kinney was Hillary Clinton’s lead photographer. And Paul Morse had been the White House photographer for George W. Bush.
Close work with the hyper-energetic President Clinton made Schultz a natural choice to then work closely with Barbara Kinney on Hillary Clinton’s presidential run in 2016.
Hillary Clinton never became president, but she circulated among those who would — and Schultz circulated among their photographers.
“The world of political photographers is a small one,” he says. “Photographers in the Clinton world and the Obama-Biden administration all knew one another and would see each other out at events. I met David Lienemann, then Vice President Biden’s photographer, and he would be the one to introduce me to the higher-ups.”
When Hillary Clinton lost in 2016, Schultz still had the bug to photograph campaigns, and he watched the field for new opportunities. In 2018, Schultz photographed a young candidate named Conor Lamb, running in a special election in Pennsylvania, who was backed by Joe Biden.
“I very politely followed up with David Lienemann about working with Biden in the coming political term,” Schultz says. “David had been with the vice president for eight years, and I didn’t want to step on any toes, didn’t want to do something if the time wasn’t right.”
The time was exactly right.
Lienemann knew Schultz’s talent, and later referred him to Biden’s advisers.
The future president of the United States took a look at Schultz’s work. And Adam Schultz, the kid from Georgia State, got a call. He became Biden’s photographer on the campaign trail and followed him every day, all the way into the White House.
“Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy walks President Biden up the stairs at Mariinsky Palace in Kyiv. At this point the entire mission was still covert.”
— Feb. 20, 2023
In his White House Photo Office, Schultz leads a team of 14 photographers, editors, printers, archivists and even two documentary videographers. The theory of the work isn’t dramatically different than theories of the photography or broadcasting classes Schultz took at GSU a few decades back or the work he witnessed from the Clinton and Bush-era photographers.
“The technology is a lot fancier,” Schultz says. “But the teamwork and the communication principles stay the same.”
Schultz and crew spend every day documenting history without embellishment: They don't Photoshop or retouch the photography.
“The way I view it, whatever we could do in a darkroom is fair game — exposure, color by using filters, dodging and burning," he says. "But pretty much what you see is what I see when I take a picture.”
Schultz says his authentic approach aligns with the Biden brand — Joe’s and Jill’s.
“Their entire lives have been dedicated to being real people,” he adds. “Not celebrities. Not politicians.”
Schultz adds another reason he insists on integrity and honesty in his work.
“There’s sort of an inherent mistrust about images that are manipulated,” he confesses. “The moment we start to manipulate an image, it suddenly becomes something people distrust.”
“This is the view of the reflecting pond from Marine One as we approach the South Lawn. To land on the South Lawn on Marine One is truly a thing that you cannot even imagine. I fly in with him, then scramble down the stairs before him to photograph him getting off in one of the most exclusive places on Earth.”
— Aug. 2, 2021
“This photo was taken during a clean-cars event on the South Lawn Driveway of the White House. He’s in an electric Jeep Wrangler Rubicon. The president likes cars, and I like cars. We both like electric and cleaner-energy cars.”
— Aug. 5, 2021
“This is the first time that the entire ceiling of the Oval Office has been captured in one unaltered frame.”
— Sept. 23, 2022
“Here is the president and the first lady at the wedding of their granddaughter, Naomi Biden Neal, and Peter Neal. Over the last few years, I’ve gotten to know Peter and Naomi pretty well, and to have the privilege to photograph this in the Rose Garden of the White House was wonderful.”
— Nov. 19, 2022
“This is a picture of a refueling stop at Elmendorf Air Force Base in Anchorage, Alaska, where both 747 jets are being refueled. This is cool because rarely does a presidential trip ever use both 747 planes, tail numbers 28000 and 29000. Fun fact, the new planes will be longer, with tail numbers 30000 and 31000.”
— May 17, 2023
“This is Cherelle Griner in the Oval Office and on the phone with her wife, WNBA star Brittney Griner, after the administration negotiated Brittney’s release from a Russian prison. This was the first time they had talked since she was detained. Biden, Vice President (Kamala) Harris and Secretary of State (Antony) Blinken aren’t the subjects — the photo is about Cherelle’s expression and joy.”
— Dec. 8, 2022
“This picture will go down in history as a reminder of when even the entire Presidential Cabinet had to socially distance and mask for this photo in the Grand Foyer of the White House. This one is important to me because, although controversial in some regards, I feel the Biden administration did a great job at navigating COVID to get us where we are today.”
— April 1, 2021
“This is the president walking back into the Oval Office from the Roosevelt Room after meeting with the press to talk about the debt ceiling. This was shot on a monopod way high up to illustrate the depth of the Oval Office.”
— May 9, 2023
Schultz sees a dotted line between photography and the work he did on Toyotas, Hondas and Nissans during off hours at Georgia State.
“Here in my office,” he says, “I’m beside an equipment table with practically every kind of lens you can imagine. When I’m thinking about what I need for an event, that’s my toolbox.
“I’ve got room for creativity, but I have to function within the rules and get the job done,” he says. “The same as back when the assignment was a brake job or a tune-up or a project in an econ or Spanish class.”
There are many favorite Biden moments but, when asked, Schultz calls a recent one to mind.
In July 2023, Schultz was in Delaware, waiting for a helicopter to set down on Rehoboth Beach a few blocks away from the Bidens’ home.
Schultz decided to kill some time with a 7 a.m. walk on the beach.
He found a book half-buried in the sand, picturesque in the pink dawn. He snapped a picture. Then Schultz picked it up and flipped the pages.
He held a children’s book of Irish proverbs.
A few months earlier, Schultz had accompanied Joe Biden, a son of Ireland, as he toured the Emerald Isle. Biden made a nostalgic stop in the County Mayo village of his Irish ancestors.
Schultz photographed those days when the president may have been the happiest he’d ever seen him. The book Schultz rescued from the sand held 50 or so Irish proverbs, and he later presented the book to Joe Biden as a gift in the White House.
“The president enjoys things like that,” Schultz says. “He has lots of Irish memorabilia that speak to his roots.”
And now, he has one more item — a book the White House photographer idly shot in early morning light on an Atlantic beach. Paper driftwood. Lessons, turned to words, then salvaged from oblivion by a Georgia State alum who spends his life saving historic moments from oblivion.
How the hell did Adam Schultz get there?
A great eye. And waves of destiny.
Official White House Photos by Adam Schultz