The pictures appeared on Sunday, first in Sydney’s Daily Telegraph, then on Scott Morrison’s personal Instagram account.
There was the PM, standing in his shorts, looking at his phone, with his thongs clearly on. There he was on an exercise bike while in Covid isolation after returning from his trip to Japan. And an extreme close-up, his nose, face and polo shirt, waiting patiently for the Covid-19 test swab to plunge in.
These photos were taken not by an independent photojournalist but by the prime minister’s official photographer, Adam Taylor, formerly of News Corp.
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It’s a role that has been around in Australia for five years, and in the US since John F Kennedy.
This year the role of the prime minister’s personal photographer has gained a sharp new prominence, due to the distancing enforced by the pandemic and the opportunities to curate Morrison’s profile on social media.
Mick Tsikas, a veteran political photojournalist for Australian Associated Press, says these “sanitised” and controlled photographs have become more common this year.
“Turnbull did not go as hard on those kind of photos as Morrison did,” he tells Guardian Australia.
While other photographers waited outside, Taylor, who travelled with Morrison to Japan, confirmed on Instagram that he was in isolation in the residence with the prime minister.
Other images taken by Taylor this year include Morrison building a chicken coop in sunglasses and baseball cap, and the PM looking decidedly dorky practising at a barre class.
“That daggy dad stuff, building chicken coops – it has really ramped up since Covid,” Tsikas says.
“At AAP we don’t touch those photos … We view them as propaganda. Who knows with that chicken coop – did he nail the first nail and that was it? Or did he finish the whole thing. You wouldn’t know.”
In Australia, the role of a personal photographer for the PM started with Tony Abbott. He hired Josh Wilson, a former cameraman for Channel Seven, as a personal videographer, and Bradley Hunter, formerly at News Corp, as a full-time photographer. The Sydney Morning Herald commented at the time that the move had “raised concerns that news photographers will gain less direct access to the prime minister”.
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Abbott’s successor, Turnbull, employed Sahlan Hayes, a former News Corp and Fairfax photographer.
Bill Shorten, during his tenure as opposition leader, hired Andrew Meares, also from Fairfax. Sean Kelly, a former Labor press secretary, has said a personal photographer for Julia Gillard was “discussed” during her prime ministership, but was ultimately discarded as being “narcissistic”.
In the US, Barack Obama’s personal photographer, Pete Souza, famously snapped the moment inside the situation room when the president and the then secretary of state Hillary Clinton watched the raid that ended in the killing of Osama bin Laden.
Tsikas says some photographs taken by Taylor are credited in news publications only to “Adam Taylor”, rather than the prime minister’s office. He says an average reader would assume Taylor was working for a media organisation.
The Telegraph’s weekend story credited only Taylor on the photographs, but did point out in the story that Taylor was his staff photographer.
“That’s what the danger is,” Tsikas says. “It has gone from social media, and it has leaked into the mainstream media – what is supposed to be independent media.
“We asked the PMO [prime minister’s office] whether we can get a photo from the gates, of the PM behind a window, while in isolation. We still haven’t heard back. Then suddenly these photos in his shorts show up. Then you have every news channel running it.”
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With hundreds of photographers having lost their jobs as part of cost-cutting measures, Tsikas says the media are relying more on the PM’s photographers.
“That’s the worry for photojournalists, we will lose more access. Him falling over, or someone throwing an egg at him, you won’t see that. One day, something will happen, and people will say ‘Where are the photos?’, and I’ll have to say ‘Go ask the PMO for them’.”
Hayes, who was Turnbull’s photographer and now works for the New South Wales premier, Gladys Berejiklian, rejects the idea that official photographers produce “propaganda”.
“Before I started, I had a discussion as to what the office or Malcom’s social media was looking for,” he says. “My remit was to shoot Malcolm and basically document the history of his prime ministership, similar to how Pete Souza documented Obama.
“I absolutely think a PM should have an official photographer, if only to document the history, if nothing else. I see it as, and I saw it as, the most important element would have been that this is history.”
Hayes says there is “an element” of shaping a politician’s image, and this was growing in the age of social media.
“Obviously my job at the time, Adam [Taylor]’s job now, is to show the PM in the best light.
“I think propaganda is a harsh word. I don’t think that is the right word for it.
He says official photographers have “become the norm” on both sides of politics.
“Politicians were seeing how important social media has become. I recall when we went to the White House and met Trump for the first time, we were doing the handshake, he got to our social media adviser and said it’s the most important job in the office.
“And look at how he has used his social media. It’s their voicebox to the voters, and I think, as much as politicians rely on the media, they also rely on their social media, almost more, to get their point out.”
Taylor and the prime minister’s office were contacted for comment.