Last week, when Barack Obama’s transition team released candid photographs of Malia and Sasha getting ready for their first day of school, the strategy was to manage the media circus—or at least depreciate the going rate for photos of his daughters. Good luck. At paparazzi agencies, the Obamas have become A-list earners. After all, as that McCain ad put it, he is “the biggest celebrity in the world.”
“I would put them up there with Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie,” says Chris Doherty, owner of INF, the first agency, in 2006, to capitalize on Obama shirtless in Hawaii. Catching the Obama family when they’re off guard and not posing “becomes an operation, a mission. You have to have patience, study their itinerary, acquire and maintain sources who are willing to tell you when they may be breaking their routine.”
While capturing Michelle Obama being a regular mom, picking her kids up from school, and going shopping, are the kinds of photos the paparazzi are expecting to get, one photo rises above all the rest: catching Obama puffing on a cigarette. “A photo of him smoking would definitely fetch over $100,000,” explained Splash News CEO Gary Morgan, who plans to send more photographers to D.C.
There’s a rift mounting among photographers on the Obama beat. While paparazzi agencies deal in unstaged photos meant to demystify celebrity, the carefully vetted presidential photo pool tries to elevate the First Family. Both Obama’s Hawaii vacation and his grandmother’s memorial service last month were covered by celebrity agencies but not the pool.
There are some signs, however, that the pool is conforming to the competition. Since a Post photographer broke with the informal agreement not to photograph Obama going to and from the gym on November 6, the pool started doing the same. “The pool was forced to play catch-up,” says a source closely involved in that morning’s events.
Veteran pap Dennis Van Tine says his Obama photos are outearning his Lindsay Lohan stock. Still, he thinks Brad Pitt is probably a better moneymaker, for now. “But as the girls get older, now you’re talking. Can you imagine Malia on her first date?”