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The unmediated photo is the message

The camera loves Justin Trudeau – and he knows it. Eric Andrew-Gee job-shadows Adam Scotti, the photographer charged with capturing every move of a Prime Minister well aware that, in the age of social media, a flattering picture may be worth far more than a thousand words

The Prime Minister goes about his business apparently oblivious to the snapping of Adam Scotti, which he says he tunes out – unless there is something he can do to make a shot better.

The Prime Minister goes about his business apparently oblivious to the snapping of Adam Scotti, which he says he tunes out – unless there is something he can do to make a shot better.

Dave Chan for The Globe and Mail

Justin Trudeau is being photographed signing photographs of himself. He glides a black Sharpie over the glossy printouts. A camera lens flutters nearby. The quiet is broken when one of his markers dries up.

“Tommy!” the Prime Minister cries. “I need a new Sharpie!”

His assistant, Tommy Desfossés, hurries in with a fresh writing implement.

The signing resumes. Behind the camera, and behind the photos on Mr. Trudeau’s desk, is Adam Scotti, the Prime Minister’s official photographer, responsible for some of the best-known images of our most image-conscious leader in a generation.

Mr. Trudeau hugging the panda cubs? That was Mr. Scotti. Son Hadrien high-fiving Barack Obama? Mr. Scotti, as well.

He is also responsible for this slightly surreal moment. For not only is Mr. Scotti photographing Mr. Trudeau. He, in turn, is being photographed for this story. The camera lenses are playing a duet.

“Now you know how I feel,” Mr. Trudeau tells him.

The Prime Minister is the most photographed man in Canada. Wherever he goes, he leaves a trail of images in his wake. The past two weeks have been a case in point: Mr. Trudeau has managed to have himself photographed without a shirt on, not once but twice – first while hiking in Quebec, and then again at an outdoor wedding in B.C.

Both images came from citizen photographers, a category that now includes virtually anyone with a cell phone. But in large measure his constant visibility is due to Mr. Scotti.

Every prime minister since Mr. Trudeau’s father – even brief occupant Kim Campbell – has had a photographer to document their time in office.

What’s different about Mr. Scotti is the way that his pictures are used. Never before has the role he plays been so influential in shaping the public perception of a Canadian politician.

Due to the explosion of social media and the retrenchment of the traditional press, politicians have more power than ever to communicate with voters directly. Meanwhile, the Internet has given still photos a pride of place in our media culture that they haven’t enjoyed since the rise of television.

Mr. Trudeau has used that power, and that technology, to the hilt. He is the first prime minister of the Instagram age.

As the photo shoot ends, Mr. Trudeau can’t resist pointing out another meticulously curated element of his persona: a pair of stylish sofas, one blue, one beige, that recently replaced the leather slabs of the Stephen Harper years. “You guys get the first view of the refreshed office furniture,” he says, smiling wryly. “A little warmer than the last occupant.”

With that, Mr. Scotti snaps a few final frames and takes a rare leave from the Prime Minister’s side. “Thanks, boss,” he says before retreating to his office, just two doors away.

Photographer Adam Scotti on his way to work on Parliament Hill: But for an affection for craft beer (which he tracks with a smartphone app), he lives a spartan life.

Photographer Adam Scotti on his way to work on Parliament Hill: But for an affection for craft beer (which he tracks with a smartphone app), he lives a spartan life.

Dave Chan for The Globe and Mail

Like a flare heralding the PM’s arrival

Official photographers live or die by how much access they have. By this measure, Mr. Scotti may be the most fortunate person ever to fill the post.

His proximity to the Prime Minister is remarkable. Only Mr. Desfossés and principal secretary Gerald Butts have offices that are closer. “If the door’s closed, I don’t have to ask,” he says. “I can also count on one hand the amount of times I’ve been told, ‘Don’t come in right now.’ ”

To get his shot, he has the run of Parliament, sprinting past Mounties built like bikers without so much as an “Excuse me.”

With his bright ginger hair and fondness for Mickey Mouse-themed ties, Mr. Scotti is like a flare heralding Mr. Trudeau’s arrival wherever the PM goes.

Before a photo opportunity with visiting Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto, an orange blur darts through the security cordon and slips behind a pillar.

Adam Scotti ducks in front of the media pool during a welcoming ceremony with Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto on Parliament Hill on June 28, 2016.

Adam Scotti ducks in front of the media pool during a welcoming ceremony with Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto on Parliament Hill on June 28, 2016.

Dave Chan for The Globe and Mail

“Adam Scotti’s here,” says a reporter standing in the scrum. “You know what that means.”

For the press gallery, it means time to turn on the tape recorders. For the Prime Minister’s Office, it means there will soon be a fresh batch of photos to post. Although nominally at arm’s length from the PMO’s social-media strategy, Mr. Scotti is in fact a vital part of it.

He must edit photos all day for posting, using a program on his phone that adjusts lighting with little sliding tabs. On a busy day, he’ll post as many as a dozen to the photo-sharing website, Flickr – a crop he chooses on his own. But the bigger prizes are the Prime Minister’s Facebook and Instagram accounts, where Mr. Scotti’s photos often garner tens of thousands of likes and shares.

These photos are meticulously selected by communications staff, with Mr. Scotti’s assistance, often with a mission in mind. At one point, an aide walks into his office and asks if he has any photos of the Prime Minister’s early-morning run with his Mexican counterpart.

Mr. Trudeau’s outfit was laden with meaning – a pair of Rugby Canada shorts and a T-shirt from the Saskatchewan Jazz Festival (whose logo, he’d explained to Mr. Pena Nieto, “looked like a Mexican death head”). The PMO wants to tweet at both organizations, along with the picture. As luck would have it, Mr. Scotti just happens to be editing his shots of the jogging.

He is paid out of the PMO’s communications budget, and reports to director of communications Kate Purchase, who calls him “a huge asset,” and says that “he really provides us with another medium to tell our story and to tell the Prime Minister’s story.”

Mr. Trudeau is a master of that medium. His looks and physical fitness make him photogenic, but so does his awareness of the camera, and his comfort in front of it. His sense of lighting and angle is acute, if not always accurate. (“He sometimes likes to guess what I’m doing,” Mr. Scotti says, “and I’ll never tell people this – but he’s usually wrong.”)

Before journalists arrive for a photo-op with Mr. Pena Nieto in his parliamentary office, Mr. Trudeau points to a bright chandelier overhead, and quietly says, “Adam, the lights are on.”

Mr. Scotti nods and mouths, “It’s fine,” but later explains that the chandelier’s vaguely orange light is “a perennial problem.”

“He is attuned to what I need to do my job,” he says. “He understands what we need photos for, he understands what you [the media] need photos for, he understands what the six o’clock news needs footage for… It’s not his first rodeo.”

Mr. Scotti is right about that. As the first-born son of a celebrity prime minister, Mr. Trudeau was in the public eye from the day of his christening, when news photographers flocked to Ottawa’s Notre-Dame Basilica – as much for his parents, resplendently dressed in furs, as for the baby swaddled in his mother’s arms. Young Justin even featured in perhaps the most iconic photograph of his father’s premiership, clutched under Pierre Trudeau’s arm on their way to a garden party as an RCMP officer dutifully salutes.

Of course, all politicians seek out the warm glow of a camera flash. And Mr. Trudeau is far from the only world leader to use his photographer as a political asset. The Washington Post has described the White House’s Pete Souza as Mr. Obama’s “secret weapon.”

If the door’s closed, I don’t have to ask. I can also count on one hand the amount of times I’ve been told, ‘Don’t come in right now’

Adam Scotti on the degree of access he has to the Prime Minister

The difference for Mr. Trudeau is in the size of the payoff. Even photographers of other world leaders marvel at his physical grace. The Mexican President’s photographer shakes his head as he examines a picture showing his boss with Mr. Scotti’s.

“Look at Trudeau – he’s relaxed, comfortable. My president is…” and here he imitates Mr. Pena Nieto’s ramrod posture and stiff expression.

Canada has had photogenic leaders before – Mr. Trudeau’s father comes to mind – but this Prime Minister’s use of photography transcends his looks and comfort in the spotlight. An emotive, energetic personality like his translates especially well visually, says Tannis Toohey, a former photographer and photo editor with the Toronto Star .

She notes Mr. Trudeau’s subtle gifts in front of a camera, like smiling eyes that indicate sincerity – a stark contrast with his predecessor.

“Harper was a robot. We waited and waited for him to blink, or to gesture, and to show emotion. And that’s why I think the pendulum has swung so far in the other direction: We want something,” Ms. Toohey says.

“He gets in there, he mingles … He’s a two-hand-handshake guy. He leans in, holds on to the hand – leans in, as if to say, ‘I hear you. This is our moment.’ ”

If there is a constant motif to Mr. Scotti’s unusually various portfolio, it is that: Mr. Trudeau touching people – hugging them, shaking their hands, posing for selfies with them. That physical intimacy does double duty, says Jerald Sabin, a political science researcher at Carleton University who has studied Mr. Trudeau’s public image: It conveys warmth and compassion, which has been a major political selling point for the Prime Minister.


What he was thinking

Official photographer Adam Scotti looks back at six of his favourite images and recalls how he felt at the time and what makes them special to him



It also plays well on social media. “Now you have your smartphone in your pocket and you’re looking at Instagram on the bus, in bed, over breakfast,” Mr. Sabin says. “So those images become very intimate, because they’re so close to you.”

What’s more, online habits have shifted in recent years toward platforms like Facebook and Instagram that are dominated by photos. Where a generation of politicians had to master the “hot,” kinetic medium of TV – with its emphasis on physical gesture and digestible soundbites – Mr. Trudeau has ridden to success through a mastery of Internet culture, which valorizes static images that can be shared and turned into memes.

The Trudeau team has long recognized this shift, and used Mr. Scotti to adapt. “In a campaign, in opposition, and in government, we’ve always taken the approach of sort of ‘digital by default.’ And the way you tell digital stories is through pictures. So we’ve really benefited from having his eye,” Ms. Purchase says.

“It’s not just about the policies. The photo is able to cut through all of it in a very simple way.”

Mr. Scotti’s eye has been especially helpful in displacing the traditional role of the press. As journalistic resources dwindle, the high-quality handouts provided free on Flickr and Facebook by the PMO become more and more tempting. Small-town papers, especially, run Mr. Scotti’s pictures all the time.

The Globe has a general policy against publishing images provided by the government, but there are exceptions, and when the wire services miss a newsworthy shot, Mr. Scotti may be the only option.

For example, when Mr. Trudeau visited a pair of baby pandas in their pen at the Toronto Zoo in March, the media were barred – but not Mr. Scotti. So it was his picture of the PM with the cuddly cubs that dominated social media that afternoon.

Adam Scotti chats with the Prime Minister in an elevator after an event at the Canadian Museum of Nature on June 28, 2016, in Ottawa.

Adam Scotti chats with the Prime Minister in an elevator after an event at the Canadian Museum of Nature on June 28, 2016, in Ottawa.

Dave Chan for The Globe and Mail

‘We could go anywhere we wanted’

The role of official photographer has changed dramatically over the years but the fact the job even exists suggests a growing distance between prime ministers and the media.

Pierre Trudeau was the first to employ a photographer full time, during his last government in the early 1980s. Before that, the press gallery had such good access to him that there was no need.

“When we went on Trudeau trips, basically we had carte blanche,” says Andy Clark, who was a photojournalist with various wire services and later one of Brian Mulroney’s official photographers.

“We could go anywhere we wanted, as long as we didn’t get in the way, and the country we were visiting didn’t mind …

“It was very laid back. We just got marvellous photos.”

When Mr. Clark started working for Mr. Mulroney in 1985, there was no pressure – much less a mechanism, in the days before Internet – to distribute his photos. The only picture he regularly sent out was the Mulroney family Christmas card.

“My job was strictly to record for posterity,” he says. “I have to give credit to the Prime Minister, who really understood the importance of that. He really did.”


The Classics

By immortalizing historic moments, official photographers themselves live on through their work. Here, Adam Scotti sizes up three enduring images (the fourth draws a blank).



The eruption of social media made Mr. Clark’s version of the job seem quaint. Jason Ransom was one of two official photographers to Stephen Harper, the prime minister who straddled the digital revolution.

“The appetite really changed a couple years in,” he says. “They wanted to start attaching photos to press releases, and eventually it became web galleries.”

Suddenly, Mr. Ransom wasn’t just stocking away his photos for a dusty archive. He had a role in choosing which images of Mr. Harper would be shared across the web. Facebook accelerated the trend, he says, turning the PMO into its own “news service.”

Mr. Scotti is sensitive to the impression that he is merely a tool of the Prime Minister’s communications strategists. He’s steeped in the history of the position to an unusual degree – his father, Bill McCarthy (his mother’s surname is Scotti), was another of Mr. Mulroney’s photographers – and the job’s integrity is important to him. His responsibility is to “posterity and history first,” he insists. That extends to arcane technical details, like the fact that he shoots his digital files in “raw,” meaning that the final image is exactly what the lens captured, unadulaterated by the camera’s special effects.

He also edits photos lightly – he may “sharpen them up,” but abjures the filters and effects that some use to cast their bosses in a better light.

Meanwhile, he says he withholds interesting photos only if they may breach cabinet confidentiality or pose security issues.

“I really am a stickler,” he says.

Being in Mr. Scotti’s company leaves no doubt of this. He answers questions candidly, and amazes with his earnest manner and almost furious diligence.

But it’s also clear that, while official photographers in the past have seen themselves basically as contractors, Mr. Scotti sees himself as part of the Trudeau team. The closeness of staffers in the PMO is endearing when it’s not cloying. Mr. Scotti is affectionately known as “Ginger” – much like a famously red-headed royal. In fact, when road work halts a staff van in Mr. Trudeau’s motorcade, press secretary Cameron Ahmad quips, “Tell them we’ve got Prince Harry.”

The teasing belies a near-familial fondness, especially with Mr. Trudeau. Mr. Scotti is one of his longest-tenured staffers; he started shooting photos for him part-time in 2010 after covering the future leader when he made an appearance at McGill.

It was Mr. Scotti’s first proper job out of college. He’s just 27. Before this, he was a prefect at his private high school in Ottawa – a position that came with a red blazer and his own bathtub (he was a boarder while his mother was an aid worker in West Africa) – and at McGill, he quickly rose to become photo editor of the Tribune, the mainstream campus paper. But for all his precocious achievement, he has spent most of his adult life in the Trudeau inner circle, and been formed by its worldview.

“Sure, politically, if he and I were to talk about social issues, or this and that, we very much agree,” he says.

Since the launch of Mr. Trudeau’s career on the national stage, the two have gone long stretches spending more time together than with their partners (Mr. Scotti is engaged to Global News journalist Monique Muise).

Those long hours have produced charged moments. Shortly after winning the Liberal leadership in 2013, Mr. Trudeau took his family on an RV road trip, and stopped at the B.C. lake where his brother Michel died after an avalanche in 1998. While Mr. Trudeau had a private moment of reflection by the water, Mr. Scotti watched his kids.

“It was one of the few times when I talked with him about our relationship,” Mr. Scotti recalls. “He basically said, ‘Look, you’re part of the family.’ ”

The two have had to recalibrate their rapport slightly since Mr. Trudeau became Prime Minister. Mr. Scotti can’t call out “Justin” any more – the dignity of the office won’t allow it. He has settled on “Boss” instead.

But that new formality hasn’t precluded occasional dinners on the road or the regular running sessions they still share. Nor has it diminished Mr. Scotti’s evident fondness for Mr. Trudeau.

“I’m not sure I could work for somebody else,” he says.

That deep sense of commitment helps Mr. Scotti get through the long, punishing days his post entails. Not only does he keep the same whirlwind schedule as Mr. Trudeau, he must be constantly sprinting, ducking and crouching his way into position. During the Mexican President’s visit, Mr. Scotti was sweating through his shirt before lunchtime.

Sleep and square meals have become luxuries he can rarely afford. Because lunch makes him tired, he often just eats at the end of the day. Colleagues occasionally leave snacks on his desk, even though they’re likely to remain untouched.

He seems to have one indulgence: craft beer. His globe-trotting job has allowed him to sample thousands of varieties (often in small quantities, mind you). Otherwise, Mr. Scotti lives like an uncommonly chipper Navy SEAL. His gear even has something of the arsenal about it: three top-of-the-line 5D Mark III Canon cameras, each with a different lens (16-35, 24-70, and 70-200 mm) for different situations, plus a Fuji X-T1 with a Leica lens for backup, and quiet spaces.

Mr. Scotti doesn’t count the number of photos he shoots every day, but it’s likely in the hundreds, if not the thousands; the whir of his camera is a near-permanent soundtrack of Mr. Trudeau’s working life. Amid his daily grind, Mr. Scotti has little time to mull the debate over the Prime Minister’s image and his role in crafting it. “That is for the historians and the pundits to figure out,” he says.

A study of Mr. Trudeau’s Flickr account suggests a tentative verdict on that score: It’s hard to find a picture that reflects badly on the Prime Minister.

As the Memorial University political scientist Alex Marland plausibly asks of Mr. Scotti’s photos: “How many of them show the Trudeaus arguing, or Trudeau getting angry at a staff member, or wiping goop out of his eye?”

It’s a far cry from the archive of U.S. President Lyndon Johnson’s photographer, Yoichi Okamoto – still considered the gold standard of his profession almost half a century later – which is full of unflattering images of the profane, jowly Texan.

That may reflect the extraordinary self-awareness of someone who has been photographed from infancy, but Prof. Marland offers a likelier explanation: The growing ubiquity of news media and the sophistication of political strategy have thrust modern politicians into a state of constant electioneering.

“The official photographer in the Prime Minister’s Office is a perfect example of permanent campaigning,” he says.

That Mr. Trudeau faces no real political rivals and boasts an approval rating around 60 per cent has not stopped him from pressing his advantage. Even as the Conservatives and New Democrats tread water with lame-duck or interim leaders, Mr. Trudeau has appeared in near-daily photo ops, some 40 per cent of which featured no spoken remarks, according to an analysis by the National Post.

Even as the Liberal government pursues an ambitious policy agenda, its campaign machine continues to hum – with Mr. Scotti as a valuable piston.

As the Prime Minister awaits the arrival of Mexico’s visiting President on Parliament Hill, his ever-present official photographer, Adam Scotti, prepares to capture the moment.

As the Prime Minister awaits the arrival of Mexico’s visiting President on Parliament Hill, his ever-present official photographer, Adam Scotti, prepares to capture the moment.

Dave Chan/for the Globe and Mail

‘You have to be true to who you are’

Up close, Mr. Trudeau’s skill at being photographed appears almost superhuman.

As he wades through a patio full of Liberal staffers and think-tankers at an Ottawa cocktail lounge to celebrate a speech to Parliament by President Obama that day, he stops constantly for selfies. Mr. Scotti has the night off, but all eyes, and flashes, are on the Prime Minister.

As always, he is on. Even though he can’t fail to notice that the air is thick with the smell of weed, his effervescent smile is no different from the one he flashed a day earlier for a museum full of college students.

You figure out early on that perceptions of you can’t lift you up or bring you down. You have to be true to who you are, and hope that shines through everything you do

Justin Trudeau

After the barrage of selfies, Mr. Trudeau and his retinue of beefy Mounties reach my corner of the patio. Before being whisked away, he agrees to answer a couple of questions.

I ask what it is like to be the most photographed person in the country. He smiles knowingly. This is obviously a subject he has thought about.

“You figure out early on that perceptions of you can’t lift you up or bring you down,” he says. “You have to be true to who you are and hope that shines through everything you do.”

Soon after, he turns and leaves. The mood of the party continues to bubble like the champagne that fills so many Liberal glasses.

But not everyone is happy. When the Prime Minister has gone, his policy director, Michael McNair, approaches me in the men’s washroom. He looks upset. “That was kinda bullshit,” he says.

Before making his way to the urinal, he tells me I shouldn’t have asked the Prime Minister questions, or recorded the answers. The Globe should consider its “relationship” with the government before using the quotes, he says.

Mr. McNair has either gone rogue, or is responding to the day’s excitement. But in a way, the episode seems suggestive. After a night of unbridled openness to the flash of cameras, the Prime Minister’s staff has bristled at a brief conversation. He gives press conferences and even occasional sit-down interviews – more, certainly, than Mr. Harper did. But there’s little doubt, as highlighted by his constant but no-comment photo-ops, that Team Trudeau is more comfortable with the static predictability of pictures than the messy give-and-take of answering questions.

The encounter also helps to illuminate one of the Prime Minister’s responses on the patio. I asked whether he ever found Mr. Scotti’s presence distracting. His reply underlines both his comfort in front of a camera, and his skill at turning that comfort to his advantage.

He said he mostly tunes it out, but sometimes “when I hear his shutter, I say, ‘Okay, is he getting a good shot?’ “And I’ll turn to give him a better shot.”

Eric Andrew-Gee is a national reporter with The Globe and Mail.


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