How a Campus Radical Became the First Woman to Run White House Photography Operation

Women's History Month

Breaking Barriers

Sharon Farmer says she "never kissed enough butt" to land a job on staff at a national newspaper. Then the White House hired her for the job of a lifetime.

March 30, 2015


(Above: Official White House Photo by Sharon Farmer)

MARCH 31, 2015

Sitting in her favorite threadbare chair in her cozy sitting room, Sharon Farmer may not look like your idea of an official White House photographer, or the director of the commander-in-chief’s photography office. For one thing, she’s a woman. For another, she’s black. But in 1999, Farmer became the first of her race and gender to become the White House photography director. It may have been a boys’ club back then, but Farmer has always made it her business to move through different circles.

Today, Farmer lives in the once affordable but quickly gentrifying Washington, D.C., neighborhood of Columbia Heights. While her passion for photography is evident in her appearance at events around town, camera in hand, her first true love is music. In fact, the first thing you see when you enter her home are musical instruments, not photographs.

(Photo: J. Scales)

Sharon Farmer speaks at the opening of a show of her photographs and the paintings of Joyce Wellman (left) at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C.

Her eyes light up when she talks about playing the bassoon, piano and the clarinet. Her broad smile is infectious, and her hands fly as she speaks. Dressed in a denim-button down shirt embroidered with the insignia of WFPW, a volunteer-run progressive radio station known for its jazz and blues programming, Farmer tells me all about how she got to the White House while a large cat named Tiger keeps a watchful eye on me from his perch on the radiator.

Raised in the Southeast quadrant of D.C. by parents who were both school principals, Farmer saw her mother make history:  She was the first black principal in Prince George’s County, Maryland—an impressive feat considering Prince George’s was then predominantly white.  Asked what it was like to be the child of two educators, Farmer joked: “Could be worse—they could be preachers!”

Farmer credits her parents with teaching her to be involved in the community, the importance of being able to talk to everyone and, of course, to always shake hands. She marvels at her parents’ very close relationship, and grew up watching her mom take photographs at every picnic, event and holiday.

After excelling in high school as a woodwind player and pianist, Farmer attended the College of Music at Ohio State University, where she hoped to play in the university’s marching band, but this was the 1970s, and the men wouldn’t have any of it.

She joined Delta Sigma Theta—a black Greek organization—and developed a reputation as an activist.

During the 1970s, Ohio State had some 40,000 students, of which a mere 300 were black. Disparities such as that, and the everyday racism she encountered on campus inspired her to work for the radical black student paper, Our Choking Times. Farmer participated in sit-ins on campus to protest the discrimination of black students, and speaks fondly of her days as a college activist: “Once you make a coalition with people whose values are the same as yours, change occurs,” she told me.

The Ohio State University Libraries

The masthead of the newspaper published by African-American students at Ohio State on which former White House photographer Sharon Farmer worked during her college days.

But while Farmer was vocal in change-seeking protests on her college campus, photography was a huge part of her activism, she says; documenting the movement and campus life.

Sharon Farmer’s foray into photography began with a fellow student she was dating—he was taking a photojournalism class and brought her into a darkroom to watch him develop pictures. “It was like magic,” she says of the process of developing and printing photos on paper; immersing the paper in trays of solution and watching the image appear. Farmer began taking photography classes at Ohio State and fell in love. But she was aware of the obstacles to working in the field as a photojournalist. “I’m of color,” she says. “I have to be really good.”

(Official White House Photo by Sharon Farmer)

President Bill Clinton walks with South African President Nelson Mandela during a 1998 presidential visit to South Africa.

Farmer still has strong school spirit and tells anecdotes of her time at Ohio State with a mischievous grin and a gleam in her eye. She was the first black vice president of the Student Government Association. Her running mate, who won the SGA presidency, had beaten John Kasich, who went on to be a congressman and then governor Ohio. When they ran into each other at the White House years later, Kasich recognized her instantly.

After college, Farmer did freelance work for The Washington Post, but, she says, “I never kissed enough butt to get a full-time job.” Yet her work at the Post caught the eye of Robert McNeely, the first director of White House photography. Farmer recalls her time at the White House fondly, but it was not without incident. “At the White House, you’re up against a lot of people who don’t think you belong there.”

When McNeely resigned, “I threw my hat into the ring,” Farmer says, and won her boss’s old job. Of course, it wasn’t smooth sailing once she became director of White House photography. While photographing Bill Clinton in Montana, Farmer said, the police sheriff overseeing the area gave her attitude. Farmer recalls the story with seeming bemusement. Because of her appearance, he probably assumed that she didn’t have the authority to be standing up on a railing, photographing the president.

(Official White House Photo by Sharon Farmer)

Farmer chronicled the presidential events around the world, and here at home—even on her home turf. Here she captures President Bill Clinton talking with students on Martin Luther King Day in 1998 at Cardozo Senior High School in Washington, D.C.

Fiercely loyal, Farmer has nothing but good things to say about Bill and Hillary Clinton, though. In fact, when she tried to leave the White House one year before the president’s second term was up, they convinced her to stay. “It was a vote of confidence,” Farmer says proudly.

Despite being a history-maker, Farmer tells all her stories very casually—as if they could happen to anyone. She recalls being struck by the poverty in Calcutta while accompanying Hillary Clinton at Mother Teresa’s funeral in 1997. “I’d never seen homes on an airport runway until I got there.” In Haiti, she was shocked to find that people build high concrete fences around their homes—and then fasten broken glass to the railing to prevent burglars from jumping over.

(Official White House Photo by Sharon Farmer)

President Bill Clinton and First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton lay flowers in 1996 at the site of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing of the Murrah Federal Building by anti-government terrorists Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols. The attack killed 168 people, including 19 children.

“I was never a shrinking violet,” Farmer says of herself. And after her tenure at the White House was over she continued to prove it. At the Associated Press bureau in Washington, D.C., she says she frequently butted heads with co-workers. In the beginning of the Iraq war, AP frequently published war photos but Sharon Farmer thought an important aspect was being left out. “Where was the antiwar story?” she had asked.

When the United States invaded Iraq in 2003, protesters numbering in the hundreds of thousands took to the streets various cities. Leaving the Associated Press came easy when she realized antiwar stories weren’t going to be a priority at the AP. Sharon Farmer joined the John Kerry 2004 presidential campaign; although as a senator, Kerry voted to authorize President George W. Bush's use of force in Iraq, he was highly critical of Bush's prosecution of the war. (Kerry first made his mark in U.S. politics by opposing the Vietnam War as a decorated veteran of that conflict.)

(Photo: Sharon Farmer)

Sharon Farmer brings her love of music to chronicling the performing arts community in her hometown of Washington, D.C. Here she captures musician and poet J. Scales performing at the Human Rights Campaign annual dinner.

Even after her high-profile photography stints, Sharon Farmer remains humble about her work and accomplishments. And she still photographs various groups and events, just for her own satisfaction. As she did in college, she’s still chronicling movements for social justice, and many of D.C.’s music communities. On Friday nights, you’ll often find her, camera in hand, photographing the District’s jazz greats at a weekly concert hosted by Westminster Presbyterian Church in the Southwest quadrant.

“Good people need good coverage,” Farmer says of the community she documents. When she’s not being what she calls a “photo activist,” Sharon Farmer still plays music and thinks about writing children’s books.

Her ability to move in predominantly white male circles, especially during the '70s, '80s, and '90s, is impressive. “Figure out who isn’t racist or ugly,” Farmer tells me, and stick with them.

And she has some last bits of advice for a young woman reporter of color. “The media is changing. Don’t tell people your ideas, so they don’t get stolen.” And most importantly, “Get a mentor.”