The PM's official photographer 'needs trust not a state salary'

Jake Sutton, who snapped Thatcher, Kinnock and Blair, talks with Matthew Bell

They are there, two paces behind, in the corridors of Downing Street; they sit in on top-level meetings; they emerge, white-knuckled, from helicopters in Baghdad or Kabul.

They are not reporters, but they can, with the right picture, tell a story more powerful than any thousand-word dispatch. The job of official photographer to the prime minister comes with unique and privileged access, one that other journalists can only dream of.

But the delicate dynamic between prime minister and his photographer – total access in exchange for a fair portrayal – has changed since last week. By awarding Andrew Parsons a civil service salary of £35,000, David Cameron has, according to some, jeopardised the impartiality of a historically important role. This is certainly the view of Jake Sutton, who was Tony Blair's official photographer during the last six months of his premiership.

According to Sutton, 55, who also photographed the campaign trails of Neil Kinnock and Margaret Thatcher, an official photographer should never be paid by his subject, and certainly not by the state. "I couldn't do it," he says, "I wouldn't want any money from the state. You have got to keep your independence. The most important thing is not to become one of them."

Striking a balance between developing insider contacts and remaining impartial is a challenge innate to journalism. But few journalists receive their wage from the subject of their stories. If the purpose of a photographer following the prime minister is to create a record for the history books, impartiality is even more important.

Amid raucous scenes in the House of Commons on Wednesday, the Labour leader, Ed Miliband, accused Cameron of making "vanity appointments," and questioned whether it was "a wise judgement, when he is telling everybody to tighten their belts". It doesn't help Cameron's case that Parsons is a Conservative.

But according to Sutton, political ties are not the issue. He was staunchly left-wing when Derry Irvine, a friend of his father – the artist Philip Sutton – asked him if he could take a few snaps of a young Tony Blair, when he first stood for parliament in 1983.

"I was very political at that time," he says, "I was passionate about South Africa and apartheid, and was often on demonstrations. But Derry and Tony didn't know that. I was just a photographer to them."

Sutton was not paid for those early shots; he did them as a favour, which would later reap dividends. Back then, he was working as an agency photographer; he built up a career on assignments of his own choosing, including two-and-a-half years living in Kabul. When, in 2006, he had the idea of recording the last months of Blair's premiership, he wrote to No 10 asking for access and after a couple of interviews, was appointed official photographer. Crucially, though, he would not be paid. "The reason they chose me was entirely to do with trust," he says, "we had forged a bond all those years ago and they knew I was trustworthy. What you are aiming for is to become a ghost they can forget about. That's when you get the best pictures."

The temptation to sell a choice photograph must always be there though? "No. The whole point of the job is to persuade the prime minister he can trust you. Only then can he forget you're there. " Sutton illustrates his argument with an example from his days shadowing Margaret Thatcher during the election campaign of 1983.

"We were on a visit to the offices of the Bristol Daily Press. I left the pack and went downstairs and there, lying spreadeagle on the floor, was one of her ministers. It looked he was paralytically drunk, though in fact he'd just done his back in. It would have been a fantastic photo. But I made the decision to leave it. Maintaining the prime minister's trust was more important."

Sutton was fortunate to have been able support himself while shadowing prime ministers – with financial independence comes creative freedom and he never had his work vetted. He is unequivocal that to accept a salary is to undermine the authority of the end product. But he does not agree that Parsons' politics will necessarily colour his work. "The only thing that matters is trust. If you don't get that you can't do it. Clearly Cameron trusts Parsons – there must be plenty of Tories he doesn't."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

Guru Careers: Lead Systems Developer / Software Developer

COMPETITIVE + Excellent Benefits: Guru Careers: A Lead Systems Developer / Sof...

Recruitment Genius: Social Media & Engagement Manager - French or German Speaker

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: The world's leading financial services careers...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Marketing Executive - 6 Months Contract

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The Digital Marketing Executive...

Guru Careers: Account Manager / Senior Account Manager

40-45K DOE + Benefits: Guru Careers: An Account Manager / Senior Account Manag...

Day In a Page

The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

The honours that shame Britain

Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

International Tap Festival comes to the UK

Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

BBC heads to the Californian coast

The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

Car hacking scandal

Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
10 best placemats

Take your seat: 10 best placemats

Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory
Ashes 2015: Alastair Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

Aussie skipper Michael Clarke was lured into believing that what we witnessed at Edgbaston and Trent Bridge would continue in London, says Kevin Garside
Can Rafael Benitez get the best out of Gareth Bale at Real Madrid?

Can Benitez get the best out of Bale?

Back at the club he watched as a boy, the pressure is on Benitez to find a winning blend from Real's multiple talents. As La Liga begins, Pete Jenson asks if it will be enough to stop Barcelona
Athletics World Championships 2015: Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jessica Ennis-Hill and Katarina Johnson-Thompson heptathlon rivalry

Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jess and Kat rivalry

The last time the two British heptathletes competed, Ennis-Hill was on the way to Olympic gold and Johnson-Thompson was just a promising teenager. But a lot has happened in the following three years
Jeremy Corbyn: Joining a shrewd operator desperate for power as he visits the North East

Jeremy Corbyn interview: A shrewd operator desperate for power

His radical anti-austerity agenda has caught the imagination of the left and politically disaffected and set a staid Labour leadership election alight
Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief: Defender of ancient city's past was killed for protecting its future

Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief

Robert Fisk on the defender of the ancient city's past who was killed for protecting its future