“This is not a photo opportunity,” says Jeremy Hunt, Britain’s foreign secretary, as he picks up a platter of cookies and pretends to offer them to bystanders from the side of a double-decker bus. “Totally authentic. What I do every day of the week. It’s a normal scene for me. Nothing fake about it at all. Cookies, lattes anyone?”
But it really is a normal scene for the man behind the camera, Stefan Rousseau. As if in defiance of Westminster’s obsession with appearance, the chief political photographer of PA, the news agency formerly known as the Press Association, wears a smattering of unruly stubble, a crumpled jacket and a shirt with two buttons undone. His tie is in the car; his suit in the office, for special occasions. He has just flown back from Japan, where he covered Theresa May’s last jaunt as prime minister. Now he is back on the road with her potential successors: Hunt today, then Boris Johnson.
Both are vying to persuade the 160,000 members of the Tory party to pick them as their next leader. They intend to demonstrate their statesmanlike credentials with the time-honoured ritual of politicians from North Korea to New Hampshire: lots and lots of photocalls. During the campaign, Rousseau has already snapped Hunt slurping a milkshake (look, he’s fun!) and Johnson mooching about a garden centre (the suburbs’ favourite pin-up). The ostensible purpose of Hunt’s visit to Surrey is to open a sports day and submit to a grilling from schoolchildren. But Rousseau knows Hunt’s real aim: to get as many pictures in the newspapers as possible. “The only reason they do these visits is for my benefit.”
Much of the time, the picture he and his fellow snappers take will be the one the campaign had planned. (The cookies shot ends up in the next day’s Times, together with another staple, Hunt pulling a pint). “We know we get used,” he admits. But his job is to spot the photo opportunity within the photo opportunity, the brief glimmer of reality amid the theatre. “There’ll be moments between the posing when he’s not posing.” In Japan, he caught May looking away as she shook Vladimir Putin’s hand. Another time, he captured two aides in suits kneeling on the floor to open a door for Gordon Brown.
He used his first camera, a Zenit EM, to take snaps of “Kiss Me Quick” huts and candyfloss on the beach of his hometown, Whitley Bay, in north-east England. After dropping out of college, he covered diamond wedding anniversaries and Christmas bazaars for the local paper. But he always hankered after politics: he inherited the obsession from his grandma, with whom he would listen to the radio news every hour as a child, leaving him with an encyclopedic knowledge of 1970s Westminster. He was in Downing Street’s Rose Garden when John Major gave his “put up or shut up” speech to leadership challengers in 1995. But he only moved to politics full-time after the 9/11 attacks, when Tony Blair began criss-crossing the world. His editor agreed to give him the gig, and he dug in.
In two decades as Downing Street’s “unofficial official photographer” (in the words of a No 10 staffer), he has learned to maintain access by charming officials and then portraying his subjects fairly – never, for example, asking them to stand in front of a sign that would make them look silly. He was glad he was not covering Ed Miliband’s 2014 visit to a market in London when the then Labour leader was caught awkwardly eating a bacon sandwich. It would have put him in a quandary over whether or not to file the image. “The cameras are so fast they just caught this bizarre moment on his face. That picture was talked about so much. If I’d photographed it I guess I would have filed it, but whether I’d have felt comfortable with it? Probably not.” Cherie Blair says that when she went on trips abroad with her husband, “Stef would be the one I would always want to come, because I knew he was reliable”. “The way I describe Stefan,” says Liz Sugg, Cameron’s former events aide, “is straight.”
Still, he is always looking out for real – rather than manufactured – drama. He calls these John Prescott moments, after a former deputy prime minister who punched a man who threw an egg at him on a walkabout. His first big break, working for a regional picture agency, was an image of Norman Tebbit, a stony-faced Tory, being egged during the 1992 election campaign. “You’ve got to be ready for those little moments when someone looks funny or does something unusual in such a staged, guarded environment. If you’re not there, you’re not there.”
In one sense, then, political photography is the art of turning up. “I feel like I’m his shadow,” says Laura Kuenssberg, the BBC’s political editor. “Whenever something important is about to happen, he’s always there – often somewhere out of view, watching and waiting.” Which explains why Rousseau seems happy enough to drive two hours to Surrey to watch Hunt hit a couple of cricket balls before a press aide insists he’s had enough, presumably imagining a sub-editor writing a “stumped” pun. Rousseau is impressed that Hunt gave it a go at all. “Many politicians wouldn’t have gone near a cricket ball because of the risks involved,” he says, apparently without irony.
A few days later, Rousseau is milling about on a building site at Manchester Airport, waiting for Boris Johnson. It must be time for that other trope of the political campaign: hard hat and high-vis vest, the “builder of the nation” shot. “Here’s the obligatory display,” Rousseau chuckles, as he spots a series of architects’ impressions propped on easels for Johnson to admire. There are airport press people, Boris press people, Northern Powerhouse people, construction health-and-safety people. But there is very little in the way of construction; just a handful of apprentices, presumably picked out especially.
At last, Johnson arrives. He chats to some bosses, then makes awkward small-talk with the apprentices. “He’s running out of stuff to say,” says an aide. As soon as the photographs are done, he’s off for a TV interview.
Rousseau is reasonably pleased with his pictures. “With Boris, there’s generally more than you expect.” But Johnson’s instinct for a good picture worries Rousseau, who does not want to give him an unfair advantage. “I don’t want the campaign from a picture point of view to be one-sided.” Boris is tricky to counterbalance, though, given he is “the king of the photo op”. “We all know in the Westminster bubble who Jeremy Hunt is. But if you stopped a random person in the street and asked them what Hunt looks like, they might not be sure. Anyone could pick Boris out. You can photograph certain people from behind and people know exactly who they are. Boris, Trump, the Queen.” Later, choosing 20-or-so pictures from the hundreds he has taken that he feels fairly capture the mood of the day, he pauses for a while over one frame. “This picture’s nice. But it’s not what people want to see him doing. After he hung from that zipwire, the bar’s pretty high.”
Johnson’s minders are much more relaxed than Hunt’s. Rousseau reckons this is because of his “Teflon” reputation: even a photograph of him rugby-tackling a child was laughed off. A story earlier in the campaign about a row between Johnson and his girlfriend, Carrie Symonds, died off quickly. The only pictures to accompany the story were apparently posed ones of the couple relaxing in a meadow, rather than, say, Symonds in tears. Johnson continued with his planned campaigning stops, refusing to address the row. “It’s difficult to illustrate a story about Boris’s private life with pictures in a garden centre.”
Such a relaxed attitude to the media is more common in American presidents than in wary British prime ministers, says Rousseau. Trump regularly exchanges banter with snappers. Rousseau remembers photographing world leaders at a summit in 2003. When security guards eventually tried to usher out the Americans perched at George W. Bush’s feet, a melee ensued as they refused to budge. Bush turned to one of the pack and said, “hold your ground, Scotty”. “I can’t imagine any British prime minister doing that.”
In part, prime ministers are right to be wary. Whereas American photographers shun staging photographs and favour wide-angled arty shots, some of their British counterparts have a more tabloid mentality, with picture editors favouring “tight and bright” pictures. Also, says Rousseau, “we’re obsessed with trivia”. After the Japan summit, a newspaper reporter called Rousseau to ask if he had taken a picture of May holding a meeting barefoot. (He hadn’t.) Cameron always fretted about being photographed drinking champagne. Once, after swiftly moving a glass aside, he checked with Rousseau: “You didn’t see that, did you?”
At 53, Rousseau might be expected to be a little jaded, a cynical veteran of too many campaigns. Certainly, he concedes, the job can be dull. Last winter, as May struggled to get MPs to vote for her Brexit deal, Rousseau spent most days fighting the cold outside Downing Street, waiting to photograph her leaving and then coming back. Since she often wore the same coat, it was hard to tell the pictures apart. “Where did yesterday end and today start?”
But he has no intention of giving up his spot opposite that famous door. “I could be doing pictures of Madonna, but it doesn’t affect anybody’s life. This is something that means something.” On July 24th, he will be in Downing Street again, hoping, like on the last four occasions, that he will be allowed inside to photograph the new prime minister stepping over the threshold of No 10 for the first time. From then on, his camera will only be pointing in one direction. “Whoever the PM is,” he says, “I train my lens on them.”