“I want everything to thrive, especially if it lives.”
TRQ: Sharon Farmer, Born June 10, 1951
White House photographer during the Clinton presidency, Sharon Farmer, the first woman and first Black person to serve as Director of While House Photography, was born Washington, D.C. She attended Ohio State University originally to study the bassoon but switched to studying photography.
While attending university, she served as vice president of the student government, edited the student newspaper, worked on the yearbook and joined the Delta Sigma Theta sorority. Also as a student Farmer was an activist who protested the university’s racist policies. During her senior year the Associated Press hired her to intern as a photojournalist.
Returning to D.C. after graduation, Farmer began freelancing by shooting musicians and album covers, news stories, and portraits.
“The camera shows lunacy and beauty,” Farmer once explained. “Photography is like a brain…it heads you to where you need to go. You don’t have to think about it. You just have to get there. And then you’ll see what you need to capture.”
After being approached by the White House in 1993, she became the first Black woman to be hired as the White House photographer. Then in 1999 she became the first woman and first Black person to be promoted to the White House’s Director of Photography.
She spent the those years traveling the world following President Bill Clinton and Hillary Rodham Clinton, capturing the visual stories of the Clinton presidency and beyond. She photographed Nelson Mandela’s swearing in as president of South Africa, and the handshake between Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.
For each year of the Clinton presidency, Farmer shot around 3,000 rolls of film. As director, she oversaw five photographers, and a staff of thirty-five technicians and support staff.
When asked about being the first woman and first black woman to serve as director, Farmer said, “I have no pride in being the first of anything. It says we haven’t come as far as we need to go. To be the first or the only says we have a lot of work to do.”
Following the Clinton years, Farmer has participated in solo and group art shows, as well as exhibits in museums and institutions. These have included Art Against AIDS, Gospel in the Projects, and Our Views of Struggle. She has lectured at National Geographic and served on the faculty of American University, Mount Vernon college and Indiana University. She has worked for The Washington Post, the Smithsonian Institution, and the American Association of the Advancement of Science. In 2004 she was Senator John Kerry’s head photographer during his run for president.
In 2010 Farmer was named a GLBT History Month icon by the Equality Forum. In 2011 she was presented with the Distinguished Service Award by the Gay and Lesbian Activists Alliance (GLAA). Farmer resides in D.C. with her lover, the painter Joyce Wellman.