Enter Donald Trump’s presidential candidacy website, and the first thing you’ll see is a photo.
It is a glorious photo: The nonchalant peace sign. The smug facial posture. The pristine blue tie. Trump’s hair — which has been known to take on a life of its own — is particularly docile. It is a photo that begs for our adulation: This is the man who can Make America Great Again!™
If you have the willpower to scroll past this image, and through the press releases, FOX News clips, and endorsements that follow, you’ll spot something curious. At the very bottom of the page, in tiny white print, a credit is given: “Photos by GAGE SKIDMORE.”
Thinking that this person must be Trump’s official photographer, our original intent was to track him down for a profile. But a little sleuthing yielded a stranger story. Gage Skidmore isn’t one of Trump’s cronies; he’s a 22 year-old accounting student who lives with his parents in Arizona. What’s more, he’s the most prolific photographer you’ve never heard of.
Over the past 6 years, Skidmore has posted close to 40,000 pictures of Presidential candidates and Hollywood celebrities to Flickr. All of his photos are filed under a Creative Commons attribution license, allowing anyone — including Donald Trump — to freely use them. As a result, he’s become the Internet’s go-to source for political photographs: His shots are used by thousands of outlets, including The Atlantic, The Washington Post, The Associated Press, and NPR. His Flickr account has been linked to 30 million times. A “Gage Skidmore” Google image search turns up close to 500,000 results.
So, who the heck is this guy? What drives him to travel around the United States, taking photos of Presidential candidates? And why does he choose to give away his work for free?
In December of 2007, Skidmore, then a 14 year-old high-school student in Terre Haute, Indiana, traveled to the San Diego Comic-Con and took “a bunch of blurry photos with a cheap point and shoot camera.” He returned home, created a Flickr account, and posted the album (mostly out-of-focus shots of Seth MacFarlane) for the world to enjoy.
Around this time, Skidmore also started to gain an interest in politics — and one candidate in particular tickled his fancy. “I watched many of the Democratic and Republican debates on television, and found a man named Ron Paul, who was saying everything I thought, but had yet to realize,” Skidmore tells us in an email. “I liked [the idea of] just getting the government the hell out of our everyday lives.”
When Skidmore learned that Ron’s son, Rand Paul, was running for the U.S. Senate in nearby Kentucky, he jumped at the opportunity to photograph him: throughout the early months of 2010, he convinced his parents to shuttle him between states to more than 40 speaking engagements.
A close-up portrait of Ron Paul (Gage Skidmore)
In his pursuit of Rand Paul, Skidmore inadvertently snapped photos of other attendees: Rick Santorum, Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry — all future Presidential candidates who were relatively unknown at the time, and for whom very few free-to-use photos existed.
After Rand Paul won his election, Skidmore turned his attention to Ron Paul’s 2012 Presidential bid. He followed the Tea Partier around the nation, funding his travels through GoFundMe campaigns, and donations raised from friends who shared his political beliefs.
“I traveled to nearly every part of the country to cover his political events,” he tells us. “And I started to gain a reputation for being someone who could take some good Ron Paul photos.”
U.S. Senator Rand Paul in Des Moines, Iowa, October 2015 (Gage Skidmore)
Flash forward to 2016, and Skidmore is hot on the campaign trail again, toggling his time between New Hampshire, Iowa, and Arizona, where he is currently studying accounting at ASU.
He’s photographed, at one time or another, nearly every single candidate in the Presidential election: Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, Martin O’Malley, Jeb Bush, Ben Carson, Carly Fiorina, Chris Christie, Ted Cruz, Mike Huckabee, Donald Trump, Rick Santorum, Marco Rubio, and, of course, Rand Paul. He’s also landed some pretty epic shots of President Obama:
Photos via Gage Skidmore
In addition to his political photography, Skidmore has attended Comic-Con every year, where he’s photographed celebrities including (but not limited to): Angelina Jolie, Tom Cruise, Samuel L. Jackson, Bruce Willis, Sandra Bullock, Jennifer Lawrence, Tina Fey, Sylvester Stallone, Hugh Jackman, Emma Stone, Quentin Tarantino, and Jackie Chan.
Skidmore’s overwhelming presence on the Internet can be confirmed by searching the names of any of these politicians or celebrities, alongside his name. A Google News query alone turns up 41,000 results, and this only counts semi-recent sources. Check out the Wikipedia page of any of the people listed above, and you’re likely to find at least one Gage Skidmore image floating around:
Photos via Gage Skidmore
Gage Skidmore is truly ubiquitous, and here’s why: all of his images are filed under Creative Commons. That is, they are 100% free to use — even commercially — so long as attribution is given. But considering all of the time and money he puts into obtaining his photos, why would he simply give his work away? Here’s how he explains it:
“The photography world is changing very rapidly. Anyone can go out and buy a semi-professional camera (or a cell phone with a camera) and upload their photos to the Internet for all to access. In years past, organizations like AP or Getty had a corner on the market, but as the Internet has become an integral part of our lives, photographers have had to adapt. Creative Commons is a vehicle that allows my photos to be received by a wide audience; it has also allowed me to get my name out there, and secure paid gigs.”
This philosophy is not particularly popular among professional photographers, who think that people like Skidmore are leeching away from their paid work by giving away photos for free. A short interview Skidmore did with the Nieman Journalism Lab in 2012 elicited more than 100 angry comments from the public:
But the 22 year-old says that he’s not attempting to carve a career out of photography; it’s just a hobby. “I don't need to sell my photos in order to have a meal the next day,” he says. “In the long run I'll probably take a more traditional career path in the business world.”
In this sense, Skidmore is a prime example of what journalist Dan Kennedy calls “the pro-am media ecosystem fostered by the Internet”: he’s a player who is not part of the professional system, who has gained a reputation based on the accessibility and quantity of his work.
And fittingly, this open-source maestro says his own work may be made irrelevant by something even more ubiquitous: the cell phone.
“As the cell phone camera becomes even more accessible and of higher quality than it already is, we'll probably see even more of a shift toward the everyday person becoming the paparazzi,” says Skidmore. “And even less accountability, as far as licensing goes.”