Chandler West, 31, had just been hired in his new position as deputy director of photography at the White House when he was assigned the surreal task of photographing the “flip.”
“It’s one of the craziest things I’ve done since coming here,” West said. “My first job on day one [Inauguration Day] was to get to the White House and be there to capture the flip as it was happening. So I spent like four or five hours just standing in the Oval Office watching people physically carrying furniture out, putting in new rugs and hanging art.”
The moment was all the more surreal, considering that just six years earlier West was working in Oak Park as Wednesday Journal’s staff photographer — a job he held from late 2014 to mid-2015.
“The job I had at the Journal was truly one of my favorite jobs, probably second to this one,” West said. “I really liked the community and the way people get excited when we’d show up and say we’re from the Journal.”
After his stint in Oak Park, West was lured to New York for more editing and photography experience. He landed jobs in photo editing at the Daily Mail and Reinfery29 before a moment of serendipity changed his career. In 2016, he came across a job opening on the website of Hillary for America. He applied for the position of photo editor, not thinking he’d get it, considering he had no connections to the campaign.
“I assumed I’d never hear anything,” he said. “I was planning to move from New York to Washington D.C., to see what I could find down here and as I was packing up, I got a call from the campaign asking me to come in.”
West worked as one of roughly five staff photographers on Clinton’s campaign until it ended. What did he think of his principal subject?
“I met Hillary Clinton a couple of times, but I spent more time with other principals, since she had her own chief photographer,” West said. “So I wasn’t super-close to her personally, but any time I interacted with her, she was super-close and warm. She’s a very caring person. When people would get off the plane, she’d get off and check on things, asking if everyone had their bags and if they needed anything.”
After the Clinton campaign, West moved to California and worked roughly two years as a multimedia specialist with the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, the philanthropy established by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife.
Once campaign season picked back up in 2018, he moved back to D.C. and started doing freelance photography for the presidential campaigns of New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren.
“All of the candidates I’ve worked with are great,” West said. “I haven’t met anybody who is a jerk or anything, but [Booker] is one of the most personable and most engaging people. When we launched the campaign, I met him at 6 a.m. and hung out in his kitchen for most of the day. He was doing media calls. One moment, he gets off the phone after talking to his senior advisers and I’m kind of huddled in the corner of the room trying to not to make noise and he turns to me and says, ‘Hey Chandler, how do you think I did on that call?’ He goes out of his way to make sure everybody feels part of the process and engaged.”
West connected with the Joe Biden campaign just as the former vice president was gaining unstoppable momentum after his surprising landslide win in the South Carolina primary. West had cultivated a relationship with Biden photographer Adam Schultz while working on the Clinton campaign (Schultz is now Biden’s chief White House photographer).
“By the time I joined his campaign, Biden was basically the presumptive nominee and the campaign was kicking into high gear and hiring more staff,” West said. “That’s when I got a call from Adam asking to help him keep up with everything.”
West said that’s been his job ever since. The days are long: “12 hours is probably a good day; sometimes they’re more like 15- or 16-hour days,” and the work is not always glamorous.
West helps manage a small staff of about six photographers who are charged with myriad tasks, not the least of which is ensuring that the White House “jumbos” (the large-scale prints hanging up throughout the house) are rotated with regularity.
Despite the tedium, he said it’s hard to be jaded in the new gig. On the morning of this interview, he had been taking photographs in the Rose Garden.
“A lot of the halls in the West Wing look just like any other office hallway,” he said. “Not all of it is super-grand. A lot of it is doing normal office things. But then you get snapped out of normalcy when you hear the helicopters flying on the lawn, or the other day I was getting a COVID test down the hall in the medical unit and I realized John Kerry was in line ahead of me. So it’s this weird jumping back and forth out of those moments.”
And then there’s the daily commute.
“When you walk up to the building, it glows from the sunlight kind of bouncing off the white and it’s definitely something you never get used to,” West said. “I’ve worked with pastry chefs and security and other staffers who have been here for 20 years or more and they say the same thing. It never gets old.”