Shealah Craighead works in pictures, not words, but she's got a lot of good Sarah Palin stories. Here's one from this winter:
It's Valentine's Day, and Palin is spending it at the Daytona 500. As Palin is greeted by the usual crush of fans, Craighead and other members of Palin's retinue are eyeing another celebrity in attendance, a certain dreamy jazz musician-slash-actor.
Afterward, Craighead can't resist the opportunity for some girl talk.
"You just sat next to Harry Connick Jr. for 10 minutes! Isn't he so dreamy?"
"Isn't he!?" replies Palin, laughing.
The stuff of scandal, it's not -- but it does help explain the role Craighead plays in Palinmania. Since shortly after John McCain tapped the then-Alaska governor as his running mate in 2008, Craighead has been Palin's personal photographer, the chief documentarian of both the public and private sides of her emergence as a singular mix of grassroots force and big-ticket celebrity.
Craighead has maintained that perch because Palin, who keeps an unusually tight inner circle, trusts and feels comfortable with her. And Craighead has preserved that dynamic by doing something that almost no one is able to do when it comes to Sarah Palin: Leave politics out of it. [...]
Craighead, 33, says she looks at photographing Palin as "a long-term documentary project." It's one on which Palin occasionally offers feedback. "She's very encouraging of my work. For me, that's what it means at the end of the day."
One current Palin staffer calls Craighead "a member of the family." But the even-tempered photographer stresses that she and Palin are not confidantes, and that instead the level of trust she enjoys was earned through the work she did during the 2008 campaign. Exclusive: Sarah Palin's Private Album
"[Palin] can kick back and be comfortable and take off her shoes and not be worried about 'Oh, she took her shoes off, let's photograph that,'" Craighead says. "I look for the details, I look for the highlights. I look for the moments in between the podium shots." [...]
Although Craighead has worked exclusively for Republicans, she insists she takes no ideological sides. "First priority for me is doing the best job I can for my clients. I leave my part of thought and everything out of it," Craighead says. "I specifically registered as an Independent for that. I leave politics out of everything." She adds that she wouldn't want to be considered a "Republican photographer" and that her skills are transferable. "Making photographs is an excellent way to contribute what I can to history. And for me, I don't see party as an obstacle.