Hill staffer's photos in high demand – POLITICO – Politico

A congressional assistant has made it her mission to capture lives of those who make the Hill work. | John Shinkle/POLITICO
By ERIKA LOVLEY
07/23/2009 04:27 AM EDT
The life of a staffer on Capitol Hill is a fast-moving, often blurred existence that can result in fond memories but little photographic evidence. One young congressional press assistant, however, has made it her mission to capture the lives of those who make the Hill work. She’s a budding photojournalist, and she’s gaining notoriety among members of Congress and her colleagues. 
Charlotte Sellmyer, 23, shoots with a semiprofessional Nikon camera and has no formal photography training. Her studio currently consists of her Dell laptop and an Adobe Photoshop program. 
But this aide to House Judiciary Committee ranking member Lamar Smith (R-Texas) is quickly becoming a hot commodity among congressional staffers, who are hiring her to shoot their weddings, newborns, engagements and important political moments around the District. 
“I want to show people outside their Hill element,” Sellmyer says. “This is a pretty serious place that can seem like it doesn’t have a lot of style. But it does, and we have a lot of fun.” 
Preserving a few moments on film helps Sellmyer’s subjects mark both everyday moments and major occasions. “Everything on the Hill seems to be constantly in transition. Moving, babies, marriage, a change of power — those things should all be captured,” she adds. 
Her artistic shots of the Capitol dome and monuments are what initially made an impression on her boss. “It caught me off guard, because I had no idea she had that talent,” says Smith. “She’s really impressed all of us. She really does a professional job.” 
The congressman and his staff framed several shots that now adorn the Judiciary Committee cloakroom in the Rayburn House Office Building. Sellmyer’s art is also steadily expanding into the offices and apartments of her colleagues. And luxury hotels are beginning to woo her for her services. Her work has already graced the atrium of the Omni Hotel in Austin, Texas. 
“The committee has been trying to keep her our little secret,” jokes House Judiciary Committee minority communications director Kim Smith. “But people on the Hill are definitely realizing she’s out there.”
A Texas native with dark-brown eyes and a wide smile, Sellmyer spends her days the way many young staffers do — buried in a committee office, filing press releases, typing up talking points and faxing information. But staffers soon noticed the Texas A&M graduate’s talents when she began shooting the ranking member and his congressional colleagues during Judiciary Committee hearings and press conferences, using her shots as fodder for the local Texas press and the committee website. 
“My only complaint is that she seems unable to make me look younger,” Smith says. “My only constructive criticism is that she learns how to make members of Congress look younger and erase the wrinkles.” 
Sellmyer’s impromptu photo shoots away from the Capitol have caught the eye of young staffers. And her ongoing project is aimed at capturing the vibrant personalities of Hill staffers that are rarely expressed because of the strait-laced style on Capitol Hill. 
There are no ties, jackets or congressional badges in Sellmyer’s photo blog. Instead, staffers in jeans and T-shirts lounge over a rare leisurely lunch in Union Station during congressional recess. Judiciary Committee deputy chief of staff Allison Halataei cheers on her husband’s band. Sen. Joe Lieberman’s press secretary, Erika Masonhall, romps on the Georgetown waterfront, celebrating the first warm evening of spring. The baby of House Judiciary Committee immigration counsel Andrea Loving beams as she sees the ornaments on the National Christmas Tree for the first time. 
Although she’s just entered her second year of shooting, Sellmyer has posted on her photo blog thousands of shots that shine with energy, vivid colors and uncommon angles on everyday city sights.  
The majority of Sellmyer’s shoots are workday events, squeezed in during brief coffee breaks with friends, Metro rides and happy hours. Her work has developed a steady following through Facebook, as friends post her work to their profiles. And her list of paid gigs continues to grow through word of mouth at Hill parties. Her steadily growing client roster supplements her scrimpy Hill salary and helps her add to her collection of lenses as she tutors herself in their use. 
Still a newbie to the city, Sellmyer is frequently praised for her celebration of the District’s underappreciated beauty. For the engagement photos of Rep. Michele Bachmann’s legislative director, Jessica Perry, she shot the lovebirds in front of the vivid yellows and reds of Ben’s Chili Bowl and took a series of black-and-white photos in the shadows of the Dupont Circle Metro stop.
“She has a unique eye for things,” Perry says. “Her pictures are so different. Nothing about them is cookie-cutter.”
Sellmyer was bitten by the photography bug when she came to Washington as a congressional intern. During a walk on one of her first days, she grabbed a digital camera that belonged to her boss, communications director Kim Smith, and began shooting. From the start, Smith was amazed at the results.
“She’s got the photography thing down, but it’s really the way she captures people. She’s somehow able to capture the personality of the people and the personality of the place,” says Smith, who is often a subject of Sellmyer’s unannounced shoots. “Sure, the Hill has a reputation for being a bunch of stuffed shirts and people who aren’t having a great time. But Charlotte has a built-in network that needs this work. As a Hill staffer, you love the city and you want to remember it.”
“That’s when I realized I really can do this,” Sellmyer says. “D.C. offers a photographer any setting they want. If you want urban, you go to U Street. If you want classic colonial, monuments or outdoor photos on the parkway, it’s all here.”
In May, Sellmyer nervously shot her first wedding at the Dumbarton United Methodist Church in Georgetown — the wedding of Perry, Bachmann’s staffer. Days before, Sellmyer had accidentally broken her camera, and she scrambled to find a new one, including a backup. Luckily, by borrowing equipment from another Hill staffer, she was able to shoot the wedding without a hitch.
“I had full confidence in her,” said Perry. “Part of it came from how comfortable we were with the engagement photos. We knew to expect no less from the wedding.”
Even as her passion — and list of clientele — grows, Sellmyer says leaving the Hill for a full-time photography job isn’t in the cards. She’s still eyeing law school.
“I could not exist just as a photographer,” she says. “Politics has always attracted me, and I don’t think that will ever change.”
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