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Behind the Scenes: My start in Political Photography

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I  want to tell you the story of how I found myself in a bar in Iowa arguing politics this last weekend.  I met Jack Quigley 9 years ago and like most stories involving Jack it starts with a labor union issue.

Before I met Jack I was a new teacher fresh out of college when the union and the district had  labor disagreement.  I forget the details but the union needed a young teacher to publicly testify for them.  I’ve never been shy about voicing my opinions, so the union trotted me out, fresh out of college and spitting fire.  We came close to striking but eventually settled.  On the school board at the time was Sara Gelser, she was on the other side of the issue as I recall, but that didn’t sour her against me.  We met, talked, and she started following my photography blog.

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Oregon State Senator, Sara Gelser

Years later, my business started taking off.  I was shooting weddings all across the state and started teaching less and less.   Sara kept following my work and when Bill Clinton rolled into town to stump for Hillary in 2008, Sara was there stumping for her, this time as my representative in the Oregon State House.

I like politics.  Love politics actually. I listen to podcasts, I read articles, argue, listen.  I was more sad when Tim Russert died, than when Michael Jackson died.  Does that make sense?
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When Bill came to our little town I figured I’d just show up and shoot from the crowd.  It was fun!  I took pictures of Sara’s introductory speech and moved around  pretending like it was my job and having a good time.

Sara saw the pictures and loved them.  She had worked with Jack on her campaign and hired him as her consultant.  Sara immediately started lobbying Jack to hire me for work in Oregon.  At the time Jack was flying photographers out from his home base in Chicago and I for the life of me couldn’t understand why.

Why not hire me for what the plane ticket cost?  After I did my first campaign shoot I understood why.  Shooting politics is unlike any other kind of photography I’m familiar with.  If I showed you my images from a political shoot you’d probably say, “ There’s nothing special about that picture.”  See the point of my political photography isn’t to make you stop and admire the photo, it’s to make you connect with the candidate on a personal level.  I want to make you see yourself in the candidate.  That means that even though everything is set up (the grandmas and soccer moms, and babies are all staged) I have to make it look like they are not.

Let me break down what a typical political shoot could be like.  Jack and his partner Julie will send me an email and say, “Hey we need you in Boulder Colorado  next Tuesday at 10am with a Senator.  You’ll have an hour to do the shoot.”

I say, “I’m game.”  I hop on a plane.  I show up an hour early to scout the location and figure out what shots I want to get. The Senator is 15 minutes late, because I’ve never shot a Senator that is on time.  10 minutes into the shoot the campaign manager asks me if they can cut  it a little short because they have a  radio interview that they have to do soon.  I’m careful to control my facial expressions.  I go to work.

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Representative Ami Berra,  California 7th District, shot for Elevated Campaigns.

Prearranged at the location are people from different demographics.  Grandpas, businesswomen, a young family, a farmer….or a guy who at least looks like a farmer when he wears a baseball cap.  I quickly introduce myself to everyone.  I smile, I joke a little, I try to make them feel comfortable and we begin. I start moving them into position, using their bodies to frame the candidate.  It’s actually kind of hard to sit people around a table in a way that looks natural.  I get them talking and interacting with each other.  This is where the candidate comes alive.  I’m in awe of these women and men who run for office.  You tell them to start talking and just step back, because that is what they do.  They are in their element.   After a few shots I have them play musical chairs.  I switch up the grandmas and grandpas.  The candidate changes their shirt or throws on a sports jacket and we make it look like a different meeting  that happened on a different day.

Anther costume change and we run outside across the street to a park.  The soccer moms are waiting, their kids playing.  I grab three of them and have them do a walk and talk with the candidate.  Playground equipment in the background.  I’m careful to only include children we’ve got model releases from, even in the background.  Do you know what would happen if I included an unsigned child in a political attack ad?  Ok, truth is I have no idea.  But I really don’t want to find out.

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Jessica Vega Pederson Multnomah County Commissioner, shot for Elevated Campaigns.

We switch the moms up, bring in the younger kids.  A dad comes in with a baby in a sling. I shoot some more and move onto portraits with the candidate.

They know what’s up.  Their smiles are pretty genuine as we chat a little about the race, their home state, and what they know about Oregon. I line the candidate up under a nice shady tree and start making beautiful portraits. Except for that one time in Montana.  There was no shade.  And harsh noon day sun is the worst to photograph in. I was shooting Senator John Tester.  Love that guy.  He is a genuine dirt farmer just doing the right thing in a state that overwhelmingly voted for Trump in 2016.

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US Senator John Tester, shot for Elevated Campaigns.

Anyway, I’m in Montana and our location kind of sucks.  He had a very small amount of time and we were just in a part of town that had no park or trees.  Ok.  What to do?  I’ll use the sky!  Montana is big sky country right?  Only on that day there were fires and the sky was all smokey.  No sky. Shit.  I look across the highway and there is a pathetic little tree that give me some shade and a thin patch of blue sky that if I maneuver myself at the right angle I think I can use.  I set up my little soft box,  had his campaign manager hold the flash and fired a couple shots.  Done.

On a quick shoot like this, I try to get 3 or maybe 4 looks or scenes before the candidate has to zoom off to their next event.  I don’t get a 2nd chance.  I have to nail it in the moment no matter the circumstances,  forrest fires, crying babies, no shade,  it doesn’t matter.  I’m going to find a way to make those images be what they need to be.

The shoot is done. We shake hands, I wish them luck, and hop on a plane to go back home, edit on the plane and upload the images to Jack and Julie as fast as I can.

There is a lot of pressure.  I love it. I love the challenge.  I almost like the harder shoots better.  Even for some of these smaller shoots the cost to get a good mail piece out could be more than $200,000.   That’s why you don’t just hire a photographer you googled for your campaign shoot.  You need to know the person, trust their photography skills, but just as important you have to believe in them as a person.  Politics is sensitive.  You need someone who can fly across the country and interact with a candidate, a grandma, a 3-year-old a small business owner and make it look like it naturally  happened over the course of few days when It was an hour that got cut to 45 minutes and you staged the whole thing.  Make sense?

This weekend Jack called me out to Iowa to shoot a candidate for Governor.  I can’t tell you who it is yet or even show you the pictures because they haven’t officially announced.  I don’t get to meet Jack on every shoot.  He’s always crisscrossing the country and I’ve reached a point where I don’t always need to have an art director checking on the images as we go.  This was a bigger shoot though. They filmed tv spots and I piggybacked still photography so they don’t have to carve out extra time in the candidate’s schedule.   My favorite part of these jobs is actually not the shooting, but hanging out with Jack and the crew.  Jack’s been in politics a long time.  I love hearing his opinions.  We have kids the same age and we share what it’s like being a dad to our daughters.  He tells great stories. Jack is a believer.  I mean this is his job, but he’s a crusader man.  He wants to make our country a better place and he’s lucky enough to work every day on something he is passionate about.

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This trip I got the chance to meet some people that I feel will be lifelong friends.  Corey from RevNeg and Susan from Spring Creative.  It’s crazy how quickly you can become friends when you spend two days working together.

Anyway, after the shoot wrapped Susan, Corey and Jack headed to Chicago  and I went to a bar before the hotel because my flight didn’t leave until Monday morning.  It was cool.  This guy sat by me and we started arguing politics.  He said that the Democratic and  Republican parties are dead and the real debate in America is between libertarianism and socialism.  I said bullshit.  We had a fun talk and high-fived like a couple of dorks when we finished our drinks.

As I type this on my plane ride back, I just feel grateful for all those twists and turns that led me to shooting politics.  There are other stories for other blog posts and I’m going to do a better job of sharing them.  I think most people who follow my work don’t even know I shoot politics.  I feel like I should sum this up with some morale or lesson.  How about this?  Life is good. Be genuine.  Work hard.  No matter what your job, it’s always about people.

 

 

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