February 8, 2016
From an Iowa Caucus Photography Workshop
We’re in a small Iowa town of 400 people way out in the middle of farm county. The bar is filled beyond capacity, media is everywhere, Ted Cruz is a few feet away talking about God and America, and this guy, I’m thinking, just wants to drink his beer. He’s thinking, this is all bullshit. And I’m kind of agreeing with him. But I didn’t talk to him, I created my own story about him in my head. I suppose this photo could represent small communities being left behind by corporate agriculture, or the loss of manufacturing jobs that have always supported the hard-working middle class. You know, all that stuff you hear on the campaign trail from candidates who would be king. Looking at his face, though, it seems this man just wants to live his life. (Tom Hyde.)
When we heard documentary photographer Jeff Jacobson was giving workshops during the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary, we were intrigued. Since the images that are produced at workshops are not often made at public events and otherwise rarely seen, I felt our Originals section, would be the perfect space to publish the images and thoughts of the participants.
Jeff is the kind of photographer who we depend on for his alternate views of public spectacle. He’s been shooting on the campaign trail on-and-off for decades. I thought it’d be interesting to see how he led his students to look at the scene. Most of the students are not seasoned photojournalists and so I knew they’d view the process from a different perspective than what we are used to seeing. Jeff does editing sessions with his students at the end of every day. During the sessions, he also provides critique and advice that they will use for their next day’s shooting. As you’ll read below, most of the images Jeff chose were not what the students would have chosen themselves. For many photographers, this is a very liberating experience. Of the photographers he worked with in Iowa, Jacobson says, “They were enthusiastic, funny and energetic, a pleasure to be with in a very strange world.”
This was my first time seeing what I think of as the “real” America—I’d never been in the midwest. We saw very rural and remote areas, snowy fields as far as the eye could see, grain elevators, one-room schoolhouses. Iowa is ground zero for industrial agriculture—for corn and hogs—the water is contaminated with animal waste and nitrates. Some 60% of the Republicans are evangelical. We photographed everywhere from country clubs in resort areas (the very stiff Jeb Bush) to tiny dive bars in desperate towns (the very sleazy Ted Cruz). Jeff, a veteran political photographer, is from Iowa, and the workshop was more than photography—it was essentially a tour of this part of the country. And an inside look at the political world as I’d never seen it.
After being in close quarters with people like Ted Cruz, Chris Christie, Hillary Clinton, and Carly Fiorina, I had to take a hot shower every night. I’m a more cynical person now, and glad of it, and I think I’m a better photographer. Jeff says, photography is like surfing. “You paddle out and you wait for the energy of the wave, and you ride the energy. … The energy ends, and you paddle out and wait for the next wave.” He says he photographs in order to learn how he sees. When he edits, he very generously looks at every single frame we shoot, because he is interested in us learning how we see too. It’s a actually a spiritual experience for me. Avidya in Sanskrit means ignorance—literally not-seeing: Learning to increase my awareness of what’s in the frame, not to control it, but to be more aware is a parallel to being more mindful in the world.
This was taken at Bernie volunteer headquarters in a tiny, forgotten-looking place in the hinterlands of Iowa called Ottumwa. Bernie was rallying his people in the days just prior to the caucus. There was a scrum of people at one point after Bernie spoke, and at the center of the whirlwind I saw this little girl with her hands raised to her face. I love these dynamic scenes in which somehow everything holds together.
lThe baby, wearing a hand-lettered “Trump” onesie, was a media darling at the candidate’s Des Moines post-caucus gathering. The man, the baby’s father or grandfather, perhaps, was wearing a Trump T-shirt that he’d gotten at a weapons show. I wasn’t expecting him to be so nice. I loved the lines of the doting man’s craggy face, and the baby’s expression — his half-moon eyes looking so quizzical and otherworldly.
Photographing the Iowa campaign with Jeff Jacobson challenged me to transcend the scene represented. The workshop taught me to consider the edges of the frame carefully for elements that add graphic or contextual interest. I also learned to avoid shooting out of anxiety and instead to become more receptive to engaging elements.
The Hillary Clinton event was a carefully staged ballroom talk. There was a heavy security presence and photographer’s movements were highly restricted. As I stood next to a secret service agent, I noticed a girl sitting on the floor playing on a mobile device. The Barbie Doll-like image provided an interesting counterpoint to the military-like organization of the event and the Hillary poster against the crazy flame patterns in the carpeting completed the scene. The image poses more questions than answers and suggests more about the Clinton campaign than the more conventional images I made that day.
The photo was taken in a hotel conference center as a crowd waited for Rubio to speak. Held by a woman dressed in bright red, this homemade sign caught my eye. The disembodied head functions as a sort of mask for this woman and begs the question of what lies behind the cheery surface.
Being a part of Jeff Jacobson’s workshop was a way for me to take side roads to document American politics, instead of being part of the media and political circus. It went way beyond my expectations. Through it’s small venues, the Iowa Caucus allows an intimacy with the supporters and sometimes with the candidates. The energy of the supporters is real. After this workshop I will never see American political coverage in the same way. Most of the coverage seems flat and conventional. Much of it is predictable. It’s the total opposite of what needs to be done. Making a good image of it, of course, is another story.
Ted Cruz meeting at the Emmetsburg Public Library, Iowa, January 29th. It was the third meeting we followed him to, after a speech in a rustic bar and a barn in the city of Fenton. It is in Northwest Iowa close to the Minnesota state border, a very conservative area with many evangelicals. The library was not very interesting visually, so I started to wander in the bookshelves. There, I noticed a family with very young kids, including this boy with a teddy bear with a Ted Cruz sticker. Right away, I saw this man standing behind him. Compared to the bored child playing with his bear, the man’s stature and composure was striking.
The Ted Cruz event at Emmetsburg public library.
Waiting at a Hillary Clinton event in Carroll, Iowa. She arrived more than an hour late.
I come from a newspaper background, three generations of it in fact. And I worked briefly in politics. I’m a photographer, too, so following the campaign trail in Iowa was an obvious choice for me.
Its been extremely helpful to see my own work through the eyes of Jeff Jacobson. He is the only photographer who has looked at every photo I made during a workshop, not just my selections. Its also been valuable seeing the work of the others. We’ve been at the same events, all doing our own thing, and it is fascinating to look at the differences. I’m no photojournalist here. I am biased as hell, and I like it that way. This past week I was less interested in the candidates and more interested in the context. It feels, even out here in the heart of America, that we are on the edge of losing it. Everything is not all right. People are angry, calculating and, ultimately, complacent. Perhaps amidst all the talking, all the campaign promises, posturing and pandering, lies a little truth about where we’re going and the choices to be made.
Would a media outlet run this? Why not? It happened. And it was great. Ultimately, that’s enough for me.
I wanted to sow the darkness I felt in this Rubio rally and at least my own mistrust of political staff. But I don’t know if she was a political operative, and I didn’t ask. This reading could be wrong or unfair but I felt a sense of fear around all the flag-draped talk of hegemony and nationalism.