Bernie Sanders at his rally on March 20 at Key Arena in Seattle.
Bernie Sanders at his rally on March 20 at Key Arena in Seattle.

Bernie Sanders in Seattle

The crowd of 10,300 roared as Bernie Sanders stepped onto the stage amidst a blue sea of signs requesting “A Future to Believe In”. While many of the major media outlets proclaim that Sanders doesn’t have a chance to with the Democratic nomination, caucuses begin next week in the West, where his popularity remains the highest in the nation, and Hillary Clinton’s lead of 1147 to Sanders’ 830 pledged delegates doesn’t look so insurmountable. The votes of 2,295 delegates are still available, and super-delegates can change their votes at any time.

Key Arena was almost filled to capacity. Thousands of people were turned away.
Key Arena was almost filled to capacity. Thousands of people were turned away.

“We were flying here from Vancouver, [WA], … and I was reading on the internet…” Sanders began. “This is what change is about. The state of Utah is one of the most conservative state in this country. They have not voted for a democrat for president in 50 years. A poll just came out. Bernie Sanders is beating Donald Trump in Utah. The poll has us ahead in Utah by eleven points! If we’re ahead in Utah by 11 points, not going to be many states in this country that we can’t win!”

Bernie Sanders, framed by the raised arms of a fan.

From the press risers, I fired away through my Canon 70-200mm f/2.8 lens, wishing that I had brought something longer (or at least a crop sensor body). I’ve covered hundreds of sporting events, concerts and performances, marches, and taken more environmental portraits than I can count, but I’d never done a presidential rally, and I’d miscalculated. Next to me, Seattle Times photographer Ken Lambert pulled out an old Canon 100-400mm zoom, and another steadied a giant 400mm f/2.8 on a monopod.

Bernie Sanders framed by campaign signs.
Bernie Sanders framed by campaign signs.

Initially, we were confined to the risers, so it was not surprising that so many of our photos looked almost identical. As the speech progressed, the media wranglers began to lead us in small groups into the stands, luckily, and eventually, we were allowed to roam the floor as long as we didn’t push into the crowds of spectators.

Latino and African American rights were an important part of Bernie’s message, so I made a point of including at least one sign showing his diverse support.

The tricky part of photographing any planned event is making your own images unique, and capturing images that are unexpected. The press risers gave me a clear view of Bernie, but anyone with the correct camera settings could have taken the same images, and they all say just about the same thing: “This is what Bernie Sanders looks like”. I started prowling around the crowd, looking for other items to include in the frame that would tell a larger part of the story, or at least give a sense of the crowd’s enthusiasm.

Bernie gives the crowd a final salute before leaving the stage and heading towards Spokane.

As a photography journalist, I was interested in the array of equipment that other professionals were using. I always expect to see Canon and Nikon, but at this event, Sony also had a strong showing: there were two Sony a7 models to my left. I was not at all surprised to see that there were three of us in a row wearing ThinkTank photo-belt systems.

In the end, my photos turned out to be pretty similar to the others that I’ve seen published from the event. Better than some, but not as good as others. Next time I’ll remember not to spend so much time taking (nearly 30GB) so many shots of the low-hanging fruit so that I can spend more time finding a unique perspective. Really, once you get your safety shots out of the way, that’s pretty good advice for any event.

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  • Hoorah, Matt! Great that have shared your photo coverage of Bernie’s rally.
    The news content and your running commentary are insightful and rewarding.

  • I guess what I’m really trying to say is that this type of photography is unappealing to me, because of the “forced lack of creativity”. The only thing that can spruce the situation is if something surprising happens, like the candidate dripping mustard on his/her shirt, or a spectator getting out of hand.

    It’s interesting though that I’ve always wanted to be The President’s personal photographer which means taking pictures similar to these, but I think it’s quite different since you’ll be shooting in many different situations so your chances of capturing something interesting is much greater.

    So what I’m really trying to say is that capturing situations like campaigns should be left up to photographers who take their photography as a job and not as a passion.

    • Understood, but it sounds like you’re suggesting that operating within a set of constraints is equivalent to a lack of creativity, and I must respectfully disagree :-) It’s those constraints that force you to be creative. You just have to judge your creativity based on the situation.

      That said, I agree… I wouldn’t want to shoot political rallies every day. Or politics in general. It does feel that I’d be doing the job of a PR photographers (a job that I’ve also done) rather than a photojournalist. A more authentic way of covering this event would be to photograph the volunteers, the crowds standing outside in the rain, the venue before and after… all of the documentary details. But that’s a different news story… that’s the difference between shooting for a feature story vs a news story.

  • I understand the desire to make unique images from an event that doesn’t yield any (at least, not readily). When one is dealing with those concerns, one can leave the scene unsatisfied and sometimes unhappy with the photos taken. I’m sure photojournalists who do this all the time, detach themselves emotionally from their shots, but, to me, this will eventually make something you enjoy doing creatively into a job where every shot is taken in rote.

    I think photojournalist should stick to “the streets”, per se, where things are more dynamic and let these “campaigners” hire photographers to shoot them instead.

    • I will certainly admit to having been frustrated at this event and many others by my inability to find creative, unique perspectives while still making strong, relevant images. That is the hardest part of being a photojournalist, in my opinion.

      At this event specifically, I was really annoyed when we were all stuck on the press risers… but that’s part of the gig, to me. The challenge is, in any situation, to say: this is what I’ve been given to work with, what can I do with it that other people are not? Sometimes I fail and sometimes I find something, but when I’m frustrated, I have to recognize that I’m frustrated with myself and my approach or level of creativity, not the limitations of my situation. Everyone else was working within the same constraints, too.

      And in the end, that’s what it comes down to: having high but reasonable expectations. At this point, I’ve seen dozens of published photos from this event… some from the AP, some from the Seattle Times, the Seattle PI, etc… and my images are better than most of them, I think (or at least, as good). I may not have gotten any jaw-dropping images, but for this event I think I did pretty well. I may not have found the most awesome shots, but at least I was looking for them… some photographers were satisfied to stand on the risers.

      So, I don’t want to become emotionally detached from my results, and I don’t think that most photojournalists do. I do want to get frustrated when my images are boring. I think that helps me get better, and to keep looking for something better. But when something better isn’t there, I also have to accept that I did the best I could with the situation, and that will be better than what a lot of other people were willing or able to do.

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