Why Press Photography of the Presidential Primaries Lacks, as a List

* Wasted access. I watched a press photographer spend two minutes photographing Barack Obama during his election-eve rally in Columbia, and the next 30 minutes wirelessly filing those pictures from his laptop while sitting in the photographer’s pit directly to the right of the stage. It’s kind of like having a front-row ticket to Led Zeppelin and sleeping through the set.

* Uniform access. Big News Media Event photography is geared toward broadcast television, so photographers are shoved-up on risers with the tripods, lights and TV crews. Consequently, most press photographers have the same camera with the same ginormous lenses, because they need to zoom-in on subjects that are relatively far away. This is why there are a thousand different versions of this, which offers nothing more than a screen capture from a television broadcast.

© Doug Mills, New York Times

* Because it’s standard practice for photographers to have the exact same gear (huge lenses that mimic those of television cameras) you rarely see photographs that express a true, personal vision, with occasional exceptions. Photo editors, stock agencies and wire services are apparently not interested in personal vision either, so the system creates, eats and digests its own mountain of boring photography.

* If security is a concern, and especially if the Secret Service is involved, movement and interaction between the press area and “the people” will be restricted. This prevents the press from having access to real people who are attending the event. And we wonder why our media runs variations of the same story, over and over? While seated in the press cage, one wonders if the barriers are there to keep the public out, or to keep you in.

* Access depends on who you talk to and when you talk to them. Passes matter, but so does charm. I had good luck shooting events as a regular person, and bad luck shooting events as a member of the press. Press passes aren’t required to get good photographs, and occasionally they’re a kind of curse (see above item). How could I get into an event that was closed, while the BBC was denied?

* If you see pictures of the candidates photographed at close quarters, it’s because
a.) the event is small, so access is free & easy
b.) the photographer is a member of the traveling bus that follows a particular candidate everywhere, which equals better access
c.) the pictures were taken during a 2-minute window, when photographers are rounded-up, escorted to the front of the room, only to return to the back a few minutes later, a la rock shows
d.) the photographer was quick on their feet and captured the candidate during entrance or exit, when handshaking and mingling is acceptable

I don’t mean to indict all the election coverage, I’m just amazed at the paucity of work out there that delivers anything more than its face value. I’ve been struck by Todd Heisler’s wide-open lenswork, Damon Winter‘s hustle (he was really working hard at a JE event), Yana Pasklova’s streetish action shots, and Callie Shell’s Obama story for TIME. I loved Bruce Gilden‘s project. Is it strange that most of these folks shoot for the Times?

But pound for pound for pound for pound for pound, I appreciate how Doug Mills is able to create psychological spaces for the characters in his set plays.

In the end, all of this increases my respect for Christopher Morris’ “My America“, which is a good book if you know it, but a far better book if you’ve seen the ins-and-outs of what these campaigns are really like. Pretty amazing to deliver such a cohesive vision across such wide variance of locations and situations. Incredible, really.

13 thoughts on “Why Press Photography of the Presidential Primaries Lacks, as a List”

  1. Great analysis, thanks. I’m loving the work you are doing on this project. You’re finding great light and evocative moments.

  2. Thanks for providing a behind-the-scenes analysis. Your campaign photos on flickr are amazing. Looking at all the photos on the NY Times website makes me want to consider a career in photojournalism, or at least learn how to take photos like that.

  3. If you think equipment rather than crow control and what goes on in the mind of the photographer is the main factor, check out David Burnetts work during the 2004 election using a 4×5 Speed graphic.

  4. Why take shots then file?
    Because of internal deadline; the newspaper maybe going to bed and the photographer is trying to get something in before it does.

  5. Some of my favorite campaign photography has been Chris Anderson’s work from New Hampshire. His flash work is pretty provocative and well worth a look at the Magnum website.

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  7. Oh well, beats flinging burgers at MacDonald’s. If someone offered me a job doing that, I would take it. Who cares really? Besides you, I mean. Personal work can still be done whenever the hell a person feels like it. There is a long history of people being forced to do shit they don’t want to and in the process creating great art (Bach?).

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