"Change doesn't come from Washington.
Change comes to Washington."

Barack Obama, DNC speech, Aug. 28, 2008

"Change is coming."
John McCain, RNC speech, Sept. 5, 2008

The Conventions
September 2008

by Steve Simon

In 2004, I covered the Republican Convention in New York City. With all the controversy and protests that marked that convention, it was a visually rich experience both inside Madison Square Garden and out, eventually leading to my book, "The Republicans."

© Steve Simon
From the book "The Republicans" by Steve Simon, (Charta 2006), a scene outside the 2004 Republican National Convention in New York City.
So when Dirck Halstead asked me to photograph both conventions for The Digital Journalist, I jumped at it. As a freelance documentary photographer, I try and make the most of any opportunities that come my way. I wasn't going to get rich, but with access comes possibilities; after all, I had no idea my coverage for Maclean's magazine in 2004 would lead to a book.

It is a tough shoot. When you're at an event with 15,000 of your fellow journalists (covering 4,000 delegates) it's obviously a tight squeeze reminiscent of trying to squeeze into a packed subway car during peak New York City rush hour, only everybody's got a camera.

Every day was similar. Wake up early, get to the venue from my Craigslist-found, cheap accommodation (I put an ad in asking for reasonable accommodation and found two wonderful families who helped me out. Super 8 for $360 a night? I don't think so), work all day and night, eat on the run, get back to my room, edit and sleep four hours and start all over again. But I wasn't complaining; everyone attending the conventions had pretty much the same schedule.

"Access is everything" is a mantra the conventions wear well and without proper accreditation you're not getting anywhere close to the action.

"It's not scientific, but we try to include objective factors in determining who gets what," said Jeff Kent, director of the U.S. Senate Press Photographers' Gallery and gatekeeper who, along with his staff, had the daunting task of keeping an impossible group to keep happy, happy.

Everybody wants the best position and the closest access. For Jeff and his team, these conventions were two years in the planning, and over the years (this is his fifth set of conventions) he has seen photographers' requests morph from water for darkrooms to Internet drops.

"One of the things we look at is how much investment an applicant has in covering politics. Also, I feel it's my duty to make sure the photographs get to the widest possible audience and sometimes, as old-fashioned as it is, it's looking at the circulation of the newspapers and the readerships they serve. We also try hard to take care of local papers and publications because it's a big deal in their area so we want to make sure they get a fair shake," said Kent.

Like most photographers, I want it all. It makes little sense to try and compete with the big guns anchored on the various camera stands with long lenses, but the newspaper photographer in me has a hard time letting that go, and who wouldn't want the traveling pools' access, shuttled in and out of the buffer zones for wide-angle coverage?

But I shake it off. It's okay, really, because there is so much going on, there aren't necessarily any bad spots to shoot from, only different ones. And different is good when 350 experienced photographers are all looking to capture the same event. So if there were lots of photographers in one spot, I'd go the other way. It's a strategy that has done me well since leaving the newspaper world and has allowed me to push my photographic boundaries and get out of my comfort zones.

But it doesn't always pay off.

Didn't someone tell Obama these conventions are all scheduled to the minute with no room for surprises? What was he doing dropping in unannounced at the Pepsi Center when I was way, way out of position? Oh well. We used to say when I worked in newspapers, "If we weren't there, it didn't happen." Delusional, but whatever makes you feel better. You can bet when John McCain "popped in" on Sarah Palin unannounced, I was ready.

© Steve Simon
I usually love surprises, but this was the best I could do when Barack Obama showed up unannounced at the Democratic National Convention in Denver.
But I wasn't really after the main speakers anyway; I wanted to look at the convention as theatre. What was important for me was access to the delegates on the floor. But floor passes are not guaranteed and are often given out on a rotating basis. Shoot for an hour, then come back and get to the back of the queue for another.

Jeff Kent explained the logic behind the limited rotating floor passes. "If it's too crowded people aren't going to make their pictures and it doesn't serve any purpose."

Some credentials were only released by the DNC/RNC to the accreditation staff at the last moment, which made it tough for everybody, particularly the little guys who weren't sure they were going to get what they needed in the end.

But it's always too crowded on the floor as both delegates and photographers jockey to get as close as they can, particularly as the week wears on leading up to the final night. That's the nature of the assignment.

"I could barely go to the bathroom without someone following me to ask a question," said Tricia Russell, the pied piper of the accreditation staff with a flock of photographers as her shadow, me included, and all asking for something.

As far as crowds go, photographer Yan Zhang of the Xinhua News Agency's Washington bureau, shoots for a large one.

"My work can reach a potential 1.3 billion readers from more than 3,000 newspapers, and they tend to use my work rather than from Reuters or AP. Newspapers are waiting for my pictures."

This is her first political convention here in the U.S. but Yan has covered 10 in China.

"All those readers, it's a huge responsibility and challenge. I'm the only one. In China there might be 40 photographers working; my agency has a staff of 10,000 but most of my photo colleagues are still in Beijing. I'm not local so people are not as familiar with my agency and I need to explain who we are over and over. I have been very successful always getting what I want but it hasn't been easy. I have had to fight for positions, 10,000 percent effort. The accreditation staff has been very supportive and understanding letting me do my job," said Yan.

I too had to fight to get floor access every day, first with a rotating pass and then bugging Jeff and his staff to insure the coveted floor pass. I thought I might be served a restraining order at any moment after constantly stalking them, but you do what you gotta do and I too was able to get what I needed.

Be careful what you ask for because you may get it, and as the week progressed and the floor got busier, those of us shooting from that privileged position spent most of our time on our knees, so we wouldn't rightfully obscure the view of the delegates behind us.

Aah, the glamour…the glamour.

© Steve Simon
Photographers on their knees, on the floor of the 2008 Democratic National Convention in Denver, Colo.
Bob Pearson is a former AFP photographer now working with the European Press Agency. He shot his first convention in 1988 and he's here editing five shooters.

"Access is just as hard to get now as it was then. You always want more and you're always fighting for more, with everybody wanting the same thing. There are people here that have covered so many of these things for so long, they know every good position and to get something different or new, you have to rely on the photographer's creativity and work ethic. With the conventions back-to-back it's a little tough; everyone is tired," said Pearson.

"I'm guessing these are probably my last conventions with all the newspaper cutbacks," said Rick McKay, who works the Washington bureau for Cox Newspapers. He goes back to 1984 for his first convention.

"I find a lot of photographers are feeling the same way. It's great covering these things on many levels, and you see people you haven't seen since the last conventions. Things I've noticed: security is tighter, more photographers, you can't move around on the floor like you once did."

Magnum photographer Bruce Gilden is shooting his first conventions. He's not here to get the speakers; he's more interested in capturing the delegates and politicians as they pass by.

"I think the conventions are a tough assignment. I don't recall seeing tons of great shots over the years, so I think it's a tough shoot. If it were easy I think more Magnum shooters would be here. But I've always wanted to come. I love the pomp and ceremony and the balloons, the characters, the Texas cowboy hats, the lipstick. The people I photograph are like my friends; I'm comfortable with them. Here, like anything else, it's all in the details."

It doesn't hurt to travel light and Gilden takes with him a Leica M6, 28mm lens, Vivitar 285, some black-and-white film.... and his 175-pound assistant.

"I'm comfortable shooting film. I'm getting a D700, which I will look at for commercial jobs. I'm not technical or into technology, so I stay with what I'm comfortable with. For me, digital takes away the element of surprise. When I don't see the result right away, you persevere, going the extra nine yards, which pushes me to get something better."

I like Bruce's idea of doing that little extra, a work ethic that is often rewarded with better pictures.

I had gone into these conventions thinking I would convert everything to black-and-white. I also thought I would do a series of portraits of Republican and Democratic delegates, collecting sound as they repeated the phrase, "I am a Republican or Democrat because .…"

© Steve Simon
"I am a Democrat because..." series.
But having covered just one convention and without the agenda of "having" to get anything in particular, the freedom was great, but the self-imposed pressure was greater.

So I worked like I always do, shooting as much as I can, looking for themes and ideas to illustrate and trying to shoot on impulse. Thinking less, feeling more and taking chances as I triggered the shutter. It all shakes down in the edit.

© Steve Simon
I played around with out-of-focus images like this one of Cindy McCain leaving the stage.
When I noticed the almost religious-like rapture of the delegates at the DNC on the second day, I decided to focus on capturing a series of their expressions of rapture at both conventions. As you will see in the gallery, it's not always possible to judge a book by its cover, or tell a Democrat from a Republican.

In the end, it's all a blur, an exhausting, exhilarating and challenging shoot, where the art of editing cannot be underestimated. I gave myself the added challenge of squeezing the 9,097 frames I made into a combined gallery made up of work from both conventions.

Deadline is now. I'm going to sleep.

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© Steve Simon

Steve Simon is a former Canadian Newspaper Photographer of the Year and an editorial and documentary photographer based in New York City. He is a contributing photographer for The Digital Journalist. His "America at the Edge" was exhibited at The Leica Gallery in New York, March 7-April 26, 2008. Steve currently teaches in the Documentary/Photojournalism Program at the International Center of Photography (ICP). He is also the author of the book, "Heroines & Heroes: Hope, HIV and Africa."

You can see more of Steve's work at his Web site: http://www.stevesimonphoto.com.

To read Steve's dispatch in the November 2006 issue of The Digital Journalist: http://www.digitaljournalist.org/issue0611/simon.html.