The Digital Journalist
Is This Heaven? No, It's Iowa!
January 2004

by Shaun Heasley

Some ask where is it? Others joke, Iowa, what's there to do in Iowa? Before relocating to the Hawkeye state a few months ago to cover the Iowa Caucuses for Getty Images, I wondered myself what life would be like west of the Mississippi and how I would manage in a place I knew absolutely nothing about. Nearly three months later, having crisscrossed the state over 5,000 miles and counting, I now know what people do in Iowa. Not much.

MASON CITY, IOWA - A different image of Howard Dean.

Photo by Shaun Heasley/Getty Images
After completing several internship programs and not really clicking with the role of newspaper photographer, I decided to take the plunge and freelance full time. Desperate to shoot something, anything, I telephoned Getty Domestic News Assignment Editor, Mish Coffey. I'm willing to go anywhere, I pleaded. I need to be shooting. Mish agreed and told me to get ready to head to Los Angeles. Bags packed and nearly out the door, I phoned Getty one last time to confirm that the West Coast was indeed the place to be. How about heading to Iowa instead, they said. I quickly agreed and the rest is history.

When I first arrived in Iowa, I told myself I would limit my stay in a hotel to just a few weeks while I got on my feet and found a cheap place to live. Sadly enough, the original room I checked into back in October at the Extended Stay America, is still the place I call home. Since I am on the road the majority of time anyway and working crazy hours, hotel living is rather convenient with fresh towels and sheets changed without lifting a finger. The only downside--ten channels on the TV just doesn't cut it.

WHAT'S YOUR SKEW ON THIS? John Kerry jokes with with Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack in Mt Pleasant, Iowa.

Photo by Shaun Heasley/Getty Images
Most of the time, however, TV is the least of my concerns with 30-plus e-mails to check each day from various campaign press secretaries indicating where their candidate is going to be and when. The next step is to confirm with Getty who they want coverage of and put a plan into action. How will I get there? Will I be using my own vehicle or traveling in a press van? Do I need to overnight in a hotel? And, most importantly, where will I transmit pictures from and how? By the time I'm at the actual event shooting, it's almost like I'm on vacation. It's so easy compared to the logistics that take place beforehand.

While covering some of the candidates has been a breeze from the get go, obtaining access to others hasn't quite been peaches and cream. Many, if not all, of the campaigns employ people--some of whom have never worked with shooters before--to keep an eye on the photographers. They take their jobs controlling the show to a whole new level. We're talking Secret Service wannabes here--folks in suits with earpieces in place and microphones in their shirt sleeves saying things on their radios like, "we've got photographers outside at the arrival point...fix it!"

OVERDUE? Sen. John Edwards arrives at the Audobon Public Library December 3, 2003 in Audobon, Iowa.

Photo by Shaun Heasley/Getty Images
Needless to say, being chained down to the rear press risers with no access to buffer zones event after event didn't go over well with the Washington crowd or even a newcomer like myself. The most frustrating experience occurred while I was in a hallway awaiting a candidate's arrival at an event. A ray of late-afternoon golden light fell onto him in just the right spot as he was eating a banana in his campaign van. It was one of those almosts--a could have been, a should have been. The image was a pre-rally snack but yet, it symbolized energy for the campaign at the same time. Meanwhile, I was trapped behind a door 50 feet from the van where it all went down. As quick as the moment began, it was gone forever. 

Slowly but surely, however, things are changing for the better. Campaign staffers at all levels are beginning to grasp the concept of flexibility and attentiveness to special needs and requests. We have reached a level of mutual understanding. I now know when to fight for things and when to simply let them go. In turn, they better understand my needs and the different types of pictures that Getty is looking for. Lesson learned and, as democratic political strategist James Carvell says, "don't let the little crap get in the way of the big shit."

Driving along I-80 the other day on the way to an event, I spotted a car sporting a license plate frame that said, "Is this Heaven? No it's Iowa!" I smiled after realizing how this one little phrase captured everything I felt up until that point. Is Iowa heaven? No, not by a long shot. But for me it's a start, and I wouldn't trade it for the world.

© Shaun Heasley
Getty Images

Shaun Heasley is a freelance editorial and documentary photographer based in Des Moines, Iowa for Getty Images through the end of January. A freelancer for Getty since 2001, Shaun's work experience also includes internships at The Commercial Appeal in Memphis, Tennessee, The Fayetteville (NC) Observer and the York (PA) Daily Record. Prior to graduating from Ohio University in the fall of 2002, Shaun was the recipient of a $6,000 project grant for work on a long-term documentary project depicting life in Cheshire, Ohio, a project he continues to this day.