The Digital Journalist
Note from the Kerry Campaign... At Least I "Think" That's Where I Was...
November 2004

by David Burnett

Every four years we do this thing we do. We aren't quite sure just why, but we pick up our stuff, and these days it's a LOT of stuff, and we get on board a charter plane that has somehow been mystically, magically, and annoyingly hooked up to our personal Visa cards, and off we go, in search of the "next President of the United States." That phrase can mean something to a great many people: the candidates, their staff, the reporters who follow in tow, the agents who guard them from folly, and that most homey of categorical personage: the Volunteer.

There are few efforts one can engage in these days which produce as much action on a credit card as flying on a Presidential candidate's plane, or on the "zoo" plane that follows it, chartered for the press. Each time you walk up those stairs, tip your hat (hat? who's wearing a hat?) to the flight attendants, and bump along towards your seat, somewhere between five hundred and two thousand hard-earned dollars get squeezed out of your pocket. (To be reimbursed, we hope, at a not too later date.)

So there you are: in a high test game of photographic roulette, balancing that gentle equilibrium between doing what YOU want to do, and having to make it look as if all the work the advance staff did is paying off for the candidate. Sometimes the staff actually understands that your mission includes making great pictures of a campaign which is, by design and necessity, a series of artificial moments, where people come together not merely to hear the words of wisdom, the "Plan" for the future, the "way to save Social Security," but perhaps more importantly, to serve as props for our pictures.

It's a nefarious web weaved by both the campaign and the press. It's one I often relate to my conversations with Russian friends in the latter days of the Soviet Union. When I would enquire about what they did, and how they lived, the answer often was: "We pretend to work, and they pretend to pay us." The campaign for the Presidency is often like that: "They pretend to make news, and we pretend to cover it."

We live, alas, all too close to one another, in planes, motels, events, and if you're lucky enough, the bars, to be able to maintain a total sense of uninvolved objectivity. We do often end up taking sides in a funny, subtle and almost incomprehensible way. You feel a kinship with the folks around you.

Sen John Kerry poses with the still photographers who travelled on his campaign, in Lacrosse WI, the last morning of the election campaign: Nov 2, 2004

Photo by Glen Johnson
The picture of the 2004 "bomber crew" team, 18 photographers plus one Senator running for President, was taken by Boston Globe reporter Glen Johnson who grabbed Reuters photographer Brian Snyder's camera in Lacrosse, Wisconsin the last morning of the campaign. I dare say we viewed the Senator as someone who could well end up in the Oval office, but who, more importantly, was for these weeks, the fulcrum of our pictures. Any of us could do a good imitation of the Senators arrival on stage, the waves to the crowd, the mock surprise of seeing a familiar face, the pointing, the saluting, all the things you do when the WHOLE world is watching you. We see it through a viewfinder, as if our vision is even more concentrated through the glass. Yet for this brief moment of the last day of the campaign (some had started photographing Kerry over a year ago) we seemed to all be able to share a moment of pure camaraderie, as if the mere sharing of those long flights, late night drives to the hotel, and the hundreds of "It's a Beautiful Day" Bono musical interludes, was enough to cement our moment of friendship.

With the new ethos of digital news photography, the day's work takes on a whole different feel, even compared with the last 2000 election. Photographers are shooters, to be sure, but now we are also, editors, couriers, and archivists of our work. No one has a totally free hand to merely shoot pictures anymore. Delivery is the key, and for the wires, newspapers, and agencies, we have a whole new way of working. (I hate the term 'workflow', much as I refuse to use the term "digital capture", as if we were racing around in Dodge'em cars with lassos flailing overhead, trying to snag that pesky set of ones and zeroes).

Often, after the first few minutes of an event, an almost eerie silence seemed to take over the buffer area (a small area around the stage, that "buffers" the candidate from the masses of "normal" people.) As a magazine shooter, it was always the best time. My colleagues on deadline (never was the AP's "a deadline every minute" more apt) busily downloaded their flash cards to their laptops, did a wizardly quick edit, cleaning, resizing, and poof, off to the rest of the world. Their departure gave the mag guys a chance to work with almost no one else around for a few minutes. It was always a bit odd, as if the filers had been whisked away by an alien being. Then, 15 or 20 minutes later they would reappear. Though never with tales of the UFO abduction.

One of the more nifty breakthroughs this year was the arrival of the Soapbox. Started by former Al Gore press staffer Nathan Naylor two years ago, the Soapbox is a traveling suitcase that plugs into a previously ordered T1 data line, and provides a giant blanket of wireless coverage for the traveling press. Jim Jiranek, the main Soapbox tech on the Kerry campaign, would hump a big box off the plane, on the bus, then off the bus into the filing center, plug in his magic box, and bingo, the room would be filled with invisible vapors, ready to send pictures and words wherever in the world they had to go. The Soapbox is a genius idea and startlingly efficient. A two meg picture file would sometimes take as little as 5 seconds to send to an ftp site. It is astonishing that the White House hasn't picked up the Soapbox for traveling operations. Until the world is covered by a ubiquitous wi-fi network that is always on, the Soapbox will be the next best thing, and I suspect that sooner or later the White House will jump on board.

My time on the Bush campaign, short though it was, permitted me to at least have a glimpse of what the Republican campaigns were like. It was a different world. Committed to the President, the crowds were sometimes rapturous, sometimes swooning, and seemed to be much more hostile to the press (oops, I mean Elite press) than the Kerry crowds.

Most of all, it made me understand how divided the country is. I didn't have to see the 51-49 numbers of election night to see that. You could feel it.

Boston Massachusetts, November 2, 2004

Photo by David Burnett/Time
After the last 3-day swing through Florida and the Midwest, the trail aimed back to Boston where Kerry went to vote, along with his daughters, and then, his tradition, to the Union Oyster House in downtown Boston, for some clams and chowder. We saw him that afternoon, as he prepared to do some television interviews from a room in the Westin hotel. Everyone was still upbeat from the early exit polls (which turned out to be hideously wrong). It was the last time we saw him until his Wednesday afternoon concession speech.

At 7pm Tuesday, the expanded pool gathered (the stills, and a tv crew, along with a half dozen writers.) We went through our security check, and drove over to the Beacon Hill square where Kerry's house is. By 8pm we'd left, with our assigned Sec. Service agent in tow, to a small Italian cafe just two blocks away. At the cafe, we souped, sandwiched and cheesecaked our way through the next 5 hours. The only way we had of knowing what was going on was huddled laptops of the reporters, almost as if it were a ticker tape and the year was 1924.

At about midnight we wandered back to our vans, by which time it was getting to be clear that Bush would win Ohio, the key state that both sides needed to win. We sat till nearly 3am in the vans, and then finally came the word: Nothing would be done until the next morning.

We slept for a couple of hours before gathering again at 9AM at the filing center. In minutes the word swept through the room: Faneuil Hall at 1pm. Kerry would concede. It was over.

Standing in the cold, windy square next to historic Faneuil Hall, we waited and waited for the staff to open the doors. At that point there was a rush. The balcony perspective looked uninteresting so I made my way down the side of the elevated hall to a place overlooking the stage that looked like it might offer something. A young staffer came over and said, "You can't be here, this is where the public will be. And we can't mix the press and the public." I tried to explain that the press and the public get mixed up all the time (we call it "real life") and it wouldn't make any difference to anyone else if I were there. He went on and on, and finally able to take no more of it, I said, "Listen, its OVER. It's OVER. All we want to do is make a few nice pictures here of the Senator, but it's OVER." He assured me that in all his time in politics (5 months) he hadn't seen anything like it, and I assured him that in my 38 years of it I had seen plenty.

John Kerry joins the press corps for a look at Chris Hondros (L) photos.

Photo by Jim Bourg
Back in May, one night on a late flight from the west coast back east, photographer Chris Hondros started showing a couple of us his pictures from the Civil war in Liberia in 2003. As he narrated the pictures, a small group of us began to gather, and at least once, he had to start over so that the new arrivals could catch up. After a few minutes, and perhaps because he'd seen the crowd gathering at the back of the plane, Kerry himself came back and listened to the end of Chris' narration. He asked questions about the use of the Marines, the reasons the US chose not to get involved, things he could have perhaps asked a staff member, but unlikely that he would have ever had the chance to ask someone who was actually There. No one bugged Kerry with questions or wanted an interview; it was one of the few moments of the campaign where he got to be just another person on the plane, looking at great photographs. Perhaps if there had been a few more chances like that, and a few for the President, we would have at least had a better discussion about where the country was going and how to get there. Photographs have a power of their own, and we, the photographers must keep seeing, keep publishing, keep sharing our vision.

© David Burnett

David Burnett shot the last days of the Kerry campaign for Time Magazine.

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