Campaigning in the Low Country
April 2008

by Stephen Voss

Outside my rental car window the pine tree forests passed by at a serene 75 miles per hour, rendering them a muted green blur in the early morning light. It was the middle of January and I had come down to South Carolina to cover Senator John McCain's campaign and the expected swan song of the once tightly contested Republican race.

© Stephen Voss / WpN
Audience members listen intently to Republican presidential candidate John McCain during a question-and-answer session in Sumter, S.C., on Thursday, Jan. 17, 2008.
To invoke Ken Kesey (author and of "Merry Prankster" fame), I was "off the bus," covering the events by car rather than on the press bus. On this particular morning, I was headed to Sumter, making great time on my way to a campaign rally with Senator McCain and his wife. I marveled at the landscape of South Carolina as it flashed by my window. This land was beautiful in a quiet sort of way. Egrets glided silently over still, brown marshes that glimmered under the steel-gray sky. Spanish moss hung heavily on trees over plantation houses and crumbling barns.

Whenever I can, I get to events early to have a walk around and to get a sense of the political machinery that goes into their production. McCain's rallies were par for the course: large signs bearing his name, prodigious use of American flags and banners printed with whichever slogan was polling well with voters that week.

By 9 a.m. I was watching a local politician gamely try to entertain the audience since Senator McCain hadn't arrived. Soon enough the senator walked briskly up onto the stage eschewing the fiery introductions that most of the other candidates employed. Even in the most controlled political theater there are genuine, unscripted moments and these moments are the bread and butter of this kind of work.

© Stephen Voss / WpN
Audience member listens as Republican presidential candidate John McCain's wife Cindy speaks to supporters in Sumter, S.C., on Thursday, Jan. 17, 2008.
McCain's events attracted a noticeably older crowd than his Democratic competitors and I scanned the audience looking for faces, angles and the visual abstractions of these literal scenes that might represent this event in more historic terms. This gathering, like many of McCain's other events, showcased his stump speech followed by a Town Hall-like question-and-answer period. With South Carolina's large population of vets many of the questions tended towards military matters. My favorite moment came when McCain tossed a microphone to an audience member. I had been focused on McCain and snapped the mic in mid-air and an audience member looking up in surprise as it sailed a good 10 feet into the outstretched hands of another audience member.

Ask any reporter or photographer covering campaigns and they'll be able to rattle off the candidate's speaking points, their jokes (McCain: "What is the difference between a catfish and a lawyer? One is a scum-sucking bottom dweller. The other is a fish.") and a detailed description of their mannerisms. My time on the campaign trail in South Carolina and in other states was short compared to many of the wire service photographers whose bylines I would see months after I had gone on to other stories. Still, I was amazed at McCain's energy as he maintained a grueling schedule of events that would tire out someone half his age. And I, too, became familiar with his speeches, the way he moved and what I could expect from him in terms of expression and gesture. Over the next few days, I put 1,500 miles on my rental car, ate three meals a day from gas station convenience stores and listened to more country radio than I had ever hoped to hear.

© Stephen Voss / WpN
Presidential hopeful Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) throws a microphone to an audience member during a question-and-answer session in Sumter, S.C., on Thursday, Jan. 17, 2008.
McCain concluded his South Carolina campaign speaking from the USS Yorktown, a WWII-era aircraft carrier docked permanently in Charleston Harbor. John Kerry had announced his own candidacy from this very spot in 2003. I arrived late to the event, having decided to make a quick detour to cover Mike Huckabee a few hours away (highlight: Huckabee playing "Sweet Home Alabama" with a local band to conclude the event). Luckily, McCain was late as well and I arrived to McCain supporters shouting and cheering and campaign volunteers handing out "home-made" signs.

Despite the intensity in the room, the photo opportunities on this last day were unremarkable. Above the senator was a dive-bomber from WWII and on either side of him were veterans and Boy Scouts. The only real chance at practicing some photojournalism came at the end of the speech when Senator McCain was walking through the audience back to the elevator, greeting supporters and signing books and campaign signs. These are the moments you wait for but even this one presented fewer opportunities – and more shoving and position-holding against the swell of the crowd – than usual. For me, that night was the end of this part of the campaign trail. As I walked back to my car, McCain's convoy of white vans sped past on the way to a private dinner McCain was having with supporters.

People who follow politics from a distance, or who don't happen to live in one of the early primary states, might never get a chance to feel the energy and passion that can run through a crowd listening to a political speech. For me, the sense of being present in a moment of importance, of feeling a responsibility to tell this story well, is what makes campaign coverage an endlessly compelling and challenging affair.

© Stephen Voss

Stephen Voss is a Washington, D.C.-based photographer whose work has been featured in many international publications, including Time, The Atlantic Monthly, The New York Times, Newsweek, Forbes, Der Spiegel and Condé Nast Portfolio. Voss's recent work includes photo essays on U.S. Superfund sites and international adoption. His documentary work focuses on environmental and globalization issues worldwide and U.S. politics when in D.C.

More work by Stephen Voss can be seen at his Web site: Voss is represented by World Picture News.

Dispatches are brought to you by:
canon - dispatches