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|| SportsShooter.com: News Item: Posted 2007-06-28

Covering The Big One … In Iowa
By Eric Thayer

Photo by Eric Thayer / Polaris

Photo by Eric Thayer / Polaris

Secret Service agents stand as Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill), speaks during a campaign stop in Dubuque, Iowa, June 9, 2007.
The plan was to move to Iowa to cover the big one, the Presidential race.

Michal Czerwonka, Keith Bedford, and I all decided, after many late-night conversations at random New York City bars, that this was where we should come, on the advice of a mentor in the city. Keith knew another photographer Joshua Lott who wanted to do the same thing. We figured this was the story we should all do together. We also picked up an intern, Pratt student Allison Joyce, along the way.

Czerwonka had just left Life magazine when it folded, Keith was holding down a very successful career as a New York City freelancer (and is still doing so, spending the majority of his time in NYC), and Josh was doing the same in Chicago. I was working at Contact Press Images, while making my way as a freelancer for Reuters.

While at Contact I was lucky enough to work with campaign photos from the archives of photographers like David Burnett, Charles Ommanney, Kenneth Jarecke, and others whose takes and experience spanned the last 30 years of the American political process. At the same time I was making my own images of candidates in New York, the whole time wanting to be a part of the political process in the slides, prints and negatives I had seen at Contact.

So we end up in small towns in "The Tall Corn State". In a nation of more than 300 million people, and one wonders how our highest political office, the president, is designated using a process that begins in a state of a little less than three million people. It seems as if whole point of Iowa for the candidates is to come here and be seen mingling with the people, to win over their hearts, because if a candidate is salt of the earth and grounded enough to get along with anyone, then surely they can lead us all.

Somehow the candidates understand the importance, they move from small town to small town, campaign stop after campaign stop. The speeches are the same, the questions are always pretty much the same, the answers the same, the jokes the same.

Watching them at these moments, we just want to get something honest, something unscripted, though at this point we are mostly kept out of the back rooms, but hopeful that it will happen at some point. It would be great to have something spontaneous. There are photo ops, which is comical out here in the middle of Iowa.

Photo by Eric Thayer / Polaris

Photo by Eric Thayer / Polaris

Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill), talks to patrons of a Maid-Rite sandwich shop during a campaign stop in Newton, IA June 18, 2007.
However, beyond the photos of the candidates, it's the people we meet here who make it worthwhile. At first we came home to a house with the bare minimum of furniture, utensils, etc., and our neighbor kept bringing us things she either had around the house or found at garage sales for us. She lent us her chaise lounge from her patio furniture set, and I think it will make a very nice bed for one of our photographer friends coming through town. We feel so welcome. When we moved in our landlords brought us cookies in Tupperware with a very nice note saying "welcome to your new home." The Walmart supercenter has become very important in our lives, much more important that I would care to admit.

We were talking to a campaign photographer for one of the candidates, and telling them about what we were doing, and after we told them, they said, "so you guys are all competing with each other?" and it occurred to us that we are trying to do something different. We all travel together if we can and if one of us gets a call, we shoot that assignment. If we get two calls, we pass the other one to another photographer. We all encourage each other and push each other. When these guys are shooting, it makes me want to work that much harder.

We show each other our work after events, just to see how the others are seeing. We are influenced by each other and we support each other. It's not about competition, it's about what we can do for each other. It is about what we can give each other, how we can all grow as photographers and as people, and how we can help each other out to do the same. The journey and with whom you do it is so much better sometimes than the images you make. Personally, it would be incredibly lonely and meaningless without Mike, Josh and Allison (and Keith when he gets here).

We wouldn't be able to survive without Google Maps, power inverters, borrowed wireless Internet connections, gas station convenience stores, etc. Every outlet in our hotel room is taken charging camera batteries, cell phones and computers. Eventually we unplug all the lights to maximize our space and leave only the television going because of CNN, working on images and a bottle of Cuervo in the dark.

Photo by Eric Thayer / Reuters

Photo by Eric Thayer / Reuters

Democratic Presidential candidate and U.S. Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-NY) holds 8-month-old Erica Pemberton during a campaign stop in Sioux City, Iowa May 26, 2007.
We constantly answer the same questions, but it never gets old. People in some diner or dive bar in some tiny town you'll probably never remember the name of sees a table full of cameras and asks the obligatory, "Are you all photographers?" Yet at the same time we begin to wonder whether the candidates are aware of our presence. Some acknowledge us and talk to us. The others know we are there, but seem to keep that wall up. We start a series of essays amongst ourselves, one is just candidates looking at us. We develop nicknames for the candidates, based on either physical attributes or mannerisms.

Others are definitely aware of us. Following a caravan, we were harassed by a state trooper, who insisted we had to keep a buffer of half a mile between us and the candidate's motorcade, a strange order out here in the middle of Iowa. We're just photographers, we tried to explain, as their people kept us from a meeting at a farm somewhere near a town called Spencer that was "closed to the press", sort of a bizarre concept considering we were the only press for miles around. A little bit of big politics out here in the middle of Iowa. Rules like these seemed particularly out of place here, but we'll play along, it's too early to fight.

Maybe it's not the place. If winning this election meant spending months campaigning in Alaska in the middle of the winter you can bet that the candidates would all be up there, carloads full of campaign people dressed in the heaviest North Face and Patagonia they could find, still jamming their fingers like mad onto the keypads of their Blackberrys.

But then again, so would we.

I don't know about the other guys, but I feel like I am getting back to some kind of purity in my shooting. New York was an amazing experience, and I was very lucky to have what I had while I was there. Out here I feel like I'm remembering what it was like when I first looked through a camera, when I still had something to say, and the camera was more an extension of my soul, rather than a tool I used to do a job, even though I always tried to do it how I saw it, now it's more about what I feel, rather than what I see.

Traveling on some road in between an Edwards stop between Manchester and Iowa City, a deer ran out into the road. I looked up as I heard Josh and Mike react, only to see the deer hit the front of the car and flip up in the air. I closed my eyes thinking that she was coming through the windshield but she didn't.

Photo by

(L-R) Eric Thayer, Michal Czerwonka, Joshua Lott and Allison Joyce in Iowa.
We pulled over, got out of the car and watched as man in a red truck stopped to pull her from the highway, still writhing and trying to run away. He dragged her over to the grass beside the road, and came back to check on us, asking if we were ok. "Her back legs are broke, you might want to call the sheriff to come out here and shoot her." He looked himself over, "I got blood all over me." A tiny piece of hair was still in the edge of the hood.

Josh and I walked over to her, lying in the grass, bleeding and breathing heavy, her tongue out, legs twisted. She looked up at us, lay her head down in the tall grass around her, breathed a few more times, and died.

I had never seen a deer that close before, and seeing her like this made it all sink in that I wasn't in New York anymore, that I was out here. Watching her die got to me, I think it got to all of us.

Driving back, a guy on the radio announced, "Iowa, we have a huge caucus." It's past sunset, and we're heading back to Des Moines. Tomorrow we wake up and do it all over again.


(Eric Thayer is a graduate of Brooks Institute of Photography. He is a freelance photographer based (usually) in New York. You can view a sample of his work on his SportsShooter.com member page: http://www.sportsshooter.com/ericthayer.)

Related Links:
Thayer's member page

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