Photographing Politics
Suraj Patel (white shirt) at the Black Lives Matter Vigil in Carl Schurz Park on June 3rd, 2020.

Photographing Politics

Suraj Patel (white shirt) at the Black Lives Matter Vigil in Carl Schurz Park on June 3rd, 2020.

I thought about writing a post about political campaign photography well before the election but I was otherwise busy and this wasn’t pressing. However, I had two experiences this past weekend that gave my resolve a boost.

First, I watched The Way I See It, the documentary about Pete Souza and his time and work as an official White House Photographer covering President Barack Obama. It was awesome to see how he documented the Office of the Presidency as a journalist, photographing moments as a slice of history rather than a series of photo-ops.

Second, I basically ran into Suraj Patel, a candidate who challenged Carolyn Maloney in the primary for the seat in New York State’s 12th congressional district, while doing errands on the lower east side. Earlier this year, I had reached out to Patel’s campaign and said I was “interested in supporting Mr. Patel’s campaign with my photography if possible”.

I made this offer in part because I didn’t have any concerts to photograph and because I expected to vote for him. I finally declared a party affiliation earlier this year so it would be the first NYC Democratic primary I could vote in. Patel was running for my district, was more left-leaning than the incumbent and was also brown. Why not support him?

Black Lives Matter Vigil in Carl Schurz Park on June 3rd, 2020.

On the same day I emailed Patel’s campaign, I had already planned to attend a Black Lives Matter protest/vigil at Carl Schurz Park on the Upper East Side. Coincidentally, Patel would be there as well. Texting with his communications manager led me to find him amongst the hundreds of people in attendance. I probably lingered around him for a few minutes longer than I might have otherwise but I wasn’t there for him. I did capture a couple of photos (including the top one) that he and his campaign used online and in promotional mailers.

Spike Lee at the Black Lives Matter Vigil in Carl Schurz Park on June 3rd, 2020.

[I also captured a few photos of Spike Lee at the vigil. Between the campaign’s image use and Shutterstock’s distribution of Spike Lee photos, I probably had more eyes on photos of mine than I had from any other event before.]

Democratic candidate for Congress (NY-12) Suraj Patel campaigning in McCarren Park on 6/6
Suraj Patel and team campaigning in McCarren Park

A few days afterwards, I deliberately tagged along with Patel to provide the campaign with professional images as he connected with voters in McCarren Park (my first time outside of Manhattan during the pandemic). I went there merely as an observer, intent on photographing his interactions. This way, I was able to see true reactions, whether it was indifference, feigned interest or excitement, on both sides. I avoided asking Patel to pose in order to maintain my photojournalistic approach, though I think he did “pose” while eating ice cream just before I left.

Patel on 6/23

June 23rd, the day of the primary, I briefly joined Patel on the upper east side while he met voters outside polling locations. It was quiet so I wasn’t around long but I learned that Patel has a fondness for ice cream.

Otherwise, I had planned to spend the evening photographing the buzzing campaign headquarters as the polls closed. Final results weren’t expected that evening, given the number of mail-in ballots that had to be counted, but they were hoping to have a lead over the incumbent. I think I remained there until 1 am hoping for some resolution.

Unfortunately, Patel didn’t come up ahead that night and didn’t win in the end. But the emotions in the room were palpable and it was great to be there, again as a fly on the wall, to capture images. I got some generally mundane images of his call with a news organization. I got exuberant photos of Patel when it appeared he was ahead (the poll results had apparently briefly reset or something and were showing him ahead % wise). And I got images of a more humble Patel offering appreciation to his campaign staff, volunteers, family and friends.

It was an exciting opportunity as a photographer. Had Patel won, I’m sure my images would have had wider release on social media or news as no other photographers were on site.

But even though I didn’t get more exposure, I appreciate that Patel and his team never once gave me instructions or pushed me to take a photo. I appreciate that they neither asked for rights to the images (I shared many willingly but I wasn’t receiving any compensation) nor did they expect my images to even appear in any publications (I said I might share some with Shutterstock). But mostly I appreciate that Patel trusted me, essentially just a stranger only three weeks before (and essentially one still — Patel hasn’t even seen my face as I wore my mask the whole time), on a night that he and his team had diligently worked towards for many months, if not years.

It was a brief taste of the access, and only a fraction of the responsibility, that Pete Souza had during Obama’s presidency. But it felt momentous. As Souza told Fast Company, “When you’re in the job, you’ve got to remember that your number-one job is to make these images for history.”

This article probably ends weaker than I was thinking but I don’t want to keep digging for Souza quotes. Mostly, I should just end this to say if anyone in the White House Office of Management and Administration / Photo Office wants to recruit me, drop a line. I’ll be crossing my fingers, not for a call, but for a real Presidency to emerge in 2021.