Documentary, Portrait, Projects

M Scott Brauer’s Behind the Scenes on the US Election Campaign Trail

Main image: Real estate mogul and Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump greets supporters after speaking to supporters at a rally at the Weirs Beach Community Center in Laconia, New Hampshire. All images from the series This is the worst party I’ve ever been to © Scott Brauer, courtesy the artist

M Scott Brauer had the same access as any other photographer on the campaign trail of the US election, but, for his new series This is the worst party I’ve ever been to, he decided to “step away from the designated photo opps and subvert what was being shown, to look behind, deeper into, or next to the main event.”

Ten years into his career, Boston-based photographer M Scott Brauer felt he’d reached a “plateau”, and he was “approaching the same sorts of stories in the same sorts of ways”. He wanted to try something different, and the break came literally.

He bust his arm up badly in an accident, and unable to work properly for seven months gave him a lot of thinking time.

msb-509205modcolor

Eventually, when last July he was able to bend his arm enough to use press a shutter properly again, he wasn’t looking for much else other than a project he could shoot locally “to practice using a camera again in the normal way”.

Although he’d not photographed politicians much previously, he felt he had something to say about the coming elections, and the nearby New Hampshire primary [the first in a series of state elections to help decide presidential nominees for the Democrat and Republican parties, and therefore a bellwether] offered ample opportunity for photo ops.

Texas senator and Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz greets people after speaking at the kick-off event at his New Hampshire campaign headquarters in Manchester, New Hampshire.

Texas senator and Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz greets people after speaking at the kick-off event at his New Hampshire campaign headquarters in Manchester, New Hampshire.

“If I screwed something up or couldn’t handle the work, I knew there would be another few hundred similar events to photograph,” he says. “So it really started out as a sort of low-stakes physical therapy, but with an eye toward turning it into a big project.”

In fact, the project presented itself on a plate, and an idea quickly evolved into a caustic take on the political process, one step removed from the usual press photos captured within roped-off pens, yet seemingly much more revealing.

South Carolina Senator and Republican presidential candidate Lindsey Graham jokes with the audience before speaking at a campaign event at the Nesmith Library in Windham, New Hampshire.

South Carolina Senator and Republican presidential candidate Lindsey Graham jokes with the audience before speaking at a campaign event at the Nesmith Library in Windham, New Hampshire.

Titled This is the worst party I’ve ever been to, the name aptly describes his first impressions of the campaign trail, after which everything fell into place almost immediately.

“Last-minute decorations, ill-fitting suits, bad food, too many cameras, the guest of honor is always late, the events are either too crowded or no one shows up, half the people are wearing khaki, everyone wants to talk about politics and religion,” he says. “And it goes on for months.”

People crowd around to take photos or meet Democratic presidential candidate and former First Lady and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton after Clinton spoke to a crowd at a rally in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. At the rally, New Hampshire senator Jeanne Shaheen endorsed Clinton.

People crowd around to take photos or meet Democratic presidential candidate and former First Lady and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton after Clinton spoke to a crowd at a rally in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. At the rally, New Hampshire senator Jeanne Shaheen endorsed Clinton.

He had no interest in shooting conventional press shots, but had always been drawn to finding the “weird moments, off to the side of things”, of which there were plenty, and settled on the harsh, direct flash style “literally within the first few exposures of the first event I attended”.

And while he didn’t set out to be directly critical of the politicians he photographed – Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders and Ted Cruz among them – he does question the media’s role in the circus, blaming newspapers’ lack of space for considered photography, and their fear of appearing biased.

A training leader writes down tips for creating good questions to ask political candidates at a bilingual "Bird-dog" training at the Nashua Police Athletic League in Nashua, New Hampshire. The training was organized by the American Friends Service Committee's Governing Under the Influence campaign, a non-partisan education project aimed at "limiting the excessive political influence of corporations that profit from war and militarism." The training was intended to help New Hampshire voters create specific questions for presidential primary candidates and how to press for an answer to these questions. The training was co-sponsored by Latinos United for Action.

A training leader writes down tips for creating good questions to ask political candidates at a bilingual “Bird-dog” training at the Nashua Police Athletic League in Nashua, New Hampshire. The training was organized by the American Friends Service Committee’s Governing Under the Influence campaign, a non-partisan education project aimed at “limiting the excessive political influence of corporations that profit from war and militarism.” The training was intended to help New Hampshire voters create specific questions for presidential primary candidates and how to press for an answer to these questions. The training was co-sponsored by Latinos United for Action.

“The end result is that pretty boring images are usually published that do nothing more than show exactly what the candidate wants to be shown of themselves, with a patriotic background and nice lighting.”

He had the same access as any press photographer, saying, “I was usually standing elbow-to-elbow with wire and newspaper photographers. They took their pictures, and I took mine.”

So it wasn’t so much about “stepping away from the designated photo opps, but instead an attempt to subvert what was being shown and look behind, deeper into, or next to the main event,” he says.

Police officers stand at the back of the room as former Florida governor and Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush speaks with Americans for Prosperity’s regional director Mark Lucas at the group's Road to Reform event at the Radisson Hotel in Manchester, New Hampshire, USA. Americans for Prosperity is a conservative political advocacy organization and the main vehicle for the Koch brothers' political advocacy.

Police officers stand at the back of the room as former Florida governor and Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush speaks with Americans for Prosperity’s regional director Mark Lucas at the group’s Road to Reform event at the Radisson Hotel in Manchester, New Hampshire, USA. Americans for Prosperity is a conservative political advocacy organization and the main vehicle for the Koch brothers’ political advocacy.

“The flash was my main tool in doing this. I could overpower any lighting that was provided, and the added depth-of-field allows me to work more with backgrounds and other extraneous elements that would usually just be a pleasant blur around the candidate.

“I used my lenses in ways that I haven’t before. I’d use a long lens like a wide lens in close situations to really play up the claustrophobia.”

His warts-and-all take on the primaries has struck a nerve both at home and abroad, published in Time, Esquire and Le Monde, and exhibited at festivals across Europe this summer, in Hannover, Kaunas, Sofia and Zagreb.

A cardboard box holds donations from attendees as Vermont senator and Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders speaks at a campaign event at the White Mountain Chalet event hall in Berlin, New Hampshire.

A cardboard box holds donations from attendees as Vermont senator and Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders speaks at a campaign event at the White Mountain Chalet event hall in Berlin, New Hampshire.

“Starting a project like this is no small task,” says Brauer, who is the co-founder and editor of photojournalism blog, dvafoto, and has always shot personal projects alongside editorial assignments for the likes of Fader, Bloomberg and New York Times.

“It takes a lot of money and time, so it’s really a gamble on whether or not it pays off. And unlike some of the personal travel work I do, if it doesn’t sell, I can’t say, ‘Well, that didn’t go anywhere, but at least I had a nice trip. If this didn’t work out, I’d have attended a bunch of pretty boring speeches for nothing.”

Thankfully, that’s not been the case. And besides the shows and the coverage, he says it’s got him in front of editors and publications he’s never worked with before; his convalescence proving that a break really can be as good as a rest.

See more of Scott’s work here.