By Tim Hunt
I’m huddled next to the stage of the Holiday Star in Merrillville, Indiana. My camera’s slung around my neck as I try not to fall asleep from boredom while waiting for my little sister to walk across the stage and receive her diploma. Listening to a bunch of high school kids give speeches on their accomplishments and the promise the future holds, I laugh, thinking about my newly acquired college diploma and my lack of a job. Photojournalism? Who am I trying to be? Peter Parker? Why does the profession I love have to be one of the most difficult to get into?
My sister nervously walks across the stage and with my job done I sneak outside to my car to have a cigarette. I turn on the radio to listen to the news about the final Democratic primary. I hear the results and smile. At this point I don’t even care what kind of president Barack Obama could be. I’m just happy to know my portfolio just a got a little more interesting.
While many people started following the election much earlier, I began to literally follow it in August of 2007. The Democrats were invading Soldier Field. I had just started working at my school newspaper and had begun my senior year at Columbia College. I decided to try and use whatever swagger this position offered me and try to get into the big debate.
The day was hot with that yellow smoggy heat that only Chicago can create, the sun beating down on my recently shaven head, transforming my Irish skin from snow white to ruby red almost instantly. My equipment was not up to par so I rented a longer lens for the occasion. A 300mm with a 1.4x extender strapped onto my Rebel is basically the equivalent of trying to fire a scud missile off of a water pistol. Needless to say when I approached the press pit, I reeked of amateur. We stood outside the gates waiting for Obama to appear. His scheduled time of arrival came and went and nobody seemed to notice but me. I was still too green to know that nothing in Chicago runs on time. As nervous anxiety mixed with impatience grew inside me, I approached one of the seasoned veterans of photojournalism to ask him what was going on. He looked down at me with a glare I hadn’t seen since answering a question wrong in the third grade.
“Barack Obama is going to speak,” he said, matter-of-factly.
I walked away convinced that this guy was a total jerk—then I realized my mistake. He didn’t think I was asking, “Why is he late?” He thought I was asking, “Why is everybody here?” So now I looked like an amateur and a moron. This was not a great way to start.
The ass crack of the morning, New Year’s Day, and as usual I had a raging hangover. But, instead of lying in my nice warm bed with a blanket over my eyes, I navigated my four-door sedan through the Midwest in a furious blizzard.
I don’t know why I assumed I could pull it off, but I headed to Iowa for the first caucus in the country. I was nothing more than a poor college student, and there I was, walking into the biggest media storm in the country; as one CNN reporter put it: the Super Bowl of journalism. This trip was self-funded and self-assigned. I was not being published, but I did have one thing going for me—I’m really good at sneaking into events. Really, really good. Like ninja good. I snuck or weaseled my way in to photograph Mayor Daley press conferences, the Komodo dragon at the Shedd Aquarium and the opening home games for both the White Sox and the Cubs. After four years of social ineptness through high school, I finally found a way to put my inability to get noticed to good use.
I anticipated Des Moines would inspire the patriotic small-town feeling of a Robert Frank image. American flags draped from every structure over ten feet. Political enthusiasts passing out flyers. Small cars driving round with loud speakers on the roof promoting candidates. An entire city transformed into the American Dream. Instead, I got the reality of a small Midwestern city in the middle of winter. Cold, gray, bad traffic. Growing up in Chicago I had preconceived notions of what a “city” must be, and I immediately found it a bit presumptuous to declare Des Moines a city.
I arrived at my hotel beaten and downtrodden. I tried to take a shower but there was no hot water. I hated the hotel just a little bit more. I opened the only sealed shampoo and used it as soap. I felt like crap when I got out and felt even worse when I learned that the hotel laundry service didn’t use fabric softener on their towels. Between the bitterly cold dry air and sandpaper towels my skin had turned bright neon pink. Have you ever seen one of those naked moles at the zoo? Like that, only more pathetic than cute.
Getting in to Des Moines’ Hy-Vee Hall was easier than I imagined. Identifying myself as freelance photojournalist on spec from Chicago, I donned a tie to add to the professionalism. After spending all day being rejected by the Hillary campaign and getting the runaround from a few others, it was bit shocking how friendly and accommodating the Obama volunteers were. Not only did they give me a press credential but they even recommended where I could grab a bite to eat.
The sound of large bass drums reverberated off the high ceiling of Des Moines Hy-Vee Hall’s main auditorium. The mood was elevated and the energy was palpable. I looked at the large crowd of people, the press three rows deep, and realized I should have gotten there sooner. I paced along the press pit like a caged animal, desperately trying to find an unobstructed view of the podium. Nothing. Just a wall of press. Still photographers, TV crews, anchormen and women with overpriced haircuts, radio stations with mammoth boom mikes resembling woodland creatures pierced on spears. I started to panic, I had not driven this far and put up with this much shit to not get my shot. I wasn’t going to screw this up again.
I ran to the area with the tables and grabbed a couple chairs, dragged them across the auditorium and placed them behind a local radio station. Standing on the chairs I had a clear view, at least until the radio producer in front of me, inspired by my use of furniture, did the same thing. My viewfinder was now filled with his wrinkly baldhead. Any shot I took would now look like a portrait of Obama fending off a giant penis. I conjured up any skateboarding skills left over from high school and scooted my chair while still standing on it. Every inch I moved made this horrible high-pitched scraping sound. A little background ambiance for local radio listeners.
The crowd grew quiet, the calm before the maelstrom. From this angle I couldn’t see him, but the audience, squishing and shuffling, informed me of his whereabouts. As Obama took the stage, I, along with hundreds of my colleagues, went to work. Camera flashes popped and sparkled. Television cameras hummed. Keyboards ignited with transcription.
I held my position long enough to get the shot that I wanted, and moved on. The security struggled to contain the hungry journalists foaming at the mouth for their grand finale. I snuck my way around the TV staging area and find a nice spot below the cameras. Wedged in between the guardrail and the stage were three other photographers, all of us trying to get the shot without being noticed by security.
Obama wrapped up his speech. Hope. Change. Believe. The now-familiar phrases had only just begun their mission. He waved one last time and disappeared. With no one to guide them, the eager supporters started to trickle out. The energy was gone; it left so fast it felt like someone pulled the feeding tube. The floor was carpeted with discarded signs, stickers and pins. A floor tiled with hope. I took a seat next to the largest American flag I’ve ever seen, and laughed. I was tired, hungry—my body hurt and my ears were ringing, but most importantly I got some great images. Now, I just had to figure out how to get home.
Super Tuesday, and Barack was back in the city. Good Ol’ Chicago. No one was surprised when he took Illinois, nor was it a shocker that his victory speech would be in Chicago. The only thing that wasn’t expected was that I would be able to sweet-talk my way into the Hyatt Regency to take pictures of the whole thing.
Approaching the press check-in table it became clear that it was not going to be easy. With more people than they had space for, the Obama camp tried to turn the chaos of journalism into something that resembled normalcy. Dozens of journalists aching for a story, only to be told they couldn’t get in. By the time I reached the desk, the woman was visibly exhausted. She asked who I was and then informed me, like most of the people around me, my name wasn’t on the list. It was obvious from my colleagues that getting angry wasn’t going to help things, so I decided to play the pity card. I asked if there was anything she could do to help me. A long, frustrated sigh escaped from her lungs and she pointed to a sheet of paper on the table. A waiting list. I asked where I should sign and her voice slipped from frustration to annoyance, “Anywhere.” I looked at the sheet, covered with names scrawled with anger in no particular order, and decided that the top of the list would qualify as “anywhere.” After a few minutes my name was called. I was in.
I stepped through the metal detector while Obama’s Secret Service agent searched my equipment bag for contraband. Kind of like O’Hare, minus the long lines and degradation. As one of the cyborgs stared at me with his unblinking eyes, my heart rate increased and images of myself deported to Guantanamo filled my paranoid psyche. Not that I was doing anything wrong, but these guys didn’t exactly look like they would need a reason to make me disappear. I was cleared.
I snuck in to photograph Obama one more time. A few months later, Indiana held its primary and Obama came to Gary. Maybe it was the proximity to my home in the suburbs, or that I had covered him so much (I had actually seen the guy more frequently than I’d seen most of my family). I didn’t know what it was, but I felt comfortable. Like I knew what I was doing. Like I ran through a gauntlet, proved myself worthy and emerged out the other side as a legitimate photojournalist.
I learned a few things through the primary season. When to move, when not to, how to use the backdrops and the crowds to my advantage and, most importantly, how to get the shot.
So while Barack Obama emerged as the Democratic candidate and is moving on to bigger battles and maybe the White House, and as hundreds of supporters and politicians try to ride in on his coattails, I sit back and hope that there’s room for one more. Just a little space left for a lowly self-proclaimed guerilla journalist and his cameras.