Many people would agree that this year’s presidential contest is one of the most polarized and combative in living memory. For that reason, it felt particularly important to me this year to be in Cleveland and Philadelphia capturing the people and events that would surround the candidates and conventions.
I work as a freelance photographer, so I pitched a photo essay of each convention to publications I work for and got the green light, but no credentials to enter the actual conventions. My assignment, then, was to show what was happening outside the 8-foot perimeter fence.
First up was the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Ohio, where protests were widely anticipated and violence was thought to be a possibility. White supremacist groups and anarchists alike were claiming they would be there on the streets to make their voices heard. War photographers were flying in from the Middle East, anticipating a major event (many bringing gas masks and kevlar armor with them). I also thought it would be a significant event, not unlike Chicago in 1968.
We were all wrong. Very few people showed up to protest. Those that did were surrounded by roughly 5,500 police officers from state and federal agencies as well as the National Guard.
The story from Cleveland quickly became the overabundance of press and police contrasted with the very small number of people who came out to protest. One image I captured (below) seemed to sum this up in my mind. I joked that if every journalist in Cleveland had been a protester, the RNC might really have gotten shut down.
The Democratic Convention in Philadelphia proved to be very different. Many, many more people came out to march and protest, even forming temporary tent cities in FDR Park near the convention. It reminded me a lot of Occupy Wall Street.
There were marches from City Hall all the way to the convention site (about four miles) and protests late into every night.
Demonstrators burned American flags and got into heated arguments with other protesters opposed to the burning. Some groups climbed the barricades, and at one point the security perimeter was breached when a gate was cut open. (It was quickly secured and people were arrested.) The protests also tended to run late into the night, so your long days often folded into even longer nights.
One thing that struck me at both conventions was the very clear restraint demonstrated by the police.
In Cleveland, I witnessed multiple occasions where the Chief of Police Calvin Williams came out to talk to agitated protesters and help diffuse situations, using a relaxed and receptive demeanor. In Philadelphia I watched police officers gently preventing young protesters from climbing a low barricade around a Septa station saying “Please, don’t.”
The protesters who did get past the barricade were cuffed, but not arrested. Instead, they were given tickets and immediately released.
All that was a massive change from my experience at the 2004 RNC in New York City. Normally, when I head out to cover protests you prepare yourself for encounters with the police and possible arrest. I did have some protective gear with me at both conventions, a skateboard helmet, gas mask, safety goggles, eye flush solution and gloves. In the end, the only thing I needed was a rain poncho.
While the protective gear was unnecessary, a few things are essential for covering these conventions from the streets (besides your camera gear): good, comfortable shoes or boots, water, sunblock, sunglasses, general press ID, spare phone battery, bandana, and bandaids for blisters.
You tend to be out on the streets walking non-stop for at least 12 hours every day, and in this case under a blazing hot sun for most of it.
The other aspect that is essential when trying to cover such a large event over an expansive area are sources for intel. You need to be able to find out where and when events are scheduled beforehand, and often within a moments notice. My main sources are social media and other colleagues. Facebook and Twitter can yield a lot of information, especially if you can do the research beforehand to line up sources to check throughout the event.
I am also fortunate to know a handful of other photojournalists who often cover this sort of thing. Trading tips is a great way to pay things forward and get a lot in return.
While this is a competitive field, I believe you tend to get much more out of helping your colleagues than you do by building walls due to competition. Not to mention that being able to check in with other photographers to get live on-site reports can save you long unnecessary trips, or confirm you need to be headed to a location ASAP.
We’re all in this together, trying to tell the story of these moments in history.
About the author: Tod Seelie is a documentary and fine art photographer based in New York City and Los Angeles. He recently published a book chronicling the unseen side of NYC’s underground culture, BRIGHT NIGHTS. The New York Times said “His images at times elevate mere weirdness to a more striking realm of visual intrigue… Strange, vivid, baffling and relentlessly unexplained, they leave their viewers transfixed.” You can find more of his work on his website, blog, and primarily his Instagram.