On Tuesday, Mark Peterson was in Norfolk, Virginia, preparing to chase down members of Congress at a town hall. On Wednesday, he planned to go to Washington, D.C. to photograph the annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC). The work hasn’t stopped for the political photographer since the presidential campaign, when he documented the candidates and pageantry surrounding them in a photo project-turned-book, called “Political Theatre.”
“I’ve always been fascinated by politics because I don’t understand it,” Peterson told the NewsHour by phone from Norfolk. “We all think we know why we vote or what issues are important to us, but then it seems like we vote against our own interest, or for people who aren’t who we think they are.”
But the Political Theatre project really started earlier, back in 2013, as Peterson watched a rally outside the U.S. Capitol held by Republicans threatening to shut down the government. As he watched politician after politician walk out and deliver a sound bite, he said, it struck him that the entire scene felt like a TV studio.
“When I looked at my pictures afterwards, the pictures didn’t really capture how theatrical or orchestrated the whole thing was,” he said. And so Peterson began taking his photos differently. Instead of capturing standard color photojournalism images, he started taking his photos in black and white, playing with flash and harsh light and emphasizing certain things about the images “to accent how staged most of these events are.”
He emphasized that while he manipulates angles and flash, everything in the photos is real.
The campaign made Peterson feel his Political Theatre project was all the more resonant. As he watched both candidates work aggressively to shape the press narrative, he sought to make images that reflected that. “With Hillary, they would micromanage every statement and every event, to the point that the life was drained out of them,” he said, “and with Trump it was a TV studio all the time.”
Now that Trump has been elected, Peterson said he has seen that pageantry move to the White House. But since Inauguration Day, he has focused his efforts elsewhere, away from the White House and towards smaller politicians, advocacy groups, or regular people going to rallies in an effort to understand where people go from here.
Peterson took us behind the scenes of his photos from the campaign and the months that have followed.
During the meet-and-greet after the Trump events, it was like he was Justin Bieber or Katy Perry. They were concert-like, [with] the whole presentation. All the lights were always on him. And the press was usually put in pens, like they were trying to control us. But what they’re trying to control is that you have to focus on him. And when I saw this particular woman in the line, I knew she was going to lose it.
To me, Hillary Clinton is probably the greatest athlete I have ever seen in my life, because of how in control of her expressions she is. If you think of the Benghazi hearing, she spent 11 hours being grilled by people asking the same question, and she never rolled her eyes once. To me, in this picture, I see a more vulnerable Hillary at that moment. She was [making that expression] to a friend who was saying maybe something intimate to her, something private. It was a friend from the neighborhood, I think, because this is from a reading out on Long Island.
[During the campaign] I went to a rally in California, and the next day I was looking for a police presence, because violence was happening out West around Trump’s rallies. The next day there was a lot of violence around his event in San Jose. So I was trying to show the police presence and the Trump supporters together, because the rallies [both for and against him] had become dangerous in a way.
With this shot, what I said to myself was: ‘When someone goes in there with their AR 15s, I’m going in [after them].’ I don’t want to demean anybody’s beliefs, but it seemed there was a certain silliness to people walking [with guns] around a lovely park right outside of D.C., and I wanted to show a little bit of that irony.
I’ve gone to a lot of protests now, [including protests at the conventions, demonstrators for the March for Life, and rallies for “No Ban No Wall” in response to Trump’s executive orders]. But going forward there are a couple of things that are different that I want to look at.
One: A lot of the pictures I’ve made in the past, especially of the right, have been [captured in a moment when] they have imagined that their guns would be taken away, or they didn’t have power, or Obama is the enemy. But now, the right has everything. By April, when the Supreme Court has full membership, [Republicans will] have all three branches of government. And so I want to look at some of these organizations who have made a living imagining they are under threat, and see how they move forward. So I’ll go to the NRA convention, and that’s one reason I’ll go to CPAC. They were always saying: ‘We’re the ones who know America, and the rest of the country has gone crazy.’ Now, the left in America is looking at them like they’re the ones who have gone crazy.
The second is really photographing something more personal. Maybe following someone like my mother. In 1980, my dad voted for Reagan, my mom voted for Carter. Within a few months, the homelessness crisis started. And so my mom went to a church, talked to everybody there and opened a shelter. That shelter is still going today. They’ve served thousands of thousands of people in Minneapolis. That’s the kind of person I want to follow. Someone who sees the government do something they don’t agree with, and then goes about in their own life to change that.