Splashed across the front page of yesterday’s New York Times was a four-column photo of a man shouting at Sen. Arlen Specter at a town hall held earlier that morning in Lebanon, Pa., taken by photojournalist Damon Winter, who won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for Feature Photography. The photograph neatly illustrated the recent trend of angry voters—usually white and usually seniors—confronting their senators and congressmen with practically apoplectic rage over health reform and other matters.
Tuesday’s town hall in Lebanon was Winter’s first assignment after being away on vacation. CJR spoke to him about the challenges of photographing these events.
Alexandra Fenwick: Describe the mood and atmosphere at Monday’s town hall in Lebanon.
Damon Winter: I had seen some video clips of previous town hall meetings with Senator Specter and I had seen how the crowd had really taken control of the events and shut down the speakers, and I was curious to see if that was going to happen again. It did seem he had a bit of experience under his belt after being through a few of these, and he seemed to handle it pretty well. He let the speakers have their say and just kind of calmly listened, and I think he did well to try to defuse the situations when it seemed like they were starting to heat up.
AF: You mentioned the crowd taking control of the event. There have been memos circulated online from organizers on both the right and the left about trying to get into the news media lens and approaching reporters proactively. Were people media savvy at this event? Were they coming up to you?
DW: I get the feeling that people at this point, this far into it, realize there’s a lot more media scrutiny at these events, and I think they’re much more aware that there are a lot of eyes on them and what was happening there. So I get the feeling that people were a little more careful. I don’t think we were necessarily warmly greeted as journalists covering the event. Especially a few times, once people found out I was working for The New York Times, I would get really kind of nasty remarks and these kind of things that were making assumptions that I myself or we as a newspaper had preconceived notions about them. Another photographer working for the Times that day, a freelance photographer, Jessica Kourkounis, got pushed by an audience member once they realized she was working for The New York Times.
AF: You won your Pulitzer for photos of Obama on the campaign trail that were taken on the fringe of these staged events that you kind of stepped away from and framed in a different way. What is the challenge of documenting these kinds of orchestrated events that have a scripted beginning, middle, and end?
DW: The whole event, like you say, is staged, and it’s a bit of theater in a certain way, but I think once all those elements are put together to form this staged event, once you have that event in progress, there is real life happening in between there. There are real moments even though the event may have been organized. The challenge is to find those real moments within the context of the staged events. So it involves a lot of just waiting and watching and walking and searching and looking for these little moments and paying attention to the details about what’s going on.
AF: How early did you get there and stake out where you were going to be?
DW: I got there really early [Monday]. You never know what’s going to happen and it’s always safe to get there early. It makes me feel a lot calmer to know I have the lay of the land before the event starts. They let us in about five or ten minutes before they let in the general public and then they started a half hour after that so I didn’t have any great advantage by showing up early, I just got to sort of mill about and talk to people waiting in line.