Q & A: The New York Times’s Damon Winter

The Pulitzer-winning photographer on covering contentious town halls

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.

AF: You mentioned the real life pathos happening during this staged event. What drew you toward the two images you shot that ran in the Times yesterday—the front cover photo of the man shouting at Specter and the inside shot of Specter getting out of the car?

DW: The photo that ran on the front page was relatively early in the event. This gentleman, Craig Anthony Miller, he stood up within the first ten questions of the event, he just decided that this whole forum was ridiculous and not to his liking and he was upset that he felt like his Constitutional right to free speech was being trampled because they were conducting this town hall in an orderly fashion and limiting it to thirty questions. So he wasn’t really even voicing any issue having to do with health care reform or closing Guantanamo or anything like that, it was just his dislike of the forum, and I think he was one of these people who was going to be unhappy with the forum no matter what.

AF: His picture was in a lot of papers yesterday.

DW: We sent a lot of people to cover this event because there was a lot of chatter about organizing protesters and counter-protestors so it felt like it was a recipe for some real conflict. But that was about as heated as it got and you can see from the video clips how Sen. Specter handled it. Instead of trying to shut the guy up—another audience member actually got physical with him and tried to restrain him and there was potential for a scuffle there—Sen. Specter said, ‘Let the man say his piece and you’re free if you’re not happy, you’re free to leave if you want to.’ And then he did.

AF: What about the other photo of Specter getting back into his car after the event was over? What drew you to that?

DW: I just wanted to document the event from beginning to end, and something that I always look for is those transition moments that I think are always really important. There was a huge crowd gathered outside. I’d say probably three-quarters of the people who showed up to this event couldn’t get in. There was only capacity for 250 so I would have estimated at least 1,000 showed up. By the time the thing was over, they were all outside chanting and booing. So it felt a little tense and he had a lot of security around him so it was interesting to see how he faced that crowd before leaving.

AF: As a print reporter, a photographer, a reporter in general— how do you avoid reducing people to caricatures when they’re so ratcheted up?

DW: I have very few rules that I guide my coverage on but this is one that I always find myself sticking to: I don’t necessarily like to photograph people’s signs. People bring signs that they have a message that they want to get across and I don’t find it necessarily my job to convey their message for them. I’m, rather, out there looking for people and their interactions and these moments between them. I’m looking for faces, for these moments where real life is happening.

AF: That’s interesting, I was going to ask you about photographing signs and posters where the words then become part of the picture and tell the story in a very literal way.

DW: I’m not saying I consciously avoid them, but as a photographer I try to make interesting pictures that involve the reader, engage the reader and get them to want to know more about the story and the people that we’re photographing and writing about. And I usually find that photographing someone’s sign and the words on the sign is not really treating the story with the respect it deserves. It’s a little too easy.

AF: Some of the signs are pretty incendiary. [In the background of Winter’s photo of Specter exiting the event, one sign reads: “Elderly Arlen, you would have died under Obama’s rationed health care.”] If they say something based on incorrect information, do you still quote it? Or, in your case, do you still shoot it?

DW: Yeah, totally, because we’re not endorsing the content of someone’s sign just by photographing, but it is an element of the landscape that I’m photographing. There was one photo that I actually liked that goes against what I’ve been saying. They didn’t allow signs into the hall that day but there was one guy who had smuggled a small sign in there and it was on an eight-and-a-half by eleven-inch sheet of paper and it just said, “We don’t trust you anymore” and he sat up in the front row, and as Specter kept walking by him he would hold that up. That to me seemed very intimate and there was this relationship between the sign and the senator. I would never take just a photograph of that guy holding up that sign and himself, but in the context of that situation, it makes a lot of sense because it was a very intimate statement he was making to Sen. Specter.

AF: Is there any story about these town halls that isn’t getting told very well or is missing?

DW: It becomes very hard to know what exactly the situation is at these town halls and who the people that wait from 4:30 or 5:00 in the morning to get in first and to sit in that front row are—and those are the people, at least that I saw, that were asking questions. And they seemed very articulate and very well organized with the questions that they wanted to ask. And from what I saw, they were very keen on recording themselves, asking the questions, and recording the Senator’s responses as well as the audience’s responses. A lot of times people were holding their own camcorder and filming themselves as they were asking their questions. It was very strange. I feel like sometimes there’s a lot more to it than just what you see, and that’s sort of a difficult part of my job as a photographer—as a visual journalist. Sometimes I feel I’m only scratching the surface.

AF: People were actually filming themselves?

DW: There was one woman who was up in the front who was really adamant, really expressive and very angry, and she was kind of screaming at [Specter] at some point and she had a camcorder and was kind of filming herself and filming him the whole time, and as soon as she got her question done she turned to her husband, or the man that was sitting with her, and said, ‘Did you get that? Make sure you got everything.’ And you just wonder how much of that is real, how much of that is show and how much of it is done for the sake of getting attention or how much it’s done out of real concern for the issues that they’re voicing.

AF: Do you try to avoid playing into that?

DW: It’s not up to me to make that judgment. The fact of the matter is, it did happen, regardless. That’s why we’re a newspaper and that’s why we have the photos that are accompanied by the text and vice versa—that we can explain, hopefully. But the fact of the matter is, that is what is unfolding in front of me.

AF: Will you be going back to any more town halls?

DW: I don’t know. I’m a general assignment photographer like a lot of photographers at the paper and anything can happen on any given day. It was fun, it was interesting.

AF: While everybody else’s blood pressure is up in the room, is it difficult to keep from being caught up in the excitement?

DW: No, it’s very interesting and you sort of never know where it’s going to go, especially in the moments where they start getting heated up, but those are moments where you just need to focus even more so. [Laughs] Maybe as everyone else’s blood pressure is going up, yours is going down or you’re focusing all that much more.

AF: How did this compare to covering Obama in town halls on the campaign trail?

DW: Their only real relation is that they’re of a political nature. Covering a campaign is a series of varied experiences and this is just one town hall event. Over the campaign I covered lots of town halls but I never saw any that were contentious like this. Occasionally you’d have someone up there who was critical of the then-Senator and be demanding answers for something or another, but never quite this hostile.

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Alexandra Fenwick is an assistant editor at CJR.