Ten years into his career, Boston-based photographer M Scott Brauer felt he’d reached a “plateau”, and he was “approaching the same sorts of stories in the same sorts of ways”. He wanted to try something different, and the break came literally.
He bust his arm up badly in an accident, and unable to work properly for seven months gave him a lot of thinking time.
Eventually, when last July he was able to bend his arm enough to use press a shutter properly again, he wasn’t looking for much else other than a project he could shoot locally “to practice using a camera again in the normal way”.
Although he’d not photographed politicians much previously, he felt he had something to say about the coming elections, and the nearby New Hampshire primary [the first in a series of state elections to help decide presidential nominees for the Democrat and Republican parties, and therefore a bellwether] offered ample opportunity for photo ops.
In fact, the project presented itself on a plate, and an idea quickly evolved into a caustic take on the political process, one step removed from the usual press photos captured within roped-off pens, yet seemingly much more revealing.
Titled This is the worst party I’ve ever been to, the name aptly describes his first impressions of the campaign trail, after which everything fell into place almost immediately.
“Last-minute decorations, ill-fitting suits, bad food, too many cameras, the guest of honor is always late, the events are either too crowded or no one shows up, half the people are wearing khaki, everyone wants to talk about politics and religion,” he says. “And it goes on for months.”
He had no interest in shooting conventional press shots, but had always been drawn to finding the “weird moments, off to the side of things”, of which there were plenty, and settled on the harsh, direct flash style “literally within the first few exposures of the first event I attended”.
And while he didn’t set out to be directly critical of the politicians he photographed – Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders and Ted Cruz among them – he does question the media’s role in the circus, blaming newspapers’ lack of space for considered photography, and their fear of appearing biased.
“The end result is that pretty boring images are usually published that do nothing more than show exactly what the candidate wants to be shown of themselves, with a patriotic background and nice lighting.”
He had the same access as any press photographer, saying, “I was usually standing elbow-to-elbow with wire and newspaper photographers. They took their pictures, and I took mine.”
So it wasn’t so much about “stepping away from the designated photo opps, but instead an attempt to subvert what was being shown and look behind, deeper into, or next to the main event,” he says.
“The flash was my main tool in doing this. I could overpower any lighting that was provided, and the added depth-of-field allows me to work more with backgrounds and other extraneous elements that would usually just be a pleasant blur around the candidate.
“I used my lenses in ways that I haven’t before. I’d use a long lens like a wide lens in close situations to really play up the claustrophobia.”
His warts-and-all take on the primaries has struck a nerve both at home and abroad, published in Time, Esquire and Le Monde, and exhibited at festivals across Europe this summer, in Hannover, Kaunas, Sofia and Zagreb.
“Starting a project like this is no small task,” says Brauer, who is the co-founder and editor of photojournalism blog, dvafoto, and has always shot personal projects alongside editorial assignments for the likes of Fader, Bloomberg and New York Times.
“It takes a lot of money and time, so it’s really a gamble on whether or not it pays off. And unlike some of the personal travel work I do, if it doesn’t sell, I can’t say, ‘Well, that didn’t go anywhere, but at least I had a nice trip. If this didn’t work out, I’d have attended a bunch of pretty boring speeches for nothing.”
Thankfully, that’s not been the case. And besides the shows and the coverage, he says it’s got him in front of editors and publications he’s never worked with before; his convalescence proving that a break really can be as good as a rest.
See more of Scott’s work here.