The Photographing of the President, 2008

How a little-known, 25-year-old photographer became the most-viewed shooter of the Obama-McCain election.

The-Photographing-of-the-President-2008
The-Photographing-of-the-President-2008

One sign of our digital times is how quickly something can become a phenomenon. For example, Brett Marty bought his first digital SLR for a college class two years ago and used it to document his epic overland journey in an old Buick from San Francisco to the shores of Argentina's Tierra del Fuego. Last September the 25-year-old filmmaker began photographing presidential campaign events in battleground states for the white-hot political blog Fivethirtyeight.com. Today he's probably the most-viewed photographer of the 2008 election.

Don't believe it? Consider that on election day alone the Progressive poll-analysis site got almost 3 million hits. The Flickr photo server hosting Marty's photographs was nearly overwhelmed by traffic from Fivethirtyeight that night and embargoed his pictures indefinitely. (They are available now at BrettMarty.com.)

What's not in doubt is that Marty is the first photographer to take an open-ended self-assignment with a news blog and end up six weeks later with credentials for the national press corps. In doing so, he and Sean Quinn, Fivethirtyeight's lone reporter, logged over 14,000 miles through 15 states, covering what political junkies call the ground game: the cadres of local volunteers and organizers in both parties, working to get out the vote.

Their partnership began in late summer. Marty finished a documentary feature project and, swept up by election-year politics, was looking for something to do. He emailed Quinn, already on the road in Carson City, Nevada, to ask if he needed a photographer. The two had never met.

Quinn says several photographers contacted him, but "Brett's e-mail stood out. I saw his pictures from Argentina on his website and realized he's someone who knows how to travel the way I do. We hit it off on the phone right away, and he could leave the next day." He drove the 200 miles to San Francisco to pick Marty up and start a journey that did not end until they covered president-elect Obama's first press conference nearly two months later.

Equipped with two Apple Powerbooks, cell phones, a broadband wireless modem, and the same Nikon D80 body and standard 18-135mm lens Marty took to Argentina, the pair spent every waking hour on the job, one driving while the other wrote, edited photos, or planned the next day's itinerary.

Marty says they researched past election results and new voter registration figures to find communities where the Obama and McCain campaigns were concentrating their efforts. "We could kind of figure out the battleground counties and we'd go see what was going on in them." Both campaigns listed their field offices on line. "Usually the smaller the area and the less frequently they had to deal with the media, the more accepting and open they were to us."

Fivethirtyeight's traffic grew exponentially through October as Marty and Quinn filed their sometimes twice-daily reports. "At the beginning of the trip, half the campaign organizers wouldn't know what Fivethirtyeight was, but after a week or two everybody knew who we were, which made it fun," says Marty. The pair also gained press access to rallies by both candidates and their running mates. "That was something we got better at as we went along," Quinn says. "We learned who to talk to."

Days could be brutally long, starting sometimes before dawn and ending after midnight, with hundreds of miles in between. Marty fondly recalls a day in Ohio when he photographed an Obama rally in Dayton, Ohio and an appearance by Sarah Palin hours later in Wilmington, Delaware. "I could easily take 800 pictures at one event," Marty says, making his daily editing process "a big headache."

In looking for pictures, Marty quickly discovered campaign offices were mostly alike. "But there were always unique things, like homemade posters, so I would start taking pictures of whatever I hadn't seen before." Though working for a liberal political site, they strove for evenhanded coverage. If Obama volunteers predominate in his work, Marty says, it's because the winner had by far the bigger ground game.

Marty says he relished the chance to produce photo work beyond "the one money shot that would be the iconic news photo of the day. I was able to put up 30 or 40 pictures of a rally, to give a feel for what was going on." Indeed, Marty's ground-level photographs are evidence that our politics is not the freak show big media likes to present, but rather the work of sincere and dedicated citizens who volunteer for the challenging and energizing task of electing our leaders.

Marty and Quinn financed the trip themselves, often staying with Fivethirtyeight readers who followed their progress and offered guest rooms. "We were both pretty sure it would pay off in the end," Marty says. And it has. Fivethirtyeight's success allowed founder Nate Silver to reimburse his reporters' expenses. Quinn is planning a book and, at this writing, Marty has four exhibitions in the works.

Looking ahead, Marty says he might go to Washington. "I think the model is there for a blog press photographer now for the first time. I'd like to go back to filmmaking, but it would be hard to pass up the momentum Fivethirtyeight generated."

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VP Debate, Washington University, St. Louis, MissouriBrett Marty
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VP Debate; Washington University, St. Louis, MissouriBrett Marty
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Obama Field Office; Bloomington, IndianaBrett Marty
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Obama Rally; Dayton, OhioBrett Marty
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McCain Rally; Miami, FloridaBrett Marty
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Protestor outside of Obama Major Economic Address; Toledo, OhioBrett Marty
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Sarah Palin Rally; Wilmington, OhioBrett Marty
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Joe Biden Rally; Marietta, OhioBrett Marty
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Obama Rally; Espanola, New MexicoBrett Marty
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Sarah Palin Rally; Wilmington, OhioBrett Marty
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Obama's First Press Conference as Pres. Elect 11/7/08; Chicago, ILBrett Marty
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