Award-winning Getty Images photojournalist Chip Somodevilla is known for his work covering US politics, especially during election season. In this daily dispatch, he blogs about ‘a different kind of chaos’ — his two-week experience covering the UK General Elections, through a Washington lens. See the full edit of his images at gettyimages.com.
The Americanization of UK Elections
May 9, 2015 – London, England
I was not the only American who closely observed in this year’s 2015 United Kingdom general election. Two other men from Washington, DC, had much more active roles in forming and delivering the candidates that represented the UK’s biggest political parties. Former Barack Obama presidential campaign wizards and White House advisors David Axelrod and Jim Messina were paid consultants to Labour candidate David Miliband and Conservative candidate David Cameron, respectively:
In all my years as journalist & strategist, I’ve never seen as stark a failure of polling as in UK. Huge project ahead to unravel that.
— David Axelrod (@davidaxelrod) May 8, 2015
Campaigns are about future & Cameron was viewed as having the more optimistic vision for future by 10+ pts https://t.co/0JZXV1JGWy
— Jim Messina (@Messina2012) May 8, 2015
During the last week of the campaign I drove hundreds of miles — from London to Glasgow and back — and was able to spend time with each of the leading politicians in the race. And at every opportunity I looked for Axelrod and Messina’s fingerprints. After covering Obama’s two successful presidential campaigns, I hoped I might to be able to catch a glimpse of an “American Effect” on this election.
Excellent timing in communication and imaging was always a hallmark of the ‘No Drama Obama’ campaigns and Cameron shed his jacket and rolled up his sleeves at just the right moment. While his opponent stayed in suits and kept his distance from even his own supporters at party member-only events, Cameron’s team worked hard to literally surround him with people and gave him an opportunity to shake hands with his fans (not too many hands, but enough to look friendly). Miliband’s team portrayed him as a 2-dimentional person: always at a podium, always walking a pre-determined path from backstage to the spotlight and back, never diving into a crowd to shake hands and pose for ‘selfies.’ Both men ran very visually predictable and optically sanitized campaigns, the difference was in contact — real or perceived — with people, even if they were only ever the party faithful.
The politicians who did make contact with ‘everyday people’ seemed to exercise outsized influence on this year’s election. London Mayor Boris Johnson was a candidate for parliament and easily won his seat with his signature hair, buses, bicycles and street-level charm. He was out in the public, riding the train and walking side-by-side with other, less-well-known candidates and handed out their campaign literature to anyone who would take it and he stopped to listen to any Londoner who had something they wanted to say, praise or complaint. With an equally savvy street-level campaign, Nicola Sturgeon waded into crowds in towns and cities all across Scotland and posed for literally hundreds (maybe thousands) of selfies with her ecstatic supporters. And unlike the two largest political parties, the Scottish National Party didn’t screen people according to their party affiliation before they had the chance to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Nicola. And finally there was Nigel Farage with his everyman pint of beer, cigarette and hard-right politics. He also took it to the street and would often encounter people who disagreed with him but he never backed down because he was in control of himself and his message.
So, do pounding the pavement, ‘pressing the flesh’ and kissing babies always guarantee a win? The result of each of these politicians’ efforts was different. Boris won his election and has his sights set on much bigger things, Nicola’s party was exceedingly successful in Scotland and Nigel was soundly stomped and is resigning as head of UKIP. He lost not because of his campaign style but because his vision for the United Kingdom was out of line with most of the British people.
Cameron and Miliband felt like they had more at stake in the election, more to lose than the smaller parties. So they each ran a make-no-mistakes kind of campaign. But in the long run, if major parties keep running these ‘American’ campaigns with their handpicked audiences and rock concert lighting, then they will run the risk of losing a key sense of authenticity and modesty and eventually isolate themselves. And when that happens the big guys will have to look over their shoulders and see the little guys gaining on them as they wade through the crowd of everyday voters, shaking hands and taking selfies the all the way to Westminster.
Day 7: David Cameron and the final sale
May 6, 2015 – Carlisle, England
With a slight whiff of animal dung in the air, the Cameron campaign ends. Why his campaign decided to hold his last semi-public event of the 2015 General Election inside a livestock auction facility is a mystery to me. It was evident that some industrial-strength cleaners had been used to scrub the facility but they couldn’t totally erase what the barn-sized room was built for: to sell animals.
Cameron was doing his best to sell himself and the Tories to the gathered supporters in Carlisle and to the millions watching on the BBC. With just hours to go before the people of Great Britain were to vote in what the Prime Minister described as the “most important election in a generation,” Cameron bounded onto a tiny stage just inches off the floor, where so many other living, breathing things have put their best faces forward and tried to sell themselves to an audience. With sleeves rolled up, nostrils flaring and confidence in his voice, Cameron showed off his best chops.
Did this last minute sell work? Are people going to buy it? Are people going to keep him at 10 Downing or go shopping for someone new? Only the election will tell.
Day 6: Top Men and Women
May 5, 2015 – Glasgow, Scotland
A quick word about the news photographers in Scotland: absolutely top men and women. This bunch of hard-working photojournalists reminds me of our own gang of shooters in Washington, DC. They are competitive without being vicious and they help each other out in the big and small ways that only fellow news photographers know how to do.
On the campaign, when we work in such close quarters and in uncomfortably small spaces, photographers help each other with quick, low whispers so not to interrupt the flow of the event or the politician pontificating before us.
“Are you good?”
“Am I in your way?”
“Do you need to get by?”
“Am I in your shot?”
And before and after the start of the events I covered over the past two days, the Scottish photographers joked with each other, exchanged stories, praised each other’s work and generally made the whole experience a good time. A real brotherhood/sisterhood. And the most surprising part of all was that they treated me like a comrade even though I was a total outsider to them just moments earlier. I’m a stranger from a strange land, bombing into the tail end of a campaign with barely a grasp on how UK elections work. But they joked with me, bought me cups of coffee, helped me with my photo captions and offered the hand of genuine friendship. As I said before, top men and women.
Day 5: Nicola, Queen of the Selfies
May 4, 2015 – Kirkcaldy, Glenrothes and Largs, Scotland
Scottish National Party (SNP) leader and Scottish Parliament First Minister Nicola Sturgeon is winning over voters in Scotland one photograph at a time.
In Monday’s Guardian, Severin Carrell and Libby Brooks wrote, ‘With the SNP now expecting to take a majority of Scotland’s 59 seats and become the third largest party in the Commons, Sturgeon warned she plans to place the Labour leader, Ed Miliband, under intense pressure to agree to an anti-Tory alliance with the SNP hours after the election result.’
That’s a lot of power for one person and one party to exert over the UK general elections. And how did she help build and solidify this power? Selfies have helped.
Never in my 10 years of political coverage have I ever seen one person patiently comply with request after request to pose for a ‘selfie.’ At three different events in three different cities, I watched Nicola Sturgeon pose for literally hundreds of selfies, pictures people take of themselves with another person they admire or want to be associated with. And Sturgeon accepted every one of these requests. Sure, a handful of people did ask serious political questions, and she answered them with confidence and aplomb. But the majority of people who Nicola interacted with simply wanted a photograph with her.
Queen of the Scottish Selfie: SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon poses for photographs with hundreds of supporters a day while campaigning in the #GE2015. She actually knows how to operate most peoples’ camera phones better than they do. @gettyimages #gettyimagesnews #glenrothes #kirkcaldy #DCview #largs #scotland
Today’s appearances reminded me of a time in American politics that is long gone. In fact, it disappeared before I was born. It harkens back to a time when people were allowed to interact with national political leaders because they were citizens and not because they paid tens of thousands of dollars to attend private dinners with time. Today in Scotland reminded me of Robert Drew’s groundbreaking 1960 documentary ‘Primary.’ (Look at the first scene with Kennedy) In our time, social media has become a powerful political tool. What better way for a politician to invade your friends’ Instagram and Facebook feeds than with a photo of you and her smiling into the camera and saying ‘Power in parliament!’ In Kirkcaldy, Glenrothes and Largs, Scotland, Sturgeon arrived at rallies and didn’t deliver a stump speech or grab a microphone to sing the praises of the SNP. Hundreds of people showed up simply to see her walk by, shake hands and pose for selfies. And here is the crazy part . . . (Wait for it) She’s not currently running for anything. She’s not a candidate for parliament. She’s not even on the ballot. (Pause for effect)
Day 4: The Princess, The Politician and Participation
May 2, 2015 – London
A baby girl was born to Prince William and his wife Kate, the Duchess of Cambridge, this morning. Now, I traveled to the United Kingdom to cover the general elections and not to focus on royalty. But it is a kingdom, after all, and what are kings and queens but a different breed of politician, right? So I grabbed my cameras and headed for Buckingham Palace to see what a princess means to Britain. The Mall and Victoria Memorial was packed with thousands of people, crammed in like sardines in a can. At first I couldn’t actually believe that many people had turned out to welcome the new princess. I even called my colleague Dan Kitwood and asked if this was normal. He assured me that was a typical spring Saturday morning at Buckingham because of the Changing of the Guard ceremony, not the royal birth. He was right. The throng of people I saw was not made up of subjects to the crown but tourists. I maneuvered through the thousands and thousands of tourists to get close to the palace gates. I was looking for people waving the Union Jack and really getting excited about the birth. No such luck. When they did eventually post the birth announcement a massive line of folks organized and people could be heard asking in dozens of languages, ‘What is this line for? Why are we here?’ I left Victoria Memorial around 1:15pm having seen only four flags and one of them was being held by a 2-year-old. This was not participation by the citizens of the United Kingdom in something special. It was high tourism.
Next up was an afternoon rally with Labour Party leader Ed Miliband. This too was a cause for lines and the people queuing up here knew exactly why they were there. They had been invited to listen to Miliband fire up his troops because they were exactly that: his troops. There were no dissenting opinions in this crowd of loyalists. Like so many other American campaign rallies I have covered over the last 10 years, the political homogeny produced the expected results: placards were raised, flags waved and Miliband got a standing ovation.
The most interesting thing about the rally didn’t happen until the rally was over. As soon as the Labour leader left the hall people began to form one last line for a chance to stand at Miliband’s podium and have their photograph taken. Dozens of people of all ages, national origin, age, sexual orientation and economic status got an opportunity to pose at the podium of power and say, “Here I am, standing tall just like the leader.” Now that is a special kind of participation.
Day 3: Boris and Bennett | One Day, two very different politicians
May 1, 2015 — London
In the case of London Mayor and Conservative party candidate Boris Johnson and Green Party leader Natalie Bennett, there couldn’t be two less-similar people. Today’s assignments had me spend time with both of these politicians in short order, and the contrasts between them were stark.
Whether or not people voted for him in the past or agree with his politics, Mayor Boris Johnson is very popular. One of the first things I noticed about the man who is simply called “Boris” was that every Londoner recognizes his mop of wild blonde hair and immediately feels compelled to shout out his name. They holler for him from moving cars and bicycles or from opposite Tube platforms. He is always quick to acknowledge the cheers with a wave and never says no when asked to pose for a “selfie” — and there were dozens of them (sometimes two at once).
In front of the cameras he is equal parts confident and modest. Even with whispers in the air about his possible drive to someday become the prime minister, he never bragged, and spent the day introducing and singing the praises of his fellow Conservative party candidates Simon Marcus and Angie Bray.
Later in the day, after Boris had spent a full morning campaigning in shops, cafes, a mosque and a college, Labour Party candidate Rupa Huq appeared from nowhere and attempted to ambush Boris as he walked through Acton. Several local Conservative volunteers attempted to forcibly move and block her from engaging with the mayor, but Boris simply kept walking and talking with her, never appearing shaken or soured by Huq’s aggressive tone. After Huq had said her piece and left, he continued to campaign with a smile on his face, unshaken by the interaction: the picture of cool confidence.
Later in the day, I caught up with Natalie Bennett. Also a calm politician, she did lack the ruffled informality and confidence that seemed to ooze from Boris. And certainly no one sang out her name as she walked through Old Compton Street. On the day when the Green Party launched its LGBTIQ (Lesbian Bisexual Gay Transgender Intersex Questioning) Manifesto, one would think that an impromptu parade and street party might have materialized in the heart of London’s LGBT community. But no such luck. Sure, legendary human rights and gay activist Peter Tachell was on the scene, but he didn’t seem to draw a crowd either.
In the end, Bennett addressed a small gathering of die-hard supporters and journalists in Soho Square Park, and then did a couple of television interviews where one of the reporters’ questions was, “Why don’t people know who you are?”
So in a time and place where most people would probably agree with Bennett and her party’s political platform, they never showed it, and her event fell flat. At the same time, many people who might not land on the same side of the political spectrum as Boris still wanted to have their picture taken with him. In street-level politics, charisma counts and it certainly comes through in the images.
Day 2: Putting politicians in a box, one way or another
April 30, 2015 – Aylesbury
What can be said about Nigel Farage that hasn’t already been said? It’s easy to form opinions or prejudices about politicians from a distance. We simplify our perceptions and positions by attaching labels: Nationalist, extremist, right-wing, passionate, controversial, disloyal, discourteous, goofy, brave and honest are just a few of the words that have been used to put Farage into a convenient box. Naturally, when we photograph politicians we are also putting them into a box, a four-sided frame that includes information that can communicate a position, a moment and a feeling. When I photographed Farage in Aylesbury today it was clear to me that he is a natural campaigner. He is charismatic, clever and clearly enjoys meeting people face to face. As television journalists crowded and crushed toward Farage in Market Square, he was prevented from coming up for much air or moving too freely. Yet he still managed to pose for a few ‘selfies’ and shake hands with a few local people. I used this opportunity to turn the camera away from the candidate and look at the people who stood at the edge of the storm. By prying opening the edge of the frame, I hoped to find a few new words to define the candidate and his campaign. Was it successful? Only the pictures can tell.
Day 1: Leaving behind Baltimore (and the sting of tear gas) to arrive at 10 Downing Street
April 29, 2015 – London
Less than 8 hours before boarding my flights to London from United States to cover the 2015 UK General Election, I was standing in between a line of riot police and a violent group of protesters in west Baltimore, Maryland. Thousands of people had taken to the streets to clash with police after the funeral of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old black man who died while in police custody.
Now, as I was standing in line on the jet bridge at New York’s JFK airport, I could still feel the nagging burn of police pepper spray on the backs of my hands. I had been taking photographs as a group of protesters clashed with police and the mace began to fly. Because the camera was at my eye as the fiery mist rained on journalists and demonstrators alike, my face escaped the pepper while my exposed skin was coated. It was a strange feeling to carry this sting on my hands and neck as I coasted comfortably over the Atlantic and toward a different sort of chaos.
It is an important part of my job – of all photojournalists’ jobs — to absorb and adapt to strange and sometimes surreal circumstances in close sequence. One moment I feel I’m in mortal danger as rocks, bottles and tear gas canisters sail over my head. The next moment I’m standing across from 10 Downing Street, wondering who will next cast a shadow in that doorway and guide Great Britain into the future. Certainly disorienting, this feeling can also be a great inspiration and help give perspective and assign priority to formerly divergent subjects.
Over the next 13 days I’ll be reporting with photographs, and a few words, on the 2015 UK General Elections. With the experience of regularly covering the White House and US Congress, two United States presidential races and numerous other state and local elections, I hope to bring a fresh set of eyes to one of the oldest representative democracies in the world. Just as in Baltimore, the solution to political chaos of the coming weeks will not be solved without every person doing his or her part. I’m going to be doing my part and hope you follow along with me.
Explore Chip Somodevilla’s images from the UK Election trail on Getty Images
A United Kingdom Independence Party member wears a campaign ribbon while waiting for the arrival of UKIP party leader Nigel Farage in Aylesbury. @gettyimages #gettyimagesnews #GE2015 #DCview A photo posted by Chip Somodevilla (@somophoto) on