Only 90 minutes after speaking to an audience at the Newseum, the Associated Press’s Charles Dharapak caught a flight from Washington to Boston on Saturday afternoon. It was just another day in the life of the White House News Photographers Association’s 2012 photographer of the year.
Dharapak flew to Beantown to reconvene with the Romney campaign after taking a few days from the trail to help christen the inaugural “The Eyes of History” exhibit, largely honoring his award-winning portfolio. He stood out among the 1,800 photographs submitted. The exhibit houses the work of WHNPA members awarded in 2012's contest. In the Newseum's Knight Studio, Dharapak squeezed in enough time to cheerfully answer questions from a crowd of 120 interested in the life of a visual documenter of political discourse.
Having traveled with Romney through the New Hampshire, Iowa, Florida, and South Carolina Republican primaries, Dharapak has been embedded in the campaign since June. Within only 37 days until the election, Dharapak—who covered the 2004 and 2008 presidential campaigns—sees clear differences in this campaign from the past.
“By this time four years ago he [Obama] was addressing rallies of 10,000, 15,000, 20,000 people. We are not getting those types of crowds in this election cycle,” Dharapak says.
Dharapak believes that voters have long decided where their support is going and that the electorate is defined by polarization. “I like to say that I’m approaching my work with an open mind, but I think the consumers seem to have already made up their mind and they want to reinforce their beliefs,” he says.
The AP correspondent and his colleagues in the protective pools of Obama and Romney have shifted somewhat from vying for the front pages of The New York Times, International Herald Tribune, and double truck photo spreads in Newsweek, to looking forward to influencing the discourse among cable news shows, syndicated columnists, and Twitter. For Dharapak a picture can "transcend the printed media" and become a talking point. That's the new objective. Dharpak's photograph of Mitt and Ann Romney on a Jet Ski while at their New Hampshire vacation home in a July was the focus of a Wall Street Journal column that helped to change the discussion—if only for one news cycle.
The wire feed of Dharapak’s Instagram proves the election is the most polarized among supporters. The constant flow of images uploaded daily reveals the loathing or love for candidates. “OK, you hate Romney, but don’t you think this is a clever little Instagram picture?," Dharapak laughingly reveals.
In this political cycle, he fears that the allegiances to one candidate may cloud how viewers digest imagery, both on the Instagram “wire” and on the broadsheets of our national newspapers. “Traditionally we try to open a window to the insight about a certain candidate. Some of the pictures are there, but they are passing over people’s heads.”
Dharapak’s image of Michelle Obama shopping at a Target store in September 2011 is a principal example of how the viewers are perceiving his work—with two strong opinions.
One group joked about how they never could have spotted the first lady among the clothing racks, while the other claimed the trip to Target was a gimmick to make up for her wearing expensive jewelry only a few nights before.
With polarization stronger then ever, he says that this season photographs are bringing groups uninterested in politics into the arena via Instagram. This election cycle, Associated Press correspondents, including colleagues Evan Vucci and Carolyn Kaster, are placing the hashtag "aponthetrail" on all their posts. “We are using an instrument that has limitations to share these little vignettes and insights into being on the road with the general public, people who wouldn’t necessarily be paying attention to this stuff anyway,” Dharapak says.
For a photojournalist deeply invested in the regimen of the protective pool duty, he has also found Instagram to be cathartic to alleviating the customs of the trail. From his Instagram series on hotel carpets and laundry rooms, it offers something different for him to photograph, while his audience gets an inside look to the trail. “It is funny, I am carrying $20,000 worth of gear, but I whip out my iPhone to take a picture of an arrow on the ground.”
And it isn’t just his photographs on social media sites that bring audiences closer to the trail. He notices the hoard of reporters using their camera phones while he is using his professional gear photographing Romney debarking the campaign plane. “I get back to the laptop in the van as we are motorcading to wherever we are going and I am filing these pictures, and I realize all these campaign reporters already have their pictures up on Instagram.” To him, Instagram has become the “hyper wire.”
The day after "The Eyes of History” exhibit opened, the Newseum opened its doors, free to the public. “They are experiencing the best work from the best photographers, in my opinion, in the world,” said Ron Sachs, president of the 91-year-old White House News Photographers Association.
The 2012 Photographer of the Year was taken aback when he walked into the exhibit for the first time and saw an interview he had done for the Newseum on a loop, along with other award winners Nikki Kahn, of The Washington Post, and Andrew Harnik, of The Washington Times, on a Jumbotron at the entrance of "The Eyes of History."
For Dharapak, who does not typically concern himself with contests, the WHNPA photo contest is a way to find consistency with his work through editing. Wire photographers are often drawn to irregular subjects that rarely allow for long-term projects. The White House beat may focus on the presidency, but many subjects are found within. “What we do at the end of the year can feel a bit disjointed,” he says, “That’s why I feel lucky to have been assigned to Romney, because at least I have this thread that goes through this year.”