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Currents: recalling the 2008 conventions

Unconventional Convention Coverage

Story and Photos by David Reed

I have been working as an independent photojournalist since the late 1980s. In 1990, I moved to Europe, where I covered Eastern Europe in the wake of the fall of the Berlin Wall, from German reunification to the breakup of the Soviet Union. When I came back to live in the U.S. and began graduate school, I started covering what passed for news at the time — the exploits of Monica Lewinsky, the O.J. Simpson and Unabomber trials, and the controversy over Elian Gonzalez, the Cuban boy whose mother died while trying to reach the U.S.

It turned out that getting the main story was harder than it looked. For example, while other journalists sat vigil in front of Elian Gonzalez's house, I was starving, and went to find something to eat. My timing turned out to be pretty bad, and I missed the big INS raid (a better-fed photographer took a Pulitzer prize-winning photo) so I ended up focusing on the aftermath.

Now, most of my documentation is of the media itself, or of mundane details that don't turn up in typical news stories. This is a more realistic way of portraying things, since the “unseen” details comprise the majority of people's actual experience there.

I have been to five national conventions, and this year I covered both the Democratic and Republican Conventions for Jungle World, a newspaper in Berlin, Germany. Even if the two conventions had similar purposes, they looked and felt very different.

The Democrats went with a blue palette, and their convention seemed to be a celebration of those sometimes less visible, with attendees representing the incredible diversity of this country. There were quite a few outrageous costumes (someone told me it's the only way to get your picture in the paper), and the delegates seemed like ordinary people.

The Republicans, and even the journalists covering the Republicans, were better-dressed for the red carpet event. Given my wardrobe limitations, I felt more comfortable with the Democrats; I was treated respectfully at the Republican convention, but I felt like I was crashing the party. The cowboy-hat-wearing Texas delegation seemed like it dominated the convention floor.

The Democratic Convention began with lots of excitement over Obama, whereas with a hurricane bearing down on the Gulf Coast, the Republican Convention opened to a more studied, subdued atmosphere. The staging for both events was effective, accentuating each party's strengths. The Democratic Convention made use of higher production values, culminating in the incredible spectacle at the Mile-High Stadium in Denver.

You usually see sports teams playing in a stadium, so it was amazing to see so many people focused on one person talking. Some Republicans made fun of the staging, but the Democrats were clearly offering an assist to anyone who might have been having trouble imagining Obama looking “presidential.” After the event, security shooed most of the journalists away, but I managed to stay into the wee hours and documented the transition between a neo-Greek stage and neo-Greek ruins.

The Republicans, in keeping with their theme, went with a more plain-looking stage and a brightly lit hall, communicating a “we may not be fancy, but we get the job done” atmosphere.

After being around so many famous people at various news events, I decided try my luck on the other side of the camera, and had my picture taken with various attendees of the two conventions, from Newt Gingrich and Miss Texas to (New Orleans) Mayor Ray Nagin and Cindy Lauper. I also overheard various snippets of conversations, from the word on the street about the hippest parties, to speculation on the comparative clothing choices of Republicans and Democrats. A friendly woman from Alaska gave me an “I'm the NRA” patch, and I took it home, along with a souvenir from Obama's neo-Greek stage and Elephant-shaped macaroni and cheese (the Democrats had run out of donkeys by the time I arrived).

Unfortunately, I missed what might have been the highlight of both conventions: Sarah Palin's acceptance speech. The various sponsors made sure attendees were well-fed, but I had to get back to my day job.

See additional convention photos by David Reed.

David Reed is an assistant professor of Humanities at Colby-Sawyer College.