On Assignment: Photographing UCP leader Jason Kenney on Election Night for Maclean’s Magazine
On Thursday April 11th I get a text from Liz Sullivan, the Director of Photography at Maclean’s, asking me if I’d be interested in covering election night in Alberta. The election was the following Tuesday. My response “Totally” with four exclamation marks. I love covering politics especially big elections. And being an Albertan ex-pat I had been watching the heated exchanges between the Notley’s NDP and Kenney’s UCP. So I send a quick expense quote and get a good-to-go the next day.
On Monday, I have a quick call with Liz to go over logistics and plan the coverage. It’s a pretty detailed call going over what Maclean’s is looking for in terms of art direction. We also talk about uploading for social media throughout the evening. I have to say I love working with Liz. She always has a clear vision about what kind of photography is needed for the magazine. But she’s also open to suggestions and understands things can change once on the ground. We talk about how the story will likely play out and where we think the best angles might be. But basically we want something unique - which will be difficult considering I’d be photographing against a dozen or so other photographers trying to do the same thing. Go where they’re not. Risky.
My plane lands around noon on the Tuesday and I head to the UCP HQ to scout the location. I tape off a spot on a riser in the back across from the stage. Spots for CP, Reuters, Postmedia and Bloomberg are all beside me. A clear angle for the celebration shot. But we would all have the same shot.
I meet Jeff Mcintosh who strings for CP and is a top notch shooter. We talk a bit and catch up. I’ve always respected him and it was great seeing him. I would later see Chris Bolin shooting for Bloomberg, Chris Wattie from Reuters who had flown in from Ottawa, and Al Charest from Postmedia. Some heavy hitters in news photography in Canada and some of the best photographers I know. I also learn that my friend John Lehman was called in at the last second to shoot for the UCP and would be flying in that evening. And of course there were several other photographers shooting for other outlets.
I head out to see what’s going on at polling stations and drive by the NDP’s Joe Ceci’s office and Jason Kenney’s. I know I probably won’t get a chance to eat later so I grab some fast food and quickly check-in at my hotel. Eat when you can. Then I head back to the UCP HQ.
I set up my work station at a nearby media table. My colleague Jason Markusoff has kindly reserved a great spot for us. I decide to use a Nikon z6 and a 50mm lens as my walk-around kit. (Thanks Nikon and Beau Photo for the loaner). It’s around 4:30pm so there’s still over three hours till polls close. At this point I’m looking for photos that might show some of the personalities behind the scenes and hints about what to expect later. I’m looking for ways to pace out the next stage of events for social. I know no one is actually waiting in anticipation on my Twitter feeds but it actually helps me keep motivated and looking for story elements.
The magazine is looking for maybe two or three photos. And usually it’s either the celebration or crying shot (I doubt any veteran politician would cry). But like other photographers I’m hoping that I will get more real estate in the spreads. And I know they can always use filers for future stories. In truth I love immersing myself in the environment and the camera lets me get close. (Typical introvert).
We all expected a long night but we were wrong. The results come in and riding wins are declared fast. The UCP candidates are quickly declared elected. And the cheers rush through the crowd. At this point we hear rumours that Jason Kenney will be rolling in with his famous blue Dodge Ram pick-up truck. One reporter wrote (after the election), “If Jason Kenney’s truck could run in an Alberta election, it just might win.” At 9:40 I get a text from the photo editor saying that Rachel Notley will be making her concession speech shortly. I grab the Nikon z6 with a 24-70 and flash, and my D810 with a 70-200mm. No more time for artsy lenses.
So I head towards where I think I’ll get the best angle for Mr Kenney’s big entrance. It’s a long room, probably 100 metres from the garage door to the stage. People are lined up along the path and are asked to stand behind a taped line. There are three TV cameras beside me and maybe three or four photographers grouping around us now. The UCP organizers try to keep people clear of the path. I made sure to get some names earlier in the night which made it possible to chat with them. I hope that’s enough to avoid getting asked out of the path. A quick glance around and I don’t see the wire photographers. Which always worries me.
Then the music starts up and the garage door opens. There’s the blue truck. And of course the crowd crosses the tape to get a better look. Which blocks my line of sight. So I run.
At a certain point the crowd will push you under and you get stuck behind the action. It’s like a wave crashing down and collapsing if you don’t stay just slightly ahead of it. My mistake. So I try to rush forward but then run into another crowd. I somehow get around the next stop where the media is waiting.
With so much going on the crowd started getting pretty excited. And so did the media. Elbows out. Next thing I know I’m down on the ground after being pushed and knocked down. I get lucky and a sheriff (part of Mr Kenney’s security detail) makes room above me which gives me space to get up. I check my gear, everything is good. Now I’m chasing again.
I see the Premier designate take the stage and I get some photos quickly. The crowd has settled into a semi-circle around the stage. I take some more photos as he dives into a long speech. Nothing changes for the moment so I take to sending off a couple of photos to Maclean’s. I do this remotely from my camera to my phone. Tone the two images, caption, rename the files, and upload.
As Jason Kenney starts to wrap up I start positioning myself for the dropping of the balloons and confetti. Again none of the wire photographers are around me. They’ve taken up positions on risers in the back facing the stage. They will have a great clear angle of the celebrations. I consider moving. But heck, if I stay put I won’t have that great shot but at least it won’t be the same shot. I’m sure Andy would stay. (Andy Clark is a retired veteran shooter that many of us still look up to).
I get lucky. The streamers suddenly fire and the Premier designate is startled just as I pull the trigger. It’s something unique.