I was on the lookout the entire time I drove a couple of thousand (!) miles on three trips to Central and Western Pennsylvania in the past month, photographing for this weekend’s story by Jonathan Tamari, The Inquirer’s national political reporter on The Divided States of Pennsylvania.
What was I searching for? Something that has historically been a problem visually for publications doing these kinds of stories. There is always a need for a single image that fairly and evenly conveys both sides of an issue or two political candidates. Historically the dilemma is solved by combining two separate pictures, a fortunate juxtaposition in a single photo, a neutral sign or scene … or often, by a drawing or some sort of artistic illustration.
The divided Pennsylvania that Tamari writes about is separated into geographic clusters — liberals in cities and suburbs, conservatives in rural areas and small towns — that seem entirely distinct. So how to show all that in a single photo?
The commonwealth has been called the most likely “tipping point” in this election. In 2016, President Trump won Pennsylvania by less than 1 % of the more than six million votes cast. So even a small change could alter the outcome, which is why both parties see it as important among the core battlegrounds: Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, Florida, Arizona, and North Carolina.
I saw plenty of wonderful scenes — in the mountains, in farm fields, next to old barns, in quaint downtowns, and on suburban lawns — with either a Trump or Biden sign. But never both. And it wasn’t for my lack of looking.
Then, on deadline, on the very day the online presentation and the newspaper version were being designed and finished up, I finally found one. It was while editing photos made for us by freelance photographer Robert Frank in the rural downtown of Union City, about a half hour from his home in Erie, at the far northwest corner of Pennsylvania, in an area Tamari called “closer to Cleveland and Buffalo than Pittsburgh.”
He had a photo of the local headquarters of both the Republican and Democratic parties with only a storefront between them.
But the editors wanted a photo with people in it. So I went back into all the photos and resurfaced two images I had offered earlier in the process — the one of the tractor at the top of this column, and another that eventually was decided to be “that” single photo.
The tractor photo might have worked - if it could have run without a caption, so it would have just looked like a typical rural American scene. But we would have had to say that the driver was a Trump supporter taking his 1949 Ford tractor back home after attending a protest along the route of a Joe Biden motorcade.
That photo was also from Biden’s visit to the Gettysburg battlefields. His supporters and those of the president were on opposite sides of the street downtown in response to rumors the motorcade would pass through on his way to the airport after his speech. That didn’t happen, but after hours shouting and waving flags at passing motorists, as the crowds started to leave, two moms from opposite sides started talking to each other. Their respectful conversation lasted long enough for me to take their picture.
Many of my other photographs can be seen with the stories at the links above, or in the gallery:
Since 1998, a black-and-white photo has appeared every Monday in staff photographer Tom Gralish’s photo column in The Inquirer’s local news section. Here are the most recent, in color: