The photo above was taken at a 2015 town hall in Rochester, N.H., back when Donald Trump was just a front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination.
It shows a moment after a supporter at the event incorrectly asserted that President Barack Obama was Muslim, a simple falsehood that Trump declined to correct. This instance, in which indignant sensationalism (the questioner described Muslims as a “problem in this country”) overshadowed the truth, captured the interest of a photographer in the audience, Mark Peterson.
It turned out to be one among many particularly bizarre political moments that Peterson documented throughout the recent years. Peterson began by photographing a Tea Party rally in September of 2013. But when he reviewed the photos he had taken, he was dissatisfied with how real they looked, considering the fact that the event was so heavily mediated and manufactured. He resolved to take more truthful images by capturing the fabrication embedded within these scenes.
Of course, politics only got stranger from there, especially once a former reality television star entered the presidential race. Petersen archived the most dramatic and absurd moments leading up to the election of Donald Trump in his photography book, Political Theater. There he chronicled the rallies, protests, speeches and other political happenings that led up to Nov. 8, many of which defied Americans’ expectations of what a political campaign is and should be.
Through Peterson’s cinematic lens, politicians morph into vaudevillian performers, their constituents raving fans. The images deliberately break from the impartial and deferential style of photojournalists, opting instead to highlight intensity, absurdity and artifice wherever they appear.
Sometimes Peterson shifts focus from the politician to the crazed crowd, or settles on the many technical gizmos and gadgets that make a political event run smoothly. It’s these details that defy the politicians’ smooth delivery, the myth that politics is anything other than a massive show.
“I’d shoot pictures with my DSLR, but then I’d put them into my cellphone, and I’d use every 99¢ app I have to just destroy them,” he explained to Time. “I’ve always adhered to some of the tenets of photojournalism, but it kind of changed for me. What are these rules? I’m not manipulating images, but maybe I’m manipulating tones and making it dramatic.”
Rather than aligning himself with the Left or with the Right, Peterson opts to highlight the performative nature of the political sport overall, highlighting its dramatized gestures, practiced facial expressions and routine choreography, capturing the rare moments when such highly rehearsed productions break down.
“I’m not criticizing anybody,” Peterson continued. “But the other pictures are the pictures the campaign wants you to take. Everything is designed for that one perfect shining light on that candidate and there’s enough of those pictures being taken.”
For many, the images recalling this past year’s ongoing “Political Theater” are still too raw. And yet, in all their stylization and hyperbole, they truly expose the strange aftertaste of an election that might not yet seem quite real.