Photographing a candidate for the first time at a political rally can be a challenging place to make a photo. “I was just a little nervous about it because it’s the first time I’ve ever really done it,” says Landon Nordeman, a photographer who’s been documenting the in-between moments of American spectacles both high and low for years. He can often be found on his popular Instagram feed shooting dog shows, fashion week and sporting events around the globe but the tightly managed world of American politics was slightly intimidating to him when introduced to presidential candidate and TIME Person of the year Runner Up, Donald Trump’s secret service detail in Sarasota, Fla., on Nov. 28 at a campaign rally.
Photographers are often walked through the staging and confined to press areas with limited access. In these situations one had to be creative and quick. “I’m looking for color and I’m looking for symbols,” says Nordeman, “I’m looking for something that to me is funny or displays a little bit of a sense of humor.”
“When I first showed up and I saw the elephant, I just immediately gravitated towards that,” he adds. “Written on the side of the elephant it said, ‘Trump, make America great again.’ So I just felt like alright, so this is my first picture. Everyone’s looking at the elephant. Everyone loves the elephant! And then if you just turn around for a second and look at the crowd, that is also its own interesting thing to look at.”
“I love it when people are willing to show their personality or their opinions outwardly,” says Nordeman. As an editorial photographer Nordeman is often hired to work on assignments where he disappears into groups of people gathering through a lens that tends to capture the kinetic energy of our culture. “I love to be in the midst of a group of people who are celebrating something,” says Nordeman. “What I love is people, and this idea of performance and spectacle. And so in order to get as close to that as possible, I find a way in. And maybe finding that way in for me is through the camera.”
Whether it’s Donald Trump’s rally, Fashion Week or a dog show, Nordeman hits everything with a hard flash, which acts like an equalizer and presents all his subjects in a consistently heightened and surreal way.
“I appreciate both the big spectacles and the quieter gestures that are just as telling like the picture of Trump from behind where he’s writing on the wall (slide 15) and you can’t quite tell what he’s doing,” Nordeman says. “It’s like you have this poem of what happened as opposed to this statement about what happened.”
When Trump was about to board his helicopter, Nordeman had his last chance to make a portrait and was caught off guard by his magnetic presence. “He wants to shake hands,” says Nordeman and gives this “we did this together kind of feeling. [And] he said to me, ‘You’ve got to tell them.’ And I didn’t really say like, ‘Tell them what?’ I just said, ‘I will, I will.’”
Paul Moakley is TIME’s Deputy Director of Photography. Follow him on Twitter @paulmoakley.