Arun Chaudhary has often worked in the shadows. The New York University-trained filmmaker was the first official White House videographer in history under President Barack Obama. Now, along with a team of four filmmakers, who are also rotating as still photographers, he has taken on the roles of creative director and official photographer on Bernie Sanders’ campaign.
In an interview with TIME’s international photo editor, Alice Gabriner (who was a colleague of his at the White House photo office), Chaudhary discusses how he approaches, through his pictures, Sanders’ history-making run for the nomination and how he uses photography to make people believe in the Senator’s candidacy.
Alice Gabriner: What’s your approach when photographing Bernie Sanders?
Arun Chaudhary: This is 2016 and this is the selfie election. As many photos as I take of Bernie Sanders, millennials in the rope line are taking thousands more. And everywhere you go, there are so many photographs. The iPhone 6 is a remarkable piece of technology. The photographs are great. I think it has really empowered ordinary folks to take pictures that they think look professional. And I’m not disputing that. They are in focus, they are nicely color saturated, they are sort of generally flat, like you can really see what’s going on. But against that backdrop, we need to make photos that are telling a different story than that.
While we’re shooting, we shoot directly into lights to get lens flare, we don’t mind having digital noise if it’s dark. We even put things out that are a little out of focus from time to time. And I think all of this helps differentiate what our work is.
Alice Gabriner: Are you saying that’s intentional? Or is it just that you want it to look raw and a little bit amateur?
Arun Chaudhary: It’s very intentional. Gritty is the new glossy. I don’t know that I want to say amateur, I just want to say non-slick. And the technical reason is that it makes it pop more against all that other stuff.
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We’re living in an age of increasing distrust of authority. And I think when you see political media that is slick, that is perfect, that feels anonymous, and you don’t know what the point of view is or where it’s coming from, it can be very off-putting for people.
Alice Gabriner: Well you talk about that, you say that emotion is key. So how does that play out in the way you’re taking pictures?
Arun Chaudhary: The most important thing, especially in the beginning of this movement, was to manifest the idea of Bernie Sanders as president in peoples’ minds.
We had a man with an amazing message who has been doggedly devoted to that message for 30 or 40 years. But the question was: Can people imagine him as president? What I’m trying to do is show people what it would look like if he was president by showing the behind the scenes on the trail, by showing a man writing on his pad. Not the screaming crowds. Being president is not a very glamorous job – it’s eating a lot of turkey sandwiches in a lot of cold rooms, just going into a lot of freight elevators and loading docks, and to show Bernie Sanders going through that process is interesting.
I think we have time and time again gone back to those images just to allow America to see Bernie Sanders as their president. And then to be able to make that choice: do they support his issues.
Alice Gabriner: So was this something that you discussed in a meeting? Or was this just in your own mind?
Arun Chaudhary: This was in my own mind.
Alice Gabriner: But do you think that those scenes end up becoming clichés?
Arun Chaudhary: There’s a danger of that happening. I don’t think we’re there yet though. I don’t think that our election or government processes are so transparent yet that actually seeing images of them has become routine.
Alice Gabriner: Is Bernie Sanders comfortable with photographers working behind-the-scenes?
Arun Chaudhary: I’m pretty positive there are more backstage photos of Bernie Sanders from this election than from any other candidate. In fact when talking to Barbara Kinney [Hillary Clinton’s official photographer] at a debate she expressed some admiration for our campaigns willingness to release backstage moments. That being said in comparison to Barack Obama, Bernie has a much smaller bubble, so there’s very little gray area between when he’s in public and when he’s in private.
Alice Gabriner: How is it different photographing Bernie Sanders from Obama?
Arun Chaudhary: Obama has the perfect temperament to be president, in that he’s just sort of very cool and collected and doesn’t let things get to him.
He’s also a great person to photograph. He knows everyone has a job to do and they’re going to get it done. Bernie Sanders has been in politics for 40 years, so obviously he certainly knows his way around cameras and photographers. Bernie was actually interested in documentary filmmaking when he was in Vermont in the 70s. He is always curious as to lenses and microphones that we are using. But it takes 10 photos before he’s like, “Alright, I think one of those probably worked.”
Alice Gabriner: Do you feel like the behind the scenes photographs can humanize anybody?
Arun Chaudhary: It will work for anyone as long as the subject is engaging in some kind of truthful moment. I think if Bernie and I plotted to have him look thoughtfully out the window of a bus, it would read as false to people.
We bring our sense of narrative to our photographs the same way we would if we were making a documentary. What’s being said is just as important, even if the audience isn’t hearing it while looking at that photo. So I think it works for people who know themselves.
You know talking about videography, and not just photographs, Anthony Weiner invited this camera crew to follow him around to show his comeback and to really bare his soul. Except he didn’t really bare his soul. He still sort of held back.
And so what ends up in the pictures, what ends up on screen is sort of a person hedging his bets and being kind of very uncomfortable, rather than this sort of honest confessional reckoning.
Alice Gabriner: Why did you choose still photography over video in this climate?
Arun Chaudhary: Very specifically I thought the photos were going to be the first, fastest and most interesting way to manifest the idea of Bernie Sanders as the president in the mind of the American people.
I thought that was going to be the absolute most important thing that I could add to this movement, to this campaign. And so I was very, very eager to jump behind the still cameras, to really grab that by the horns.
With video, I immediately knew that we would always get Bernie Sanders being Bernie Sanders.
Alice Gabriner: Do you feel that you are a propagandist?
Arun Chaudhary: I don’t. And I understand why some folks might say so. And I’m always saying, like pornography, propaganda is a word that starts with the letter P that nobody knows what it is until they see it.
But I have an axiom that I live by that answers this question very thoroughly, which is that to make extraordinary things mundane is to inform people. But to take something that’s mundane and make it extraordinary, is to be making propaganda.
In fact I think my favorite example of someone making the mundane extraordinary in a propagandistic way would be Donald Trump coming down the escalator for his announcement speech. A man coming down escalator is a very mundane act, and yet you’d think he was descending from heaven. And I think that did sort of ring false to people.
Alice Gabriner: You said with Obama that you were suited to work for him because of your personality. Do you think that’s true with Bernie too?
Arun Chaudhary: I think that’s true. I think Barack Obama and I definitely had a bond over humor, over a similar kind of way of perceiving the world. And I think that was very instrumental in us getting along.
Bernie Sanders, it may be less personality based and more we are in some ways cut from similar cloth. I am an independent Jewish Socialist. And so I think it’s hard to shave that out of this equation. I feel very much suited for this candidacy. Could you throw me in with just any old person? Could I have been Ted Cruz’s photographer? I don’t think so.
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