Shooting Teabaggers: Impressions From Behind a Camera

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I spent tax day with anti-tax protesters at the Minnesota State Capitol in St. Paul. It was my first attempt at covering an event like that, so I arranged to meet up with my friend Lanny Linehan, a more experienced documentary photographer (see Linehan’s work at his Flickr page).

On my way to meet Lanny, I wandered through the vending area. I was drawn to a table with a sign that read “Sign up here to win a framed American flag signed by Michele Bachmann.” I asked if I could take a photo of the sign. One of the two guys at the table asked me which “side” I was on. I said I was on my side. He challenged me again, suspicious of my stance. I said something about nothing being black and white and he showed me the gun tucked into his pants. “Why don’t you take a picture of this?” he asked. “Sure, I’d love to,” I said, “why don’t you sit by the sign.” That wasn’t the answer he expected. “You better do it, you offered,” said his friend, laughing. So he posed for me–my first photo of the day.

Next I found a vendor selling “organic freeze-dried food” meal packs that last three years–you know, just in case. Their “sample girls” were more than happy to pose for a photo. There were free samples, but no thanks. When I found Lanny, he recommended I try to “blend in.” He had attended the same anti-tax rally last year and said it was a very hostile environment.

The speeches from the podium were predictable: Palin-esque dogma about the intentions of the founding fathers, the harm done by taxes, and government robbing us of our freedoms. At one point, two performers tried to stir some energy in the crowd, shouting: “Nancy Pelosi, we’re coming for you… (cheers)… to put you in jail!” Images of Ronald Reagan and “Don’t Tread on Me” flags were the dominant visual motifs.

From time to time, a speaker would poll the audience by asking direct questions like “Clap your hands if you voted Republican last election,” which was clearly the correct answer. Mention of a liberal or Democrat guaranteed boos. Mentions of Ron Paul were met with a smattering of applause. At these moments I acted busy and kept moving. On several occasions, speakers said things like “I’m pretty sure there are some liberals here!”

Surprisingly, the energy peaked when a speaker spoke out against racism. The speaker’s insistence that there was no room for intolerance in the Tea Party brought hearty (and, I believe, sincere) cheers from people in the crowd.

But mostly, the crowd just stood around enjoying the lovely spring weather–sometimes listening to the speakers, sometimes talking amongst themselves, and on more than a few occasions, glaring at photographers.

I can’t count the number of people who I caught photographing and taking video footage of me. Lanny said the same happened to him. What do they do with that footage? Mutual suspicion, I suppose. Only a few people allowed me to take their photo when I asked. Most people clearly did not want to be photographed and some even turned their signs away from my lens.

This is a group that feels it’s been unfairly portrayed in the media, and I can’t say they are wrong. They attract “fringy” people and that’s who gets photographed. Photographers are drawn to people like this because they’re interesting. My photos are no different. Of course, this is true of all protesters, no matter their political persuasion.

Related:Slideshow: Tax Day Tea Party Rally in St. Paul

All photos by Stephanie Glaros

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