How I got myself to meet Hillary Clinton.

It is a cold February winter day in 2008. I am a graduating art student working an internship for James Nachtwey, one of my great examples in photography, in New York City. Because of my interest in politics I wanted to capture a campaign rally for the presidential primaries between Obama and Hillary Clinton.

I found out there was a Town Hall meeting scheduled for that night called Hillary’s Voices Across America: A National Town Hall which was to be broadcasted live on the Hallmark channel. This peeked my interest. Not knowing the concept of a Town Hall I naively pictured masses of people rooting for her holding signs and shouting her name ecstatically. In my mind, this would make some great photographs.

However, once I arrived at the TV studio complex my hope quickly diminished. There was no such thing going on, just a long queue of people patiently waiting to be allowed inside. By talking to these people I quickly learned that they were cherry picked, invited and screened months prior to what was intended to be a closed event. The serious amount of security personnel around the building and and back entrance added to that.

The endeavour to talk to them was not very fruitful nor entertaining. The most uttered sentence was some form of; “This is a closed event, please move along sir” followed by a pointing finger towards the end of the block. When I circled around a bit in the hope to at least get a glimpse of Hillary I received a lot of stern stares from her security detail that finally made me give up and leave.

On passing the entrance the line had dissolved and most people were inside, except for one man making a big scene. He was claiming to be invited and vetted but he was not allowed inside because he forgot his invitation letter. Because of the fuss he was causing and the aggravated stares of my new best friends — Hillary’s security detail — I was interested to find out what would happen and joined in next to the man. After a few seconds the doorman told him to hold there while he verified the man’s claims and closed the door.

The man noticed me and started to explain what was going on and how much he had been looking forward to this evening. He even bought a new suit for the occasion. Some 5 minutes later the door opened up and the doorman told the man his story checked out and he was ok to come in. He eyed me and asked:

“And what about you?” on which I instinctively blurted out “Yes, same goes for me”.

I tried to put on a determined face, imitating the expression of the other guy. Probably the guard decided he did not want to go through it all again, because the only response he gave me was:

“Allright come in quickly, we’re about to start”.

Suddenly I found myself inside and was quite surprised to learn that my backpack was not really inspected just glanced at, while it contained quite a sum of camera equipement. But of course I was vetted and screened so I could not be a threat…

Two minutes later we were all called into another room where a team of campaign workers assigned us all seats based on sex/age/ethnicity and so on to make it as obvious as possible that all layers of society rooted for her. I landed a front row seat which put me within touching distance of Hillary and got me quite some airtime throughout 3 hour show. The people sitting next to me were very nice and truly devoted fans. They were also quite impressed that I, as a non US citizen, was invited as well.

After the show finished Hillary remained on stage and I could not suppress the urge to seize the opportunity to shake her hand and bless her with some fine Dutch greetings and support. I told her the Dutch people were standing behind her and her campaign and hoped she would win the primaries. This surprised her and caused an awkward smile.

Unfortunately the lady whom I handed my camera lacked skill in getting the focus right, but the photograph is very dear to me and a great memory to a fun night of social engineering.

Looking back at that evening there are a few things to conclude:

  1. People want to be helpful or are not comfortable with awkward situations and try to avoid it. An acceptable story and/or looking like you belong somewhere might be enough to have them let you in.
  2. I say it again, people are often fairly easy to manipulate, by far the biggest vulnerability. Take that into account.
  3. Even the best security detail is not perfect. Yes, I probably got lucky but still… I could have had bad intentions instead of innocent curiosity.
  4. I could have easily been less fortunate and not get in, or maybe even arrested when discovered.
  5. (Maybe) Trust but verify, never assume someone is who he tells you to be. They should have at least checked my invitation status, ID, my bag and frisked me.