Sarah Palin returns to vote in Wasilla

A few weeks ago I was hired by Reuters to cover Republican Vice Presidential nominee Sarah Palin returning to her hometown to vote. It was an exciting prospect as I've wanted to push my photojournalism interest forward and cover more news. While Obama had been consistently up in the polls for weeks, no one knew for sure what would happen on election day and the media wasn't forgetting about Palin just yet. When I showed up at the Signature Flight Support building on the south side of Ted Stevens International Airport at 4am on that brisk, election day morning, I found enough press to fill 4 vans alone.

After some time waiting in the lounge sleepily cradling a cup of coffee and vaguely reading a Palin article in Newsweek as secret service secured the premises, the campaign jet arrived. I grabbed my gear and we were ushered out onto the snowy tarmac and told exactly where to stand (just off the left wing of the plane). It was a random shuffle of various news organizations' photogs, writers and videographers--all eagerly awaiting the opening of the plane door and the appearance of Palin's now iconic mug, flashing the smile and the inevitable wink. I noticed long-time Daily News photographer Bill Roth and writer Julia O' Malley in the scrum.

Then she appeared.

According to the clock in my camera that, along with the other cameras lined up beside me was clicking along at high speed, the appearance lasted 16 seconds or so from emergence at the top of the stairs to the conclusion of her stepping into an SUV. And thus concluded the first of many planned photo-ops that morning. "Did anyone see who she hugged?" I heard Julia say, as she faithfully twittered every happening to her eager Daily News audience (see her record of the morning here: http://twitter.com/adn_jomalley?page=5 ).

If you've never had a chance to ride in a motorcade, put it on your list. It was quite a thrill, snaking through the city streets at 5 in the morning as sleepy commuters rubbed their eyes in wonder. I'm sure they figured out pretty quickly what was happening. Sarah's become quite the local celebrity after all this national attention. We had a motorcade 11 or 12 vans and SUVs long, plus an escort of 4-6 cop cars. They served to make sure that as we passed on-ramps, no approaching vehicles got too close to the motorcade (just like in the movies)!

Our next stop was (great taste, Sarah) local coffee shop Kaladi Brothers Coffee in Wasilla. "Hurry up" we were told as we poured out of the press vans and into the shop to take a place facing the door, our gear swinging around our necks, banging against door frames in our earnestness to secure a good vantage point.

Here she is, showing the Anchorage Daily News the headline that day: "Board Exonerates Palin" to the media. "Nice headline," she says.

Before heading to Wasilla City Hall, where Palin was to vote, we swung by her house on Lake Lucille. The rest of us parked at the end of the street and watched the vehicle with her in it, the "war wagon" carrying armed secret service, and a few other vehicles snake through the woods to her house. We were told that, as the last van, we had better keep up with the motorcade. If we fell behind again, they said, we would fall out of "the bubble" and not be let back in.

There was a lot of quick acceleration and braking the rest of that day.

Eventually, Palin's SUV and the guards lined back up with the rest of the waiting motorcade and off we went to City Hall.

Essentially, this is the moment I was hired for...not much to it...just a vote behind a curtain and then she exits to a flurry of shutters opening and closing in rapid succession. She wouldn't say if she voted for Ted Stevens or not. I was hunkered down for 15 minutes in this spot by the voting booths next to a New York Times photographer Todd Heisler waiting for the few seconds I'd have to shoot her exit. Todd had flown in on the campaign jet, and had been with her for all the stops and then would get back on at the end...his only moments in Alaska lost in an eruption of commotion as we shuttled from dark, cold photo-op to photo-op.

After the vote we were shuttled outside to photograph Sarah, with husband Todd, speaking to the press. On the way, I saw this great little moment with a couple secret service gentlemen waiting behind at the motorcade.

Standing there in her "Governor of Alaska" brown Carhartt jacket, looking like a hockey mom, she exclaimed to the press "Forever I'm going to be Sarah from Alaska!"

I didn't see any winks, but we got the classic thumbs-up!

This woman almost caused me to get left in Wasilla.

Well, it wasn't her fault, really. But Sarah was back in her vehicle and I was headed to my van when I noticed this lady with her fur-lined hood, waving vigorously to the Vice President Nominee and it struck me as a great shot of an Alaskan supporter--complete with the hooded parka. So I was sidetracked for a minute shooting this woman as she greeted Sarah. By the time I got her name, I realized I'd delayed too long and was at risk of missing the van. The van wouldn't wait for me--it had to stay in the bubble. So if the van in front if it left, it would leave. I ran back, dove in with all my gear just in time, and we accelerated. Had I tarried a moment longer, I would've been left in the dark, cold beside City Hall looking to thumb a ride back to Anchorage.

Again a coffee stop.
Mocha Moose Espresso--a place Sarah apparently frequents as Governor of Alaska. "Palin Fever," a sign that's duplicated throughout Wasilla reads on the wall of the coffee hut. For any Outside readers, a factoid: Alaska has the most drive-through coffee huts per capita of any state. They're a common sight here. I mean, who wants to get out of their car anymore?

After the coffee, we're hurried back into the vans. Color began to show in the sky behind the Chugach Mountains as the motorcade headed out of town for the drive back to the Anchorage airport.

We pull off the highway earlier than I thought we would (still only on the east side of Anchorage) if we're supposed to be headed to the airport. The entire motorcade rolls into a Chevron station apparently owned by Sarah's brother and sister-in-law.

"Stills only!" our McCain/Palin press contact yelled to our vans--meaning, only still photographers can get out to document the moment--no video cameras or journalists. A couple from Nome who happens to be buying gas excitedly greeted the Palins and they chat it up for a minute, as the press hovered around outside and then inside for a few images. I brush up against Todd Palin and wonder how the secret service let me fall out of the media scrum without a harsh or reprimanding word.

Back at the Arizona-bound McCain/Palin campaign jet we were hustled out again under the left wing of the plane to photograph the Palins' departure. It is an interesting moment because, unbeknownst to us, Sarah Palin will return about 24 hours later on the same jet not as McCain's running mate--the potential Vice President of the United States, but merely as Governor of Alaska.

The media that was traveling with the Palins boarded the plane in their less-than-prepared winter garb and the wind blew colder as the craft was defrosted before heading to a warmer clime.

It must have been about 10 am when I head home to edit and file images for Reuters, whose Singapore office is already waking up to a new day and demanding images of Palin voting. I'm left with the buzz of a new experience...documenting a moment in the campaign for high office. There's something awfully exciting about making images under such pressure--I'll look forward to the opportunity when it comes around again.

By the end of the day, we've heard about Barack Obama's historic victory and, shortly thereafter, I can't help myself--I nab a cheap airfare ticket to DC for a special day in January, excited to document a piece of history in any way that I can.

Stay tuned in January for a post about that adventure.


  1. that's amazing natty, congratulations on that assignment with reuters! that's huge.

  2. Sweet. Thanks for the back story! I just got my camera from your folks and found the missing footage of our Denali Highway drive! Stay tuned, youtube fans!
    Off Yonder YouTube!