Congratulations are in order for WGBH’s Director of Photography Meredith Nierman, who recently earned a Boston Press Photographers Association Pictures of the Year Honorable Mention in the Politics category. The award recognizes her photograph of Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley from last summer, who unseated veteran Representative Michael Capuano and became the first woman of color to represent Massachusetts in Congress. We sat down with Nierman to learn more about her award-winning photo and what it was like documenting Pressley’s historic campaign.
“Photojournalists are generally very restricted when covering campaigns and politics, meaning we’re limited in terms of when and from where we can photograph,” Nierman said. “As a result, it can hard to capture something different and unique. Sometimes the best photos come from photographing just before or just after the expected moment.”
The image that garnered her Honorable Mention was part of Nierman’s behind-the-scenes photo essay for WGBH News, for which she embedded with Pressley for a day on the campaign trail with exclusive and nearly unlimited access, just four days ahead of Pressley’s surprise primary win over Capuano on Sept. 4, 2018.
During this final stretch of the campaign, Pressley was still considered an underdog and was regularly working jam-packed 14-hour days through the hottest months of the summer. On this particular day, Nierman documented Pressley making campaign stops all over the city, canvassing the streets, conducting media interviews, meeting with arts leaders and campaign canvassers, and pausing to celebrate a campaign milestone with members of her team.
Late in the afternoon, in 94-degree heat, Pressley was getting ready for her sixth campaign stop of the day, a meeting with arts leaders at Huntington Theatre Company. Pressley and campaign manager Sarah Groh arrived early to the theater and decided to use the extra time to walk over to the Northeastern University student center to do some canvassing. After leaving the student center, Pressley, who said her feet were hurting, took off her shoes and began to walk barefoot.
“When I saw what was happening, I knew I wanted to document the moment, so I lifted my camera and took a few quick frames of Pressley and Groh walking in front of me,” Nierman said. “I then quickly checked the images to see if I needed to make any camera adjustments because I knew this was a different kind of moment, the kind not often seen, and I wanted to make sure I got it. When I looked back up, maybe 10 seconds later, Groh had taken off her shoes, too. I don’t know if her feet were also hurting, or if this was simply a gesture in solidarity with her boss, but I took about 7 more frames making slight adjustments each time.” One of those frames was the image featured in WGBH’s story and that was honored by the BPPA.
We also spoke with Nierman about other meaningful photos from the essay and how they were captured throughout the day.
Nierman was always looking for intimate scenes where she could capture quieter moments of the campaign, like the photo above that she took in the car with Pressley at the beginning of the day. “As Pressley settled into the car, she reached into her pocket, pulled out a large coin and turned to me.” Pressley explained to Nierman that a man who she’d just met at the event gave her the coin, telling her it had brought him good luck over the years, and he wanted her to have it. Pressley carried it around with her for the rest of the day.
According to Nierman, photography provides an opportunity for people to see and experience something that they may not normally have access to, and because that access is so visual, it can do more than just evoke thought — it can evoke feeling, like this photo above from a senior center in Brighton.
“For me, it’s very much a feeling thing,” Nierman said about which moments she chooses to capture. “I’m not only watching and observing in order to try to understand what’s happening, I’m trying to tune into what people may be feeling.”
Nierman said that this particular moment, in the photo above, was representative of Pressley’s style. Capuano was wildly popular at this senior living center in Brighton, so very few people came out to see Pressley. Despite the low turnout, she stayed late and talked with resident Helen Zelnick following the event, who told Pressley that she had always voted for Capuano. After the conversation, Pressley told Nierman that the woman said she now had a lot to think about.
Throughout the day, Nierman tried to document human moments that depicted Pressley’s unique political style, like the private moment in the photo above. “She struck me as a physically demonstrative, tactile person. It’s no surprise that hands and physical touch are big themes in the essay,” Nierman said.
Nierman says Pressley talked openly about the challenges female candidates face on the campaign trail, especially when it comes to clothing and shoes and figuring out the logistics of repeated outfit changes. “Every woman elected official I know has a trunk like this,” Pressley told Nierman that day. “This is the equivalent of a man taking off their suit jacket and rolling up their shirt sleeves.”
As the day progressed, Nierman could see how much work was involved in her dressing for all of the different events. “Certain events required casual clothing, while others, like a TV interview, more formal and TV-ready,” Nierman said about this moment above, when Pressley was getting ready for yet another media interview.
Nierman said that when she was reviewing and editing photos for the essay, she realized how much the story was also about Sarah Groh, Pressley’s campaign manager. Nierman observed that the two had a close relationship and Groh was alongside Pressley for virtually every step of the day. Groh is now Pressley’s Chief of Staff in Congress. “That’s an example of the kind of details more intimate photojournalism like this can reveal,” Nierman said about the observation.
Throughout the day, Nierman looked for opportunities to photograph Pressley from varied angles, contrasting what is often expected for political photography. “Sometimes the best photographs don’t include a candidate’s face,” Nierman said.
In the photo above, Nierman photographed Pressley as she spoke to arts leaders at the Huntington Theatre Company. “A key goal for the essay was to give the viewer a sense of what it was like on the campaign trail, so creating images that showed Pressley’s perspective was important,” Nierman said. “It allows the viewer to shift from observing her to observing with her.”
Nearing the end of the day, Pressley landed at campaign headquarters where she met with a group of sexual assault survivors who had gathered ahead of canvassing for her. While Nierman had the option to photograph the moment from the inside, she chose to photograph it from the outside. “I did this for two reasons,” Nierman said. “I wanted to give the viewer a sense of the office, as it’s an important place in the story. And even though I had permission to photograph the canvassers, I felt strongly about maintaining their privacy in this essay.”
For the complete series of photos from Nierman’s day with Pressley, check out her feature with WGBH News: “A Day On The Campaign Trail With Ayanna Pressley.” For continued coverage of Pressley’s Congressional orientation, check out “A Week In Washington With Ayanna Pressley,” also by Nierman for WGBH News.