David Butow: BRINK

By Peggy Roalf   Thursday January 20, 2022


Independent photojournalist David Butow sensed a dark undercurrent in the American political psyche while covering the early days of the Trump campaign back in 2016. As he followed events in the upper Midwest rustbelt and rural towns, he concluded that the ever-changing narrative of the highly unpredictable candidate signaled dramatic times to come. So he moved to Washington, D.C. for an immersive experience of the chaotic presidency and its aftermath.  

David joined me by email last week, on January 6th in fact, for this conversation about what he discovered in the process of shooting the images that now can be seen in his new book BRINK (Punctum Press) and the accompanying exhibitions at UC Berkeley School of Journalism and RIT City Art Space, opening January 31st and February 4th respectively. 

Peggy Roalf: When you were standing on the Capitol steps a year ago today, did you ever imagine that justice would been served on the rioters who led this insurrection that claimed five lives?

David Butow: I was so amazed, in not a good way, with what was happening I couldn’t think of even the next minute let alone what might happen to all those people. It was that stunning because all your ideas about what was likely—or even possible—were getting shattered in real time.

PR: As you were shooting, amid the mob of rioters, how did you keep track of what hundreds of angry people were doing?

It was like a scene from a movie of some kind of medieval attack with thousands of extras (today it would be CGI’d). You’re not really aware of people as individuals. The massive crowd seemed to be moving like a single organism. Some of the attackers were yelling down to the crowd to keep pushing forward, and they were climbing up the stairs and scaffolding via every available space, like a colony of ants. I could not see what was happening at the top of the stairs and had no idea the building had been breached, I was sort of in the middle of the advance most of the time and I didn’t know they had gotten inside until about an hour or so after photographing, when I finally pushed up the steps myself.

PR: Was there ever a moment when you were able to step back from the task, to take in the situation as a personal experience—or a moment in history—rather than as a newsworthy, and photographable situation?

DB: Yes, this happened, and I’m not sure if it was deliberate or not. That’s very unusual because I’m used to just being in pure photo mode in dramatic situations. But at one point I lowered my camera and just watched, I knew it was historical and I was just trying to take it in and process it.

 PR: Let’s go back to what brought you there in the first place. I understand from your notes in the book that you began shooting events on the campaign trail in Michigan and the upper Midwest in 2016. Can you describe the moment that prompted you to devote the next four years exclusively to covering Trump?

DB: I think the decision came shortly after the election. His victory was stunning to me because 1) I didn’t understand why so many people voted for him, and 2) he clearly had basically zero knowledge, or even interest, in government or public policy. All he seemed to care about was himself, so the idea of someone like that becoming president seemed absurd. I thought that his narcissism and incompetence would cause him to flame out before his term was up, so I wanted to see that happen up close. I was a poly sci major who had covered politics in some way or another my whole career but had never worked in Washington. It seemed like a great time to have that experience and cover that scene, but I had no idea I would be there for four years.


PR: The photographs in Act I are unsparing in capturing the despair of so-called “disaffected voters” that are often the pivot point in any national election—and who the national media labels as such and generally makes no effort to meet, let alone understand. Where did you find the people you photographed for this section of the book, and how did they respond when you took interest in them? 

DB: Some of those photographs were made of people I met very briefly, like the man and boys playing football or people at a campaign rally. If it was necessary I would introduce myself, and other pictures were made on the fly, just pausing for seconds or a minute. Several of the pictures in the book are from a motel in Benton Harbor, Michigan. I spotted this place from the highway and pulled over. I immediately saw a guy on the balcony and we struck up a conversation and he invited me inside and I met his girlfriend, or some other friend, I can’t remember exactly. They were very friendly and relaxed, and through one group I met several other people. They were slightly curious about me, a guy from California cruising around with a camera. I told them what I was doing, which at the time was very nebulous because I didn’t know Trump was going to win. I think they enjoyed talking to someone outside of their usual group. 

PR: You say that you had joked with friends that if Trump won the Presidency, you would move to Washington, D.C. for a front row seat to the apocalypse.” So you did. How did the next four years go for you on a personal basis? 

DB: I had some family friends in Washington, people I’d known since I was a kid. I was able to stay with them on and off for several weeks as I “tried out” working in Washington. I found I enjoyed it and then committed to moving there with the attitude that it would be like a foreign posting. I would stay there for Trump and that was it. My relationship to the subject, and the city was like that, temporary. 

Unlike with most professional photography, at the Capitol you’re almost never working alone, you’re in a pack in a controlled environment. That took some adjustment but for the most part, the other photographers were very friendly and collegial and I’m still in touch with several of them even though I’m back in California. It wasn’t interesting every minute, but being in the halls of power for some really charged, historical moments made up for it.

PR: And how did it affect your work as an independent photojournalist, rather than one working on contract to a media outlet?

DB: I was fortunate to get access to congress quickly, so I was able to work there for most things regardless whether I was on assignment or not. If I wasn’t photo’ing on assignment, I’d funnel pictures to my agency Redux. Sometimes an assignment for media like TIME magazine or CNN gave me access in the White House or for the Supreme Court, that I might not have gotten otherwise —that kind of thing. I also did corporate photography work, covering business and political events. That wasn’t journalism but I often enjoyed it because I got access to situations I wouldn’t normally see, it helped pay the bills and in fact a couple of pictures in the book are from those events.

The assignment possibilities were limited because I would not work for any organization where the copyright to my pictures was compromised. I’ve kept that in all but the rarest of circumstances my entire career, which I feel is very important. That meant that a lot of news clients in D.C. would be out of bounds for me.

PR: You have said that you had never photographed at the White House or the Capitol prior to this. Was there any particular reason to turn your sights elsewhere?

DB: I grew up in Texas, went to college there and immediately afterward, moved to Los Angeles. My whole career has been based there, and I have been all over the West, particularly when I was a contract photographer with U.S. News and World Report. In those days I also had a chance to travel to many countries on assignment so my lack of experience working in the nation’s capital was mostly a question of geography.

PR: You mention in the book that government protocols regarding presidential media events are structured to the point of being “stage-managed”, and even not particularly visual. What is it like to remain engaged with any given situation while waiting for something to happen?

DB: Those situations are tough because often, you can’t move around AT ALL. You are literally shoulder to shoulder with other photographers, TV camera operators, reporters and sound people, etc. And at the White House particularly, you have to queue up to do everything, you might see something interesting off to the side but you just can’t photograph it because you have to stay in line or you’re on your way to someplace being escorted by the White House staff. So you have to make that commitment to get in there, and once you are, hope that you’ll find an interesting angle or composition, or light or just something that will make a picture that looks different from what everyone else is getting. That’s always the goal. Much of that control has to do with security so it comes with the territory, literally. 

Although that dynamic is specific to working in a controlled environment like that, in some ways it’s not that different from other kinds of photography. We just get out there and hope things will gel on the street, or in a landscape, or a motel room or whatever it is you’re trying to do. Often good pictures don’t materialize and you have to accept that. That kind of persistence and patience I think are under-discussed components to successful photography. 

PR: What were some of the surprises that became unforgettable visuals?

DB: There was one period during the Supreme Court nomination for Brett Kavanaugh, when he was being accused of having assaulted a woman or women in school. There was a hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee where Jeff Flake, a republican called for a delay so these accusations could be investigated. The other republicans on the committee had no idea exactly what he was going to do, or say at the hearing, and that is very, very unusual. Frankly, they were pissed, and you could see that on their faces. So for once, I was interested in the dynamics that would occur between a politician—in this case Flake—and members of his own party. They gathered around him the moment the hearing was over, and he was kind of surrounded and it made for a good moment and composition. 

In 2020, between everyone being masked at the Capitol, and George Floyd protesters getting near the edge of the White House grounds, you had the sense of national events directly affecting the halls of power, and the way it operates, which superficially at least, is usually very smooth.

David Butow: BRINK, opening January 31 at UC Berkeley School of Journalism, 121 North Gate Hall, Berkeley, CA Info

David Butow: BRINK, opening February 4, 2022 at RIT City Art Space, 280 East Main Street, Sibley Tower, First Floor, Rochester, NY Info

To order BRINK, go here

David Butow has been a professional photojournalist since the 1980’s. His pictures have appeared in many publications around the world including National Geographic, TIME and Paris Match. His past work includes the 1992 Los Angeles Riots, the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and the 2019 democracy demonstrations in Hong Kong. He has worked in dozens of countries and received awards from World Press Photo, Pictures of the Year International, Communications Arts and others.