‘People were shocked by the result’: British photographer shares images captured amid turmoil of 2016 election

A British photographer brilliantly captures America in the aftermath of Donald Trump’s 2016 win, in his award-wining book Divided States

Gino Spocchia
Thursday 17 December 2020 10:47 GMT
Divided States author Ben Elwes, captured protests in the aftermath of the 2016 presidential election
Divided States author Ben Elwes, captured protests in the aftermath of the 2016 presidential election (Ben Elwes)

Ben Elwes’s photographic tome to the United States began with Brownsville, a Texan town on the Mexican border, and a “horror show” on Halloween.  

The “horror show”, however, was not the annual holiday, but a presidential contest between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, the-then Democrat nominee.

And Elwes, a British photographer whose book ‘Divided States’ will soon head to publication, was there to capture the circus and the carnival.  

Although, as he admitted to the Independent, that didn’t include two clowns who refused to have their pictures taken in a supermarket parking lot.

The reason? They thought he was a canvasser for the Trump campaign.

“And very sadly in fact, because they were two African Americans and they were actors and they were dressed up in costume and that was one of the reasons why I went to them because they looked amazing,” said Elwes, whose roadtrip started on 31 October 2016.

The photographer would finish five weeks later, having documented the United States - or, as his book suggests, a “Divided States”, in the aftermath of a presidential contest the likes of which had not been seen before.

He would drive 8,000 miles by car, covering more than a dozen American states and Washington, DC, as he captured a nation caught both in turmoil and in celebration.  

“The emphasis for me was really about the travel, the experience, the people, and using the election as a backdrop to the story I was telling, and the American road trip really is a big deal for photographers,” said Elwes, who described the open road as his motivation.

“I didn’t have an itinerary, I was essentially approaching people as I saw them, and that was initiated by the prospect of, mainly by the possibility of a photograph.”

Donald Trump unexpectedly won the 2016 race, defying odds  (Ben Elwes )

There are more than 154 included in ‘Divided States’, which spans 244 pages, and recently took first place at the 2020 International Photography Awards for professional documentary work.

“The book is meant to take you back to the moment rather than it being overly political, and I think that's one of the reasons why I like to think the book succeeds to some extent, explained Elwes.

“Because it's not going to dose people with the politics from 2016, it really is a journey and the encounters and experiences I had with people”.

“Sure the election comes up, but it's not always - as it says in the introduction to the book - it's not always centre-stage to the story and I think that's important...It's there, but it doesn't dominate.”

His journey, like Donald Trump’s assent to the Oval Office, started on the United States’ southern border, where promises of a “big, beautiful wall” that Mexico would pay for, propelled a New York television personality to the presidency.

The border wall with Mexico was the starting point of the photographer’s road trip  (Ben Elwes)

“That was the natural place for me to enter,” Elwes told the Independent, having arrived at Mexico’s General Lucio Blanco International Airport, in Reynosa, a border town close to Brownsville, Texas, where his road trip started.  

“I went to Brownsville, to launch out and get to some Trump rallies, and once the election had happened, it then made much more sense to spend some time at the end of the trip to go back and meet up with some of the people I’d met at the beginning and spend some time there, and actually I like to think it worked quite well. It clicked together”.

“With Trump’s victory, going back and spending time on the border and talking to people there was really useful, and it was fascinating, said Elwes, “[and], actually, it was a powerful experience”.

In his final encounter for Divided States, the 53-year-old came face-to-face with the implications of the future president’s stance towards migrants on the border, where he met a Cuban man who’d dared to rescue the child of a Mexican woman forced into sex work, and carried her across the border to safety in the United States.

The photographer met supporters of both sides in 2016 (Ben Elwes)

But the election rattled others the photographer spoke to, with one woman, who worked with Texas’s Mexican community through an organisation named LUPE (La Union del Pueblo Entero), in tears at both Trump’s rise and rhetoric.  

“The lady from LUPE, she was in tears in the interview, she was absolutely distraught,” said Elwes. “She was representing charities representing Mexicans in Texas. People were shocked by the result.”

“I say in the book, I was slightly expecting to feel as if I had an appointment with the devil and his minions, as a kind of joke,“ said Elwes, describing his attendance at one of the final “Donald J. Trump for President” rallies on the day before polls opened, in Raleigh, North Carolina.

“He just keeps on going, and it was like the razmataz before a boxing match, it feels a little bit like showbiz, and that's what Trump is, basically.”

“He is a performer, and he has this presence, and to some extent it's quite cultish. He draws people in, and you feel that. I felt that it was quite kind of engaging, it felt alluring, it felt as if you were having quite a good time. He was funny, actually.”

Donald Trump at one of his last 2016 campaign rallies in North Carolina (Ben Elwes)

“But things have changed enormously,” admitted Elwes, whose plans to photograph the 2020 election as a follow-up to Divided States, were trashed by the coronavirus pandemic.

“I think the divisions have become more entrenched and I think it would've been a very different experience this time around,” he added. “It's become a very different country in the four years since I’ve left.”

The Briton, who spends part of the year living in Mexico, says he’s noticed “the same kind of Trump narrative” creeping into the country’s discussion of the pandemic, which has claimed almost 100,000 Mexican lives, and 245,000 American.  

“I’m tuned into Mexico a bit more, and they’re using the same kind of Trump narrative, that everything’s okay, when in fact it really isn't. So you get authorities who are saying the pandemic’s on the turn, because you need to try and sound as if you're in control,” said  Elwes.

“That’s what’s really kind of sinister about it. Sure, I think the poorest and the disadvantaged are suffering exponentially from it, but it’s not essentially within sight. There are a lot of people shut away and it's to some extent something that's going to become clearer with the passage of time.”

Divided States’ has a Kickstarter campaign to support a publication run for Divided States, which can be found here.  

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