In Conversation with Kasper Løftgaard: on the US Elections

As the year draws to a long-awaited end we sit down with Danish photographer, Kasper Løftgaard to discuss one of the most unexpected events of the year — the US election results. In the prelude to election day Kasper travelled to the Swing States to photograph Trump and Clinton rallies, gauge the outcome and understand the people, if he could. With less than a month to go before Donald Trump takes office, we ask if this was an election based on the lesser of two evils?

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What states were you covering?
We had this idea that we wanted to go out, especially to the Swing States, to meet people who were voting Trump and people who were voting Hilary, and especially the ones in between. Along the way we got really interested in the people who voted something, not because they wanted that candidate, but because they didn’t like the other one.

So the lesser of two evils…
Exactly. We heard a lot of that. There were a lot of enthusiastic Trump people, but there were also a lot of people who don’t really like him, but hate Hilary more. And, the same deal on the side — the people who were really enthusiastic about Obama and Bernie Sanders weren’t that hyped about Hilary Clinton, but they just didn’t like Donald Trump. It felt very much like the whole election was decided on the lesser of two evils.

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How long were you out there?
12 days

It’s quite fast-paced compared to your other work. Did being in the US this time for such a short-period influence any decisions you made?
We had to cover so much ground, we drove 2,700 km in eight days, so we couldn’t really get into the lives of someone specific. It was very much on the surface, but that was the point of it all — to take the temperature and see a lot of different aspects of things.

There was an interesting photograph you took in King of Prussia. How engaged were you with the subjects, like the kid in the Make America Great Again cap?
It was on the second or third day of us being there. We went to the rally in the King of Prussia — it was a really weird rally to see his campaign needed some more upper class white people to vote for him. At that rally we were just completely shut off from talking to anyone — they had these people standing guard making sure we couldn’t get in. I just saw this kid standing with his mom, and he just had this perfect face. So, I went up and said, ‘Hey, can I take a picture of you?’ His mom came over and said, ‘Yeah, yeah sure. He’s only 15 years-old, isn’t it amazing? I was like, ‘Yeah, sure. It’s amazing. I don’t know.’ (laughs)

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Were you shooting with a political eye?
I am always a subjective photographer, I can’t be objective about these things. Saying that I’m not a huge Hilary supporter and I’m not a huge Trump supporter either. I have friends in the States who would vote both ways, if I had to transfer my Danish beliefs into American beliefs I would probably vote Hilary, but in the same sentence I’d say that doesn’t work — it’s not the same. I live in a country that’s nowhere near as diverse as the States are, so in many ways I had to realise I know nothing. I have no idea about what American politics are and what America is.

Do you think being that way helped the you to shoot the whole series?
Maybe. The only thing I repeatedly heard people say was this lack of hope because the Republicans were like, ‘Yeah, we hate Obama and Hilary is a crook, so now we want Trump.’ Okay, there was some hope from the people who voted Trump, but it was more despair of: it’s awful right now, so we choose this really extreme character because we have nowhere else to go. We’ve tried everything else. All I saw was people who were turning their back on the political system and they were on their own now.

What equipment did you use to take the photographs?
A normal DSLR.

What kind of preconceptions do people, either from Denmark or elsewhere, have about the US that you would disagree with?
The thing I hear the most — which kind of makes me sad — is all Americans are stupid or that they are making their political choices on an uninformed basis. We tend to feel like, especially in Denmark, like we’re so clever and we just don’t realise there’s just so many things we don’t get about America because we don’t live there, and we don’t know how they live and we don’t know how their lives are. I hear that a lot that they’re stupid, like how could this happen? It can happen because we don’t talk to these people who live out in the mid-West.

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How did you react to the result?
I think we were so sleep deprived that we didn’t react at all. We just kind of sat there, just high on Red Bull and a lack of sleep. I think we worked for 14 or 15 hours a day for 12 days straight, on election day we were just bombed. I could barely stand up, I was walking around like a zombie taking pictures and I had no reaction to the election until the next day.

There’s a really misty shot you’ve taken in Pennsylvania, it seems an interesting choice of photographs and how they offset from one another. Was there a particular reason for that?
I’m always finding these very misty and desolate places. I like the fogginess in the pictures. The reason I ended up putting it in there was the feeling of the whole election, we were in the middle of Pennsylvania and waking up to this crazy landscape where you couldn’t see anything. It just fits perfectly with what I was trying to tell. It’s still like that we don’t know what Donald Trump is going to do — he’s a wildcard. Everyone in Denmark or Europe in general is like, ‘He’s going to blow up the whole word’ and half the people in the US are like, ‘He’s going to save the world.’ Nobody knows anything.

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Would you say you’re more introspective than most photographers, because you’re looking at these places i.e. that misty shot of Pennsylvania and you’re finding the connotations of it and analysing how it fits into your projects? 
Maybe you’re putting words in my mouth now (laughs). Maybe, I don’t know. It fits the story really well in this case. I think I’m always photographing myself in some way. Everyone’s doing that, it’s just they’re not aware of it. In some way when we’re doing something we’re always just mirroring ourselves. This series is very much just a reflection of how I was feeling when I was doing it. I was definitely looking for people who looked like how I felt.

You’ve featured Americana style photography with car wash stations etc and also empty car parks. Was that intentionally added into the series to give it more of a style?
I think that the parking lot there’s a whole story behind it — it’s taken in Bethlehem where there used to be this huge factory, Bethlehem Steel, which made the majority of all weapons and the steel for everything during World Was II. Now, a small part of it has turned into this huge casino where Chinese people come. They put three busloads of Chinese people from New York, and drive them to Bethlehem and give them ten bucks and make them gamble all day and eat food to make some money. It’s the saddest place I’ve ever been to. This parking lot was so empty — this tree in the foreground where half of it has leaves and the other hand is just dead — I really like it. I’m not sure I can put it into words  I just like it in the mix.

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Do you think you’ve developed an attachment to the US either as a photographer or a person?
Yes, I love the US. There’s something really sad and magic about the place no matter where you go. The way everything looks and smells and you can drive around for years and take pictures. It’s the greatest place to just drive around and the greatest place to meet people. I don’t know what it is about the place, but everyone has a story. It’s like everyone is a movie script dying to be made.

Is the American Dream very much alive in these people then?
Yeah, it’s just based on the American Dream, even if in a lot of cases it’s not going to happen, and you know it. But, they still believe it. That’s kind of amazing. No matter how low you are you can just hang onto the American Dream and you’re going to get through. Even though, it’s not going to happen just keep believing or keep working.

Photo credit: Kasper Løftgaard

To view more of Kasper’s election photos click here