To understand Trump supporters, this Canadian artist is photographing his rallies

Travelling to rallies and last month’s Republican National Convention, Toronto artist Sarah Palmer is creating an ongoing series she calls "Drunk on Trump."

Sarah Palmer's photos are like baffling dreams — which is just what a Trump rally feels like

Sarah Palmer. Wilkes-Barre, PA, 2016. (Courtesy of the artist)

Stranger things haven't happened — and for that, you can thank (or blame) Donald Trump.

There was that time he claimed Barack Obama founded ISIS. And then there's that assassination controversy — the speech where he said the only ones who can "stop" Hillary Clinton are the gun rights people.

That's just what happened last week.

"I think here in Canada we're all pretty baffled that this is happening," says Sarah Palmer, a Toronto photographer. So in April — three months before Trump would clinch the Republican presidential nomination — Palmer decided to do something about it. If she was ever going to understand how everything she'd read and heard about the "Trump phenomenon" was true, she'd have to see it for herself.

Sarah Palmer. Cleveland, OH, 2016. (Courtesy of the artist)
Sarah Palmer. Cleveland, OH, 2016. (Courtesy of the artist)
Sarah Palmer. Wilkes-Barre, PA, 2016. (Courtesy of the artist)

Travelling to rallies in New York State and Pennsylvania, and last month's Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Palmer is creating an ongoing series she calls "Drunk on Trump." Her photos capture multiple exposures in each frame, creating a blurrily beautiful, and altogether disorienting, effect. As the election looms, she plans to continue her travels, adding to the series on her website and Instagram.

Clashing sides of protesters intermingle in a haze of activity; crowds of Trump supporters become a kaleidoscope of humanity and T-shirt slogans.  

Sarah Palmer. Wilkes-Barre, PA, 2016. (Courtesy of the artist)
Sarah Palmer. Wilkes-Barre, PA, 2016. (Courtesy of the artist)
Sarah Palmer. Cleveland, OH, 2016. (Courtesy of the artist)

"I started [the series] because I wanted to give my own take on things as a foreigner, as a Canadian," Palmer, a contributing photo editor for Maclean's, tells CBC Arts. In fact, her reporting from the RNC appeared on the magazine's website — and that journalistic series is a curious counterpoint to the more personal work in "Drunk on Trump." Both photo sets will show you what it was like at the RNC, but "Drunk on Trump" will also show you how it felt.

'A confusing dream'

When she's at a rally, Palmer says she's completely ripped out of her comfort zone — "which I like."

"It's like being in a confusing dream," she says. "I'm just trying to make sense of it all, so my style just naturally works."

"I like shooting it this way because it lets me put my own feelings and experiences of being there," she says. "Hopefully it also helps the viewer to get that feeling as well."

Sarah Palmer. Cleveland, OH, 2016. (Courtesy of the artist)

Surrounded by supporters, protestors, police, media, vendors: the sheer number of people makes it difficult to focus, she says. "You can get wrapped up in the chaos."

Talking to Americans

So Palmer spends most of the time wandering through the crowds, walking up and down the aisles of any given convention centre talking to strangers and trying to learn why they're voting for Trump. She tells them she's Canadian, and a liberal. "And that this is something that I'm having a hard time understanding, so that's why I want to shoot it."

Almost always, the people she meets share their stories.

Sarah Palmer says she met this man waiting outside a Trump rally. "He said he was just holding the T-shirt up to his chest to show his support and his solidarity for Trump." As you can see in the image, protesters were gathered across the street. "He said it was his wife’s shirt and she was in the bathroom, so he was waiting for her. He was just holding it up. He wasn’t talking to anyone, he wasn’t yelling. He was just looking at them and holding it up to his chest and I thought that was really powerful." (Courtesy of the artist)
At a Trump rally in Wilkes-Barre, PA, Palmer met this woman from small-town Pennsylvania. Still undecided about how to vote, she'd brought a bag full of newspapers, and was reading about all the candidates while waiting to get in. "I found her after the rally," Palmer says, and she asked her what she thought. "She was 100 per cent Trump now. 'After I heard him speak, I am voting for him. There is no one else in my mind.' Actually, the next day I went with her to the voting polls for the primaries and watched her vote." (Courtesy of the artist)

More than one way of seeing things

Shooting with a Holga — one of those plastic cameras they sell at places like Urban Outfitters — she figures she gets better access than most. The thing itself is a talking point. "It's just a little plastic toy camera, so I think people aren't as intimidated by it," she says, "they're kind of intrigued by it, as well." And it also allows her to create layered images on the fly. With a Holga, unlike some other ordinary film cameras, she can control how far the film advances — letting her overlap shots in a continuous panorama, creating dream-like juxtapositions in diptychs or triptychs.

Sarah Palmer. Cleveland, OH, 2016. (Courtesy of the artist)

It's a technique she's used to document communities in countries around the world — Colombia, South Korea, Brunei. Ironically, those series don't seem anywhere near as foreign to the senses as the photos that Palmer shot a day's drive from home — walking the floors of U.S. campaign rallies. But all of her work, she explains, follows a common theme.

"I'm always trying to photograph things that are changing before you can't photograph it anymore — to hold onto it as a little piece of history."

Sarah Palmer. Cleveland, OH, 2016. (Courtesy of the artist)

"There's only a few more months of this," she says of the campaign circus down south. 

"Or it could be four years. We don't know."

Sarah Palmer. Cleveland, OH, 2016. (Courtesy of the artist)

Find updates on Sarah Palmer's "Drunk on Trump" series at her website, www.sarahpalmerphoto.com

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