BEHIND THE LENS: Liepins captures Sanders rally

Nikolas Liepins, Contributor

Passionate chants of “Not me. Us.” — a Bernie Sanders campaign slogan — burst from the sea of Sanders supporters in Williams Arena (The Barn) on the University of Minnesota’s East Bank campus. That was the world in which I worked on Nov. 3 for Bernie Sanders’ 2020 presidential campaign rally. Having gotten approved with press credentials just an hour before the event, I arrived in a nonpartisan capacity at the official Media entrance off University Avenue. Following a quick security check, I was escorted up the white staircase into the bowl of The Barn where I found my place in the Media Area (also known as Press Pit) alongside major news outlets, including FOX and ABC.


I got settled in, thinking that I would spend the duration of the night in the Press Pit. How wrong was I. While I was setting my camera settings by capturing some great shots of The New Power Generation — Prince’s longtime band — who, with Brother Ali, opened the event, I noticed a huddle of photographers on the lowest platform of the Media Area. Seeing as I was the only photographer outside the seemingly important gathering, I went down to investigate. By joining the circle, I learned that I would be participating in the buffer walk, where photographers walk the area between the audience and the stage, ultimately ending up directly at the front of the stage in an area restricted to the media (the buffer). We were split into two groups based on media outlet. The first group — seemingly composed of mostly A-list outlets such as Getty Images — got to shoot from the buffer for all the introductory speakers (former Ohio State Senator Nina Turner, MN Attorney General Keith Ellison, and MN Representative Ilhan Omar) and 5-minutes of Bernie Sanders. We in the second group (which included local outlets such as MPR and the Pioneer Press), shot from the sidelines for the first speakers, then we got our 5-minutes of Sanders. While in the buffer and sidelines, we had to crouch so we didn’t block the audience from seeing, especially those who needed to see the sign language interpreter.

I got settled, thinking I would spend the duration of the night in the press pit. How wrong was I.


Though the crowd was already excited to hear Sanders’ introductory speakers, the stadium echoed with deafening cheers of the crowd when his intro song, “Back in Black” by AC/DC,  boomed through the building. That moment, his entrance, was one of the most important times to get the shots I needed to get. For one, I needed the Sanders-Omar hug, a shot that I knew I wanted after missing the Trump-Pence handshake at the Trump rally a few weeks ago. When we were given our five minutes in the buffer, we had to get whatever shots we needed, then we were out. I felt like the photographers that I’ve seen on TV during major events, because, in that moment, I was one of them. In that time, I captured some close-ups of Sanders’ face that show the texture of his skin and the emotion behind his words. Though time seemed to stop as we were capturing moments from the buffer, we eventually received the thirty-second warning. After that, it was back to the Press Pit where I got some great establishing shots that show Sanders surrounded by his supporters. 


Then, a media handler (a campaign staffer assigned to facilitating the Press) asked if I’d like to do the rope line, which she explained was when we photographed Senator Sanders and Representative Omar from on stage as they walked through the buffer shaking hands below us. With an enthusiastic yet professional “yes,” I joined the group as we followed the same crouching path as before. Then, as soon as Sanders left the stage to begin shaking hands, we gently pushed through each other to the stage in order to get the prime positions for our shots. Shooting down from the stage over Sanders and Omar was a phenomenal experience where I got some shots that show the amazing excitement between the Congresspeople and their supporters. After that exhilarating moment of being on stage with photographers from major outlets, I returned to the Press Pit, gathered my belongings, and headed home to edit the 750+ photos that I took throughout the evening.


As media outlets release photos from the event, I notice that my photos are of the same caliber and similar vantage point as those which are making the front page of newspapers across the country — it’s amazing. At the time, I didn’t realize just who I was photographing alongside, but now that I’m seeing photos released, I’m putting faces and photos together and find myself in awe of the people who I was working around. All bragging rights aside, however, this event provided amazing experience operating in the professional photojournalistic world, with all rights and privileges thereof, and I’m proud to be able to provide a behind the scenes look.