For her 2016 election night party, Hillary Clinton rented a vast area in the Javits Center, the biggest convention center in New York City. In it, a gigantic stage shaped like a map of the USA sat in wait under the center's fittingly symbolic glass ceiling. It was surrounded by open swathes of space, expected to be filled with cheering supporters on an election night to remember. I knew all this as in the days leading up to the election, I saw test frames from the photographers that had been scaling the venue, hanging remote cameras from the rafters, all vying to capture iconic imagery of a surely historic moment. America's first female President was almost certainly going to be named, and she was going to be named as such on the west side of Manhattan. Rumors circulated of barges filled with fireworks at the ready on the nearby Hudson River. It was going to be quite the party.
Meanwhile, at 3pm on the election day, I joined a team of Reuters photographers at the Hilton Hotel in midtown Manhattan. I found them sitting in a long line of media personal. By the time I arrived it already stretched the length of a second floor concourse. We were there to cover Donald Trump's election night event. All had been working since sunrise, shooting voters at the polling stations as I had in Harlem. In a Trumpian move, cardboard signs pointed us to the "Trump Victory Party" that awaited us in the hotel's Grand Ballroom, just beyond the security checks we now waited to pass. I had to laugh. Right to the end, Trump's bravado, the bravado that had got him this far, stayed strong.
Once I was through security, I entered the space and took it in. It was a big room, for sure. But not President big. I'd shot a few corporate events in the same place in the past. The frugality of the decor spoke volumes. The large stage was simply decorated. A cluster of American flags stood behind a small brown lecturn with a non descript Trump/Pence sign cresting it. Two of the now famous "Make America Great Again" hats sat on the stage's corners. And that was it. No balloons hung from the ceiling in wait. No confetti canons at the ready. It could have been any campaign event. Bravado or no, even Trump saw the writing on the wall. It couldn't have been further from Clinton's presidency spectacular, even if it was only twenty blocks on a map. I checked the New York Times for updates. Front and center was a vote-o-meter showing Clinton at an 89 percent chance of winning.
I found my assigned position on a balcony overlooking the room. I had a desk and a hard wire set up to transmit photos right out of my camera. I explored angles and took a walk through the venue, only shooting standard stock footage of the smatterings of people that were arriving early. People in Trump hats. People holding Trump signs. People wearing Tump t-shirts.
The first part of the evening moved very slowly. Shooting moved even slower. Various screens broadcasting Fox news showed some states were beginning to close their voting. Shortly after they started calling results with Clinton and Trump taking their expected early victories each. It was the swing states that would determine it, and this time around there were a few. The first blow came at 10:30pm, Trump took Ohio. It had gone back and forth in polls but this was a glimpse of hope for the Republicans. Ohio had a 50-plus year run of picking the eventual election winners. The small group of Trump supporters in attendance cheered, savoring any victory they could. I sent the pics to the desk and headed downstairs. As I passed through a foyer to the bathroom, a giant cake in the shape of Trump's bust rolled by me. It was a strange gesture and it's appearance was slightly unnerving.
Heading back to my place, I found a small crowd gathered in a common area watching a tv just as it was revealed that Trump had taken another swing state, Florida, a big one. All present reacted with the disbelief and the restrained jubilation only true underdogs can when there's still a long way to go. I shot more frames and got them on the news wire fast, figuring images of happy Trump supporters would have a very short lifespan when Clinton bounced back to take the election. From then on and for eternity, only photos of devastated Trump supporters would be required to illustrate history's pages. Then Trump took North Carolina, a swing state expected to go to Clinton. No doubt that wherever Ms Clinton sat, as she saw North Carolina go red, her palms began to sweat. In 45 minutes, the GOP had delivered a 1-2-3 punch. It wasn't game over, but this was definitely not part of the script.
It's interesting, as I was following the script too. Even with this series of Trump wins, my mind was still focused on treating this as a the "losing side" coverage. Then we got a group text from our editors. "We need a lot more imagery from the Trump camp." It was like a slap in the face and I snapped out of my own narrative and in to the situation. I clicked into gear as midnight passed by along with republican victories in Utah and Iowa. The attendees, is suddenly far great numbers, were buzzing. No doubt, many of them had made a last minute decision to come join the party as states went their way. Volunteers passed out red "Make America Great Again" caps to people as they flowed into the ballroom. Before long, they bobbed with excitement, filling the previously empty space between the media risers and the stage.
From there it felt as time began to fly. Trump took Pennsylvania and it was as good as done. A now raucous crowd before exploded with cheers, embraces and back slaps only interrupted to wave their Trump signs in the direction of the media, a well deserved gesture of "told-you-so." Hardly anybody had seen this coming, not even so-called experts. News came of a phone call from Clinton camp to the Trump camp, conceding defeat. The giant screens flanking the stage broadcast footage from a Fox News live-feed at the Javits Center across town. Their cameras panned the faces of stunned Clinton supporters, some openly weeping.
The screens switched to show the giant USA shaped stage under a very much intact glass ceiling. We waited for Clinton to emerge and deliver her concession speech, no doubt through gritted teeth and a forced smile. But instead, Clinton's campaign chairman John Podesta strode onto the stage and gave the order for Clinton supporters to go home and get some sleep as more votes were still to be counted. Some saw it as a desperate act, but I could see what was happening. Defeat could not be conceded on a stage so obviously constructed for victory.
At 2:50am, we were on. Mike Pence emerged first with his family to thank voters and all present, but he kept it short. He knew who people wanted to see and they'd all waited long enough. Then for the first time, I heard it. Pence introduced the next President of the United States of America, Donald Trump. The room went nuts as Trump appeared on a balcony at the far end of the room with his wife Melania. He raised a fist then was joined by his family and together they filled the stage.
I must be honest, I can't even recall what Trump said. I felt like he didn't really even speak for long, I was just shooting and sending frames as often as I could. I do recall him repreating the "make America great again" line a few times to much applause, but I was just fixated on getting every gesture and every angle that I could. Before I knew it, he was done. The crowd lunged forward as Trump climbed off the stage and walked the length of the buffer area, shaking hands with his supporters, before exiting the way he came.
The ballroom emptied out as the clock ticked past 4 am on the morning of November 9, 2016. A few stragglers stayed behind to soak up the win and I took a walk amongst them, treading over a floor littered with discarded TRUMP/PENCE signs. I shot some more frames of the aftermath then called it a night.
After packing my bag, I walked out of the Hilton onto an empty Sixth Avenue. It was still too early for the morning rush, a few garbage trucks rolled by and the sky was still dark, the sun hadn't yet begun to rise. All I could hear was the one echo in my head, the next President of the United States, Donald Trump. It already felt like a strange dream and alone on the street I had nobody to verify what had just occurred. I'd witnessed a most unlikely turn of events, one that was already sending shock waves across the globe. I walked a few more blocks enjoying the silence, knowing there were going to be busy days ahead.