All photographs by David Guttenfelder
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Migrant workers from Mexico pick tomatoes near the town of Homestead, Florida.
All photographs by David Guttenfelder

Beyond the Election: Painting a Cultural Portrait of Florida

After spending two decades working abroad, Iowa-born photographer David Guttenfelder recently took to the road to explore Florida during the leadup to the Democratic and Republican primaries. Traveling from Miami to the panhandle, he discovered the issues that matter most to Americans, enabling him to capture a unique cultural portrait of the state during an election season.

Over his career, Guttenfelder has widely focused on international topics, whether covering the frontlines of combat in Iraq or illustrating the political climate in North Korea. His experiences outside the U.S. are what have made his perspective unique as he rediscovers his home country.

Guttenfelder provided updates on his road trip through a live discussion forum on National Geographic, as well as on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, and Periscope, asking people along the way, “What matters to you?”

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A TV correspondent waits between live broadcasts at the Trump National Golf Club in Jupiter, Florida, before Donald Trump holds a press conference to respond to his Super Tuesday victories.

As a photojournalist I usually experience everything with a camera in my hands, and since I’ve lived outside of the United States for all of my adult life, my pictures have chronicled life around the world but not in my home country. Since returning to the U.S. after spending 20 years abroad, I’ve continued to look at my native but new surroundings as an outsider would, including watching our country’s most ubiquitous domestic news—the presidential elections—from the sidelines like a foreigner, marveling at and confused by this bizarre, exotic culture.

Capturing the Florida Primaries—One Second at a Time

Watch David Guttenfelder’s experiences in Florida, one second at a time.

By way of TV, the web, and social media, we’re bombarded by repetitive campaign pictures and staccato video clips of America’s unique political theater. What are we to make of this culture and the nonstop, big-top traveling circus of presidential hopefuls and the press who trail them? The weekly debate bickering? The passionate supporters from all sides? Donald Trump’s sound bites? His tweets? His hair? I wanted to experience it all for myself.

Covering a U.S. presidential election might not seem obvious or usual for National Geographic, but its director of photography, Sarah Leen, thought we should experiment with it.

She encouraged me to go to Florida as a stranger in a strange land—to think about Florida’s unique geography, culture, demographics, and mood and how each influences the way people live and how they’ll vote.

“Pretend you just landed and are seeing this for the first time,” she told me. “What is this strange event? What are these passions about? What is this thing called democracy?”

I didn’t have to pretend. A day into the trip I was standing a foot away from Donald Trump in a gilded, crystal-chandeliered golf club, among wealthy supporters and club members in West Palm Beach. It was the same week that I’d accidentally walked up on a young alligator basking on the roadside in Everglades National Park. I had seen neither an alligator nor Donald Trump in real life before. It was a surreal trip.

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Signboard cut-outs depicting Adam Eve in the Garden of Eden stand outside the Holy Land Experience Christian theme park in Orlando, Florida.

Florida seems a world away from the rest of the country as well. Before and after the primary results were tallied, I road-tripped across the state from Key West north to the Alabama border. I met sunbaked retirees polishing their golf carts in Bradenton and sun-burned millennials drinking from red, white, and blue plastic cups on the beach in Fort Lauderdale. I met Mexican guest workers picking green tomatoes near the Keys and sloppy mud-track pickup truck racers in the panhandle. I met passionate supporters—and bitter haters—of every candidate still in the running.

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Latin American families, wearing the colors of their home countries, gather on the street in Miami’s Little Havana for the annual Carnival Calle Ocho festival.

Along the way, I tried to discover the issues most important to these people in Florida—and more broadly to voters across the U.S. this election year, including immigration, religion, the environment, jobs, and more.

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Thousands of empty cups, cans and bottles are discarded on the beach by young spring break party goers in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

I’ve covered elections in more than 20 countries around the world, including in such far-flung spots as Zanzibar, Taiwan, and Kashmir. What I felt while briefly photographing this U.S. election is that, despite our divisions and differences of circumstance, we Americans are more the same than we realize. Road-tripping from town to town across the vast state of Florida, I felt a part of it all.

Learn more about David Guttenfelder’s coverage in Florida in the story “Picturing the Issues Behind the Election in Florida.” Follow Guttenfelder on Instagram.