The 2012 Presidential Election Year in Pictures

Image: U.S. President Barack Obama attends a campaign event in Hilliard, Ohio. Nov. 2, 2012.
Brooks Kraft—Corbis for TIME
U.S. President Barack Obama attends a campaign event in Hilliard, Ohio. Nov. 2, 2012.

For years, TIME has created some of the most memorable campaign photography, from veteran political photographer Diana Walker’s coverage of five administrations to Christopher Morris’s eight years with President G.W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney. In 2008, the tradition continued with Callie Shell’s intimate documentation of Barack Obama’s campaign and eventual presidency.

This season, we looked for ways to continue the legacy of TIME’s political coverage during the 2012 elections — to jump start the traditional approaches to covering campaigns that are moving further and faster from the familiar political cycles of the past decade. We looked to commission photographers with fresh perspectives who could re-envision the spectrum of American politics.

The candidates kicked off their campaigns in Iowa, so we sent Swedish photographer Lars Tunbjork, known for his work photographing the ironic and often-absurd landscapes of suburbia, to document the caucuses. His first time covering American politics, Tunbjork photographed the strangeness of these early events in the frozen Iowa landscape.

We continued by commissioning work by Ricardo Cases, Lauren Fleishman, Justin Maxon, Brendan Hoffman, Lauren Lancaster and Peter van Agtmael — selecting each of them for their different visions as photographers. And each returned with photographs that reflected a diverse visual vocabulary looking beyond the political staging.

We also encouraged veteran political photographers like Christopher Morris, Brooks Kraft, Callie Shell, Andrew Cutraro and Danny Wilcox Frazier to experiment with their coverage. While on assignment, all noted how different the political landscape felt visually since the last election. After Obama’s first 100 days in office, the White House dramatically cut down on photographers’ access to the President, instead releasing images by Pete Souza on their own Flickr page.

The Romney campaign also carefully controlled photographers’ access this election, allowing very little intimacy with the candidate until the final weeks of the campaign, and then only rotating the traveling pool behind the scenes.

In the same way an undecided voter tries to see behind the political facade to judge the true character of the candidate they’ll vote for, our photographers too worked relentlessly to break down the constructed photo-ops and reveal to our readers a sliver of their personality.

The media dissected the Republican candidates one by one before a frontrunner finally emerged. As Mitt Romney became the GOP  frontrunner, we turned to photographers who could capture the candidate’s personal side. Lauren Fleishman documented him (along with running-mate Paul Ryan) for weeks on end, through ten different states. Fleishman’s photographs reflect the nuances of the conservative values shared by he and his wife, Ann.

As Obama started to step up his campaigning, we assigned Callie Shell to follow the President. Documenting his travels the week before the DNC, Shell showed readers a side to the President that had felt absent for a long time. A warm photo of Obama leaning against a high-school gymnasium’s wall before a rally made the cover of our magazine at the DNC the following week.

We’ve attempted to present readers with photographs that document a very specific time in our country’s history—a time where we face numerous worries and frustrations about America’s political future. Although this election may reveal how radically divided we are as a nation, the future will be the ultimate judge of how important this time of recovery continues to be. We hope to provide the lasting record.

Paul Moakley is the Deputy Photo Editor at TIME. 

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