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Sam Hodgson ('06) covers Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump's presidential campaigns. (Photo: Brian Snyder) Sam Hodgson ('06) covers Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump's presidential campaigns. (Photo: Brian Snyder)

On the Campaign Trail

Sam Hodgson ('06) is documenting the 2016 presidential campaign for the New York Times.
By Coleen L. Geraghty

This story appears in the fall 2016 issue of 360: The Magazine of San Diego State University.

In fall 2014, Sam Hodgson ('06) arrived in New York City with no job but lots of phone numbers and a camera. Working his contacts, Hodgson scored a meeting with editors of the New York Times. An assignment soon followed, and within weeks Hodgson turned in his first photos for the news organization that has won more Pulitzer Prizes than any other.

Now Hodgson’s typical work week looks like this: fly to Cincinnati to cover Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump at the American Legion convention; travel with the Trump campaign to Wilmington, Ohio, and Detroit, where the candidate meets up with Ben Carson; fly back to New York to board the Clinton campaign plane for a two-day stint in Ohio and Illinois; return home, tired but exhilarated.

“I cannot believe I get paid to do this,” said Hodgson, interviewed by telephone at an outdoor café near his Brooklyn home.

Jumping off the cliff

The Daily Aztec, San Diego State University’s independent student-run newspaper, was Hodgson’s ticket into the world of professional photojournalism. He studied the history, theory and best practices of the craft in the classroom; in the field, he learned how to make every picture tell a story.

After SDSU, Hodgson built a successful career as a freelance photographer in San Diego. He worked for the Voice of San Diego and was an occasional stringer for the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the news services Reuters and Bloomberg. But he wanted more.

“I knew I would never be able to live out the full potential of what I could do without moving, without jumping off the cliff,” he said. When Hodgson’s wife, Hailey Persinger, received a job offer with Yahoo! in New York, they took the leap.

Now a regular contributor to the New York Times, Hodgson has photographed Pope Francis’ visit to the United States, the United National General Assembly, major sporting events such as the U.S. Open Tennis Championships and the Belmont Stakes, and enterprise stories about issues ranging from cancer research to homelessness.

He was part of a New York Times team of about 20 journalists, including five photographers, assigned to document gun violence in Chicago over the Memorial Day weekend. And he was on scene documenting the days following the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, Fla.

“Assignments like that are not easy, but they’re important,” Hodgson said. “It means a lot that the Times editors put their trust in me to cover them.”

Up close with Clinton and Trump

Hodgson’s proximity to the presidential candidates gives him insight into the personalities of two people whose public images are polar opposites. Clinton and her staff, he said, spend copious time, money and effort defining the candidate and the messaging.

“These are carefully crafted campaign events with lots of free visuals, and my job is to cut through all that to find something real,” Hodgson said.

In contrast, journalists covering the Trump campaign are often restricted to certain areas of a room or venue, Hodgson said.

“The Republican candidate also has a script, but he is more prone to go off script and surprise the audience," Hodgson said. "They are two starkly different campaigns, and both represent something about this time and place in America.”

The livin’ ain’t easy

Asked to compare the laid-back living of San Diego with the constant stimulus of the Big Apple, Hodgson played the diplomat. He described New York City life as tough, a struggle and “often not relaxing to come home to” after a grueling assignment on the road.

But the young Aztec who arrived in New York with no job and lots of phone numbers relishes his new home.

“It’s my job to explore the city,” he said. “People who relocate here see the surface view, but when I’m working I go into people’s homes and neighborhoods. No other place can claim so many different cultures and ways of life.”