'Where it all began': Photographing Trump's return to Alabama

Story highlights

  • Melissa Golden photographed the last stop of Donald Trump's post-election victory tour
  • The event was in Mobile, Alabama, where she covered a significant Trump rally last year

(CNN)Before her trip to Mobile, Alabama, on Saturday, photographer Melissa Golden wondered whether she would experience a sort of déjà vu once she arrived.

She covered a Donald Trump rally there in August of last year. And now she was returning to Ladd-Peebles Stadium for the conclusion of the President-elect's "Thank You" tour.
Mobile marked a turning point for Trump's campaign. Prior to that Friday night in August, it wasn't clear how much support the real estate developer and reality TV personality would garner in his quest to become the 45th President of the United States. But one glance at the crowd of some 30,000 supporters solidified that there was something significant happening.
    Photographer Melissa Golden
    "I remember up to that point, the Trump campaign was a bit farcical and nobody was taking it seriously in the media or really anywhere," Golden said. "There was this kind of jovial, almost carnival-like atmosphere. People were there to see the show and it was before the rhetoric that we've come to know today had really ratcheted up."
    It has been about 16 months since that jam-packed rally, and Trump's decision to return to Mobile was symbolic. As Golden put it: Mobile represents the warm-up and the cool-down for Trump.
    "This is where it all began," the President-elect told the crowd on Saturday, having just walked on stage to "Sweet Home Alabama."
    Before the rally started, Trump's supporters were tailgating as if they were attending a football game. They were happy, relaxed, excited, optimistic. The inherent tension of the campaign season seemed to have disappeared, Golden said, and instead a palpable sense of relief filled the air.
    "Everybody I spoke with, their words were so hopeful," the photographer said. "They really seemed to believe wholeheartedly that Donald Trump has their best interest at heart, and they're very glad to see him as President-elect."
    During the 2016 campaign, public trust in the media hit an all-time low, partly fueled by Trump's anti-media rhetoric. But Golden says when she identified herself as a photographer on assignment for CNN, most people laughed it off and some even offered her food and drinks. She felt constantly on the verge of being invited to Sunday dinner.
    "I think it was apparent that I was not some sort of media monster, and of course they were as friendly as Southerners get, as friendly as Americans get," she said.
    But Golden said there was a moment when the energy changed once Trump began speaking. He mentioned the media during his talk, calling its coverage of him dishonest.
    "It was surprising to feel the energy of the crowd shift and as heads turned to look back at us in the media area -- even though the campaign is over -- that darkness seems to have carried over," Golden said.
    After the event there were more signs of Southern hospitality.
    "People went back to being people," Golden said. "And even when I was trying to get out of the parking lot, the mad dash and the jam of cars, you know, a gentleman in a Trump hat honked and made sure that my car got in front of his to get out. There were still acts of courtesy and kindness throughout the day. And so that was certainly heartening to see."
    One of the biggest differences Golden noticed between last year's Mobile rally and the one on Saturday was that access was much more restricted this time around. Security was ramped up now that the Secret Service is running the show.
    "Despite my efforts, they were not letting me in the area in front of the stage and I was pretty far away from the podium," Golden said. "There was this pretty big distance between me and the President-elect this time. I really had to cover him from afar and I had to cover him and the story through the crowd and through the people who were attending the rally."
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    Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions, a Mobile native and the first senator to praise Trump at his rally last year, appeared on Saturday as well -- this time, as Trump's pick for attorney general.
    There were fewer people at this year's rally, perhaps because of the weather. "I didn't know it rained in Alabama," Trump said. "But you know, rain is good luck, right? Rain is good luck."
    It has been an exhausting and ruthless campaign season, no matter which presidential nominee people supported. "One side was going to be relieved and the other side was going to be horrified -- didn't matter who won," Golden said.
    After covering Trump's election night party in New York last month, she thought she would take a break from covering politics.
    "I find myself continuing to be pulled back into the game, perhaps because as much as I would like to retire from covering politics, it's too important to ignore," she said. "Now more than ever -- and I think this is true regardless of who won -- we need great journalists on the ground performing journalism. You cannot have a functioning democracy without a healthy Fourth Estate."