The view from Obama’s train to Washington

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Nina Berman was on the train carrying Barack Obama to Washington in January 2009

She photographed the people who came out to see the President-elect

CNN  — 

Eight years ago, Barack Obama boarded a train headed for Washington, where three days later he would be sworn in as the 44th President of the United States.

“As I prepare to leave for Washington, on a trip that you made possible, know that I will not be traveling alone,” Obama told supporters that morning before his departure. “I’ll be taking with me some of the men and women I met along the way. Americans from every corner of this country, whose hopes and heartaches were the core of our cause, whose dreams and struggles have become my own. Theirs are the voices I will carry with me every day in the White House. Theirs are the stories I will be thinking of when we deliver the changes you elected me to make.”

Photographer Nina Berman was aboard the train during the approximately 136-mile stretch from Philadelphia to Washington. In her photos, shot through the windows of the train, we see the men and women who are not aboard Obama’s train yet are very much a part of his journey.

Photographer Nina Berman

In frigid winter weather, there they are, cheering from behind a fence. Waving hello from the side of the road. Holding signs in support of a shared vision.

“From the beginning, you could see the crowds were going to be assembling along the route,” Berman said. “But what was so kind of poetic and tragic at the same time was that, the train is a sealed train and because of who Obama was at that moment, he couldn’t really interact with the public because of security reasons. And so people just stood by, but they never really got a glimpse of him as this train just whizzed by.”

The train was traveling pretty fast, Berman said, so sometimes she knew what she was photographing and sometimes she didn’t. She liked this challenge, this mysterious process of maybe ending up with nothing and not knowing exactly what a picture looked like as she was making it.

The train did make some stops along the way, though. In Wilmington, Delaware, Obama picked up Vice President-elect Joe Biden. “Happy birthday, kid! Welcome to Wilmington!” Biden told Michelle Obama, the soon-to-be first lady who turned 45 that day. And then in Baltimore, the Obamas and Bidens held a rally.

Berman took photos during those stops as well, but she realized her more interesting ones were shot from the moving train. It was through the train’s windows, not on the grounds at the rallies, that she could truly observe the people and the places.

“I expected the crowds,” Berman said. “What was always so startling was when it was just one person just standing there alone. And you had no idea how long they’d been standing there – maybe hours. But there was always a kind of sense of wonder and smile on their expression.”

Those smiling faces, filled with a sense of wonder, belonged to all kinds of people from all kinds of places.

“It was remarkably mixed in terms of age, in terms of gender, in terms of race,” the photographer said. “You would see people standing out in the more suburban, maybe wealthier communities just as much as you would see people standing out on the street or looking out from their back porch in some of the poor parts of Baltimore.”

From the train, Berman observed when the architecture would change a bit or when houses would start to feel a little closer to the railroad tracks.

“There was a real sense of hope amid what’s, in some of the pictures, obviously a pretty shattered landscape,” she said.

Berman calls her photo series “Obama Train,” and she said it reminds her of a body of work by Paul Fusco, a friend and fellow photographer. Fusco documented people lining the route of the Robert F. Kennedy funeral train, which traveled from New York City to Washington carrying the body of the assassinated senator in June 1968.

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    One of Berman’s pictures, No. 8 in the gallery above, shows a man standing in the back of a pickup truck in front of a house.

    “What’s so cool is, looking at these pictures now, people aren’t on their cell phones,” Berman said. “If they’re holding something, a device, it’s a little camera or they’re just waving; they don’t need to take a selfie. … They’re truly in the moment, and that’s something we’ve lost.

    “Like the guy in the truck: He doesn’t have a camera, he doesn’t have a cell phone, he’s not texting his friend, ‘Hey, I just saw the train.’ “

    Another picture, the first in the gallery, shows people gathered behind a fence. It’s a moment filled with symbolism.

    “I’m not sure where it was, somewhere along the route, but I really like that one as well because once the president-elect gets to Washington, in many ways he’s gone from the people,” Berman said. “I like that picture because of the fence, because it’s as though it indicates the separation, as well as a kind of desire, to be in contact.”

    It’s pretty unique for a president-elect to take a train to their inauguration, Berman said. They usually tend to fly to Washington.

    “Obama I think tried to make it into something that the public could participate in,” she said.

    The whistle-stop train trip was significant for another reason also. Obama was following in the tracks of another American president, one he has the utmost reverence and gratitude for: Abraham Lincoln. In February 1861, Lincoln traveled by train on his journey to the presidency.

    “I think it was a remarkable moment in American history, whether people voted for Obama or not,” Berman said about the presidential election of Obama. “There was a sense of a profound historical moment, that was also an optimistic one. …

    “People speak about the divisions in the country today and the nastiness and the political speech, but it wasn’t that way in early 2009. Something changed between then and now.”

    Nina Berman is a photographer based in New York. She is represented by NOOR Images. You can follow her on Instagram and Twitter.