There is a lot to NOT like about politics. The politicians, the process, the stalemate in our government, I could go on for a long while with this list.
Despite these issues, democracy and the right to vote for our elected officials in the United States is still very sought after.
Various media outlets are constantly parsing the voting public for statistics about who is going to vote for who.
I’m less interested in the numbers and more interested in the people. As a naturally curious photographer, I sought to create a people study of sorts. A visual collection of who the newest American voters are. Seems easy, right?
Anyone 18 before election day can vote, so finding a group of high school seniors was a good start. Most of them learn about the process in school and actually register to vote.
That leaves people who are new American citizens. Not so tough, I thought. I’ll just go to some US Naturalization ceremonies and find my subjects there. Except that these typically happen in a US Federal Court House. Having spent some of my early photo years in the news and wire service photo world, I knew access to this was not going to be easy. Cameras (and lighting equipment) in a federal court house is a tall order, especially without a contact on the inside.
After about 30 phone calls to everyone from my Congressman to USCIS (US Customs and Immigration Services) I realized I needed to make my pitch in person. I trudged to federal court in Hartford, CT and made my pitch to a kind woman who looked at me like I was an alien. I’m sure she was wondering why she drew the short straw of listening to my pitch for a photo project.
All was not lost, I left Hartford with a phone number of a woman who was the facilities manager for all the federal court houses in Connecticut (there are 3, one each in Hartford, New Haven and Bridgeport). She was kind enough to tell me that on consecutive Friday’s once a month at each court house they have naturalization ceremonies….four time a day. I felt myself getting closer to at least getting rejected by the right person. I called the facilities manager and left her a rambling message about this photo project, knowing a call back was unlikely. She called back 15 minutes after my first message (success!) and told me I needed to get permission from the judge who presides over the ceremonies…. and she even offered to ask for me. I sent her an outline of the project and she was off to ask the judge in Bridgeport if I could have access.
I waited…and waited. Two weeks went by and nothing. I was sure the project was dead the water. I rang her up once more to see if she had any luck. She had just heard back from the judge that day and she said he “loved the idea.” I was shocked and excited.
They told me I was welcome to come as for the next series of ceremonies, setup and “do whatever you need.” Too good to be true, I thought. I was told they have 4 ceremonies on Friday at 9:30, 11:30, 1:30 and 3:30 with as many as 80 people per ceremony. Did I hear that right? How was I going to do this? How was I going to get people to stand for a portrait with that many people? Would anyone do this for me? How would I get basic info from the subjects like full name and an email address, much less ask them if they were going to vote in November.
I rolled into the Bridgeport Federal Courthouse with a cart of gear, my Summer intern, cameras and a lot of faith this was going to work out and not be a bust (or a mob scene.) The first group rolled out and Audrey and I were ready. We had about 15 or 20 people stop by, some smiling, some confused, but all willing to stand for a portrait. We had waves of being super busy and waves of just waiting (“welcome to the world of photography”, I told Audrey. “it’s always like that”. ) We repeated the process for the rest of the day and had great success. People can be very gracious, even to a stranger with a camera and an idea. During the day we met the representative from the League of Women Voters, who was there signing up all the new citizens so they can vote in November. We even signed Audrey up, as she was out of school the day they had voter registration. All in all a huge success. We shot a few more days, including at a local high school where an art and photo teacher thought the project was a neat idea.
In the end, we photographed nearly 100 new voters and met some very nice people. The oldest was 83 (she was lovely) and the youngest turns 18 in late October, right before election day.
The flag, which I have been saving and looking for the right way to use, was found in a renovation at our 100 year-old house almost a decade ago. It’s been sitting in a drawer waiting for the right use.
The project has a potential publisher in a monthly magazine for their November issue, but I’ll hold of until mentioning the details until it’s a done deal. I’m just too superstitious.
Some of these folks look happy, some sad, some mad, some have very subtle thoughts behind their caring eyes. It’s a true cross section of America.
We never talked politics, just about voting, the mostly pure part of democracy. I hope you enjoy the photos as much as I enjoyed the journey to create them.
Which are your favorite images? Post a comment and let me know what you think.
You can see more New American Voters on my web site here.