“I Vote Because” Photography project gives voters a voice

Photography by Janette Beckman

Today is election day, but you probably already knew that thanks to countless reminders and “I Voted!” stickers on social media. If it feels like people are emphasizing voting more than ever, it’s because they probably are. No matter what their political views are, most people have a strong opinion about the current administration, and this election could reduce or aid President Trump’s decision making power. Renowned photographer Janette Beckman and PROOF: Media for Social Justice executive director Leora Kahn understood this, and were eager to do their part to encourage people to vote. They decided to do so through photography, thus the “I Vote Because” campaign was born.

Janette Beckman and Leora Kahn came up with the idea in December, while chatting in a cafe in New York: They would go to swing states, take portraits of people on the street, and ask them why it is important to vote. If they weren’t registered to vote, PROOF’s team would register them right then and there.

PROOF is a New York City based non-profit that uses visual storytelling to inspire action on issues surrounding human rights. Beckman is a renowned documentary photographer who has done lots of photography work regarding the punk and hip-hop eras in London, New York, and Los Angeles. She has also done photography for rap and hip-hop labels, including for artists such as The Police and Salt-N-Pepa.

For Beckman, being able to get out of the “New York bubble” and meet people in other parts of the United States was exciting, especially as someone from the UK.

“We all live in New York you know, and it’s a bubble,” she said. “And here we are in swing states where it could go either way and there are a lot of different beliefs and a lot of different types of people. It was an amazing experience.”

She likened the experience to photographer Richard Avedon’s 1985 project titled “In the American West,” where Avedon traveled through the west photographing many different kinds of everyday people.

Beckman was inspired by this to make sure that the “I Vote Because” campaign was as diverse as possible. After all, America is a country of immigrants, she pointed out.

Beckman and the PROOF team also wanted to make sure they reached the communities that are disproportionately affected by voting restrictions and the inconvenience of voting. For example, seven states have very strict photo ID laws, where citizens must present multiple kinds of government issued photo identification to be able to vote. But more than 21 million Americans don’t have this kind of ID, and they are disproportionately low-income, racial minorities, or disabled. Other kinds of restrictions that make it hard to vote are transportation to voting locations, and the bans that some states still have prohibiting ex-felons from being able to vote.

Beckman and the PROOF team believe that voting restrictions should be lifted and that all people should have the right to vote, no matter their situation.

“You know, it doesn’t matter how poor you are, or if you’re an ex-felon or a drug dealer or you’re homeless– your vote should count and your voice should count. That’s the most important thing,” Beckman said.

To take the photos for “I Vote Because,” Beckman and Kahn set up white backgrounds on the streets of cities like Jacksonville, Milwaukee, and St. Louis. They usually focused on working-class neighborhoods. In Jacksonville, they set up their set in front of the bus station which was situated between a homeless shelter, a drug rehab center, and near a prison. Then, they simply photographed people who walked by and asked them why they thought it was important to vote.

They photographed approximately a hundred people a day, and gathered lots of interest from those who saw them and were curious about what they were doing.

“Somebody would see us an they’d come all the way over in their wheelchair, over all of this bumpy ground in the parking lot to come and get their photo taken and be a part of it. Some guy rode his Harley onto the set to get his photo taken,” Beckman said with a laugh. “Some guy even came up trying to sell us weed, and we said “do you vote?” and he said “yes” so I was like, “let’s take your picture.” People would see us and be curious about what we were doing, and would want to be a part of it.”

The finished portraits can be seen on PROOF’s website. They are all in black and white, and featured their subject in whatever way felt natural to them. Some people smiled, some people did not. Some people held objects that reflected their jobs or hobbies, and some people posed with their arms around their children and loved ones. Beckman stayed away from posing the subjects– she wanted them to appear as they really are.

The final images are being displayed on billboards, buses and subway stations. They are accompanied by quotes about why that person values voting. A few examples of quotes are, “I vote because my ancestors couldn’t” and “I vote because it’s my obligation to protect the rights and future of my children.”

Now that it’s election day, Beckman hopes that the people who participated in the photoshoot and people who have seen the campaign take time out of their day to vote. Regardless of what happens, she’s proud of PROOF’s efforts.

“After the last election a lot of people got really depressed because it wasn’t the president they wanted. In my own practice, I wanted to use the tool that I have, which is photography, to try and help change what was going on,” she said. “So that’s what I’ve done. And whether it’s working or not, I don’t know, but at least I know I tried to do something and I’m really proud of it.”

In the end, the “I Vote Because” campaign is about more than simply voting once on election day. It’s about listening to those whose voices are often ignored or deemed less important about the issues that affect their lives, from immigration to civil rights to health insurance. PROOF’s campaign has brought these people into the spotlight.

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