12 December 2007

Vote Here: The AIGA Polling Place Photo Project

Exit, Precinct Polling Station DM 8 ~ Westchester Evangelical Free
Church (West Entrance) Des Moines, Iowa (2006).

Photograph © Matt Niebuhr and Matt Niebuhr.

Among several potentially interesting stories in the Winter 07 issue of Aperture (#189) is one called "Vote Here" which is one result of the AIGA Polling Place Photo Project. I have ifted this image here from Mat Niebuhr and am not even sure that it is part of the Aperture story (since I do not subscribe). Another of Matt's excellent photographs ~ at right below ~ is the lead image in the story:

I want to come back to Matt's work in another post. At the moment I want to comment on an oddity of the AIGA project. I have posted on a related undertaking here before. On thier web page the AIGA folk implore citizen photojournalists to "document democracy," to "capture, post and share photographs of democracy in action." The aim was to produce and distribute images "documenting their local voting experience." I will start with the caveat that in many ways this is an admirable idea. But I want to point out that voting is neither necessary nor sufficeint for "democracy in action." In the post immediately preceeding this one I link to a video at The Guardian that documents democratic action quite distant from the polling place. And even if one wanted to say voting is nonetheless crucial to democratic decision-making it really is not a simple isolated act. Consider this image:

The Migrants Gather and Cast Their Ballots
(1974) © Jacob Lawrence.

In this print Lawrence clarifies that the act of voting takes place in a larger context, minimally including discussion and debate about politics. His subjects are chatting (perhaps disagreeing, perhaps not) and reading the paper and navigating the bureaucracy (voter registration rolls). From the perspective of a political theorist this is not a trivial observation (even though it is one that might be dismissed as 'something your grandmother knows') precisely because many social scientific models of democratic decision-making neglect it and thereby generate oddball results. From the perspctive of someone interested in politics and photography it suggests that what is most important about polling places is not just about what happens in the booth. And that goes for those interested in 'democracy in action' too.

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