Photography: New York Times Magazine: Democracy by Mail

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The 15 November 2020 edition of the New York Times Magazine was a special issue about Democracy by Mail, pulling together two of the big stories of 2020 and highlighting again the role of magazines in recording history.

For the issue, three photographers followed the process of voting by mail in the recent US election. This quite normal, democratic, activity was made extraordinary by the increased number of votes cast by mail due to the Coronavirus pandemic. 60 million people, twice the usual number, chose this way to vote over joining the queue on election day.

The magazine follows the system from start to finish, an amazing story of machinery and people power. Using a postmark graphic throughout – it’s vast on the opener (above) but also features across the logo magazine masthead on the cover at a more realistic scale  – the photography is accompanied by brief texts but is otherwise left to tell the story.

After Emily Bazelon’s written introduction alongside Philip Montgomery’s black and white scene-setting shots of vote counting (above), we shift back in time to the printing of the ballot papers.

Photography director Kathy Ryan explains the origins of the story; ‘It was becoming very clear that there would be more mail-in ballots then ever in history and that Donald Trump would challenge the election results if he lost.’

‘Editor-in-chief Jake Silverstein felt it looked highly likely that the mail-in ballot itself would be at the center of the story and shooting Election Day would not be the way to go. So Jake decided to make the issue about the mail-in ballot. It was very prescient of him.’ The shoots started back in September.

Christopher Payne’s rich colour imagery traces how the huge volume of ballot forms were produced. Who can resist the sight of printing presses and finishing machines? But it’s not just the machinery, the photography reveals the scale of the human effort involved, summed up in a staff poster proclaiming ‘Election heroes work here’.

Next, Philip Montgomery tells the story of the postal workers charged with delivering the ballot papers for voting, one seemingly abstract image (below) resolving itself as the pattern made by trolley wheels as they scrape a tiled floor. Shot in Florida, Arizona and Pennsylvania, the images emphasise the scale of the undertaking.

The final section sees photographer Dina Litovsky record the voting and counting, her colour images capturing the human end points of the process – people in masks posting their ballots (above) and rows of people checking the ballot papers after they’ve been collected.

The story told in these pages would be powerful at any time, but given the questions being asked of the voting system and the people responsible for it, it takes on a whole other weight of meaning.

Despite Trump’s attempts to challenge the result, he has failed to establish a serious fault in the system.

This issue of the Times Magazine depicts the people the people he was challenging, people young and old, black and white, junior and senior, from different states and with various roles in the massive machine that measures the vote. The cover image sums up the story, and perhaps this extraordinary year: a woman of colour wearing mask and gloves, studiously checking absentee ballot forms in Michigan.

Editor-in-chief: Jake Silverstein
Creative director: Gail Bichler
Director of photography: Kathy Ryan
Deputy director of photography: Jessica Dimson
Designer: Caleb Bennett
Photo editor: Kristen Geisler
Art director: Ben Grandgenett

See the digital version of this story.

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