Snapshots of the 2020 election from five photographers across the Rust Belt

In cities across the Rust Belt, Black residents cast the votes that turned the tide of the 2020 general election, but the perspectives and experiences of those same residents are too often ignored. We asked five Black women photographers to capture the days leading up to the election, and its aftermath as they experienced it. In the story below, you’ll find an intimate look at the week from the perspective of photographers who call these cities home.

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Njaimeh Njie | Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

Njie - Election Day
         A sign reading, “Ready, Set, Vote” is posted at the East Liberty Station on the Martin Luther King Jr. East Busway in Pittsburgh, PA on Nov. 3rd, 2020.

I started off Election Day taking photographs at different polling places to get a sense of how the city felt that day. As I was driving around, the voting signage at the busway caught my eye. Not only is this bus stop in the middle of a steadily gentrifying neighborhood, but the sentiment that voting is easier than ever runs contrary to the voter suppression and significant complications of this election. This all fell in line with the challenges Black Pittsburgh residents face everyday. I started thinking about how we as Black folks take care of ourselves in the midst of so many things changing, and too many things staying the same.

Njie - Election Day 2
         Melinda Quinerly and Nisha Blackwell walk through the Bloomfield neighborhood of Pittsburgh on Nov. 3, 2020.

That evening I met up with two of my best friends for a socially distant check-in. As we walked back to our cars, it felt like we were walking into a great unknown. The next morning I flashed back to a photo I’d taken the day before of an old car, parked in a side yard, neatly tucked under cover. It reminded me how important it is for us to hold space for ourselves and to protect our energy. It reminded me to preserve the things that have brought us this far, and to tap into them to carry us on the road ahead.

Njie - Election Day 3
         A car parked off of Oakwood Street in Pittsburgh’s Homewood neighborhood on Nov. 3, 2020.

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Da’Shaunae Marisa | Cleveland, Ohio

Marisa - Election Day 2
A man reads from the newspaper while the television plays election coverage on Nov. 3, 2020.

As I walked outside my home to photograph the world of The Election, and the day after, I felt as though society was split between the people filled with anxiety over election chaos, and the people who just wanted to carry on with their lives. I went about my daily routine. I stopped at the local deli to play my grandmother’s lottery numbers, and I listened to the local chatter of current news. I stopped to get gas and spoke with the cashier as the election results played on a TV above an energy drink machine. I spent the day driving around different neighborhoods to see what people were doing.

I wondered: is there a way to tell the stress of a country by just looking at its citizens? People outside seemed to be enjoying themselves, but I thought if people were sitting at home watching the results, they must be feeling anxious.

Marisa - Election Day
Election coverage playing on a television in an Avon, Ohio gas station on Nov. 3, 2020

I decided to go into a pub in Avon, Ohio to order a snack. As expected, election results were playing. The gentleman at the bar asked the bartender to change the channel to anything that wasn’t about “this mess”—obviously referring to the election chaos. He needed a break, as I think so many people do. We choose how we spend our lives and what we tune into, and that was very apparent within these last two days.

Marisa - Election Day 3
Election results play on the television at the Caslon Pub in Avon, Ohio on Nov. 3, 2020.

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Nyia Sissac | Chicago, Illinois

Sissac - Election Day
Chicago commuters passing the boarded up Zumiez store on the corner of South State Street and East Madison Street in Chicago, on Nov. 3, 2020.

Monday, I woke up at six in the morning. After dropping my mother off at work, I had this heart feeling telling me to go take pictures downtown. I saw businesses already boarding up their buildings as a precaution for rioting and looting. It felt as if they knew something we didn’t know–but they didn’t. They were jumping to conclusions.

The day of the election, I was hit with the question of, “Where does my life go from here?” I began to feel terrified, thinking, “Will my rights be stripped from under my feet?” I left my crowded apartment for some fresh air and walked to the beauty supply. When I noticed the owner boarding up the windows, it made me question why they were afraid of the people they turn around and take money from.

Sissac - Election Day 2
The owner of a beauty supply boarding up his South Side business on Nov. 3, 2020.

The day after the election, I still felt mentally drained and bombarded with questions. I decided to take a couple pictures before my shift at work when I saw a group of musicians. I wondered how they could play music at a time like this. I soon remembered our people are built different, and we can heal through music. They blew me away and filled me with love.

Sissac - Election Day 3
Local Black musicians playing drums and the trombone in front of the Marshall Field’s building in Chicago on Nov. 4, 2020.

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Rachel Elise Thomas | Detroit, Michigan

Thomas - Election Day
Volunteers and a few last-minute voters at 7:48 p.m.—the end of a long Election Day at Vandenburg World Cultures Academy in Southfield, Michigan on Nov. 3, 2020.

“This is the calm before the storm”, I thought. I could feel it. The night before the election, I was driving around Downtown Detroit trying to find a neon sign that’s displayed on a storefront  window. It piqued my interest because it says “VOTE,” and because I have this thing for  photographing neon signs with my instant film camera. The night was uneventful and quiet. I  welcomed the stillness because I knew that Election Day and the days after would be a test of  my patience and endurance. I was not wrong.

Thomas - Election Day 2
Onlookers watch a shouting match between protestors outside the TCF Center in Detroit, Michigan on Nov. 4, 2020.

I cannot begin to tell how many parts of Detroit I was in on Election Day. From six a.m. to eight  p.m., I was in and out of my car photographing at specific polling locations and interacting with all kinds of people. The last photograph I took on election day was at 7:52 p.m.. I had hours of editing and retouching to do, and didn’t go to bed until after five a.m. the following morning. Before bed, I repeatedly looked at the News app on my phone to see the latest in the election results. Since then, I’ve been checking the results every once in a while, but I am hyper aware of notifications from the News app. Unfortunately it has done nothing but heighten my anxiety.

So, we wait for the outcome. I wait, you wait, the nation waits.

Thomas - Election Day 3
Ellie St. Clair joins demonstrators in support of counting every vote outside the TCF Center in Detroit, Michigan on Nov. 4, 2020.

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Yasmin Yassin | Minneapolis, Minnesota

Yassin - Election Day
Election coverage on television on Nov. 3, 2020.

Election Day for our family held a different level of importance this year, as we recently welcomed a daughter to our home less than two weeks prior to November 3. The day of the election was fairly uneventful in relation to activities that were done—we spent all of it indoors caring for a newborn baby. It was also a continuation of us staying mostly at home this year due to the pandemic.

Yassin - Election Day 2
Our family asleep after waiting for the initial election outcome results on Nov. 4, 2020.

As a new mother, I watched election coverage on television the entire day in between alternating nap shifts with my partner and tending to our newborn’s needs. I also spent the day in reflection on what the future would look like for my daughter, and on the magnitude of existing while two large events happened both inside our home; our daughter’s first few weeks, and as the nation decides on its own future and trajectory.

Yassin - Election Day 3
Infant clothing and a mask laid out prior to heading outside for a walk on Nov. 4, 2020. ■

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