U.S. Election Day has its recurring motifs: red, white and blue vote signs, corrugated plastic voting booths, ballot boxes, stars and stripes. Voting photos quickly become repetitive, even before the sun rises on the West Coast.
Quirky polling stations such as laundromats, beauty salons and churches are hard to find, buried among hundreds of voting places listed only by address.
Hoping to portray something uniquely Californian, I woke before dawn and headed to the lifeguard headquarters on Venice Beach. During Obama fever in 2008, a long line of waiting voters cast shadows on the wall outside.
There were no voters as the polling place opened for these midterm elections. The room that had been full of voting booths two years ago now only had a few.
Often the California coast is swathed in early morning fog, but during cooler months, the air is crisp and clear. An open door gave a postcard view of surfers on the beach and when voters started trickling in, it became brighter.
I wanted the sky and water to remain deep blue, so I set the exposure for outside, and put a flash on the camera, dialed down one stop, and turned 45 degrees to the left to hit the first two polling booths.
As the sun emerged over the horizon, a beam of light fell across the floor. Minutes later, two surfers carrying their longboards emerged from the ocean and walked across the frame.
After a mother voted with her young son, I exposed for bright light and captured the boy’s face in the warm glow as a poll worker handed him a sticker for voting.
I wasn’t the only photographer to seek out voters at the beach. My favorite picture of the day was a dreamlike image of a surfer reflected in the window of a Hermosa Beach polling place taken by Reuters freelancer David McNew.
This was the first election that I’ve been able to vote in over the 13 years I’ve lived in the U.S. For the first time, I researched every proposition and candidate down to the last local council member.
As I wore my “I voted” sticker later that night waiting to photograph losing gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman’s election night rally, I thought about it being less than 100 years since women were given the right to vote in the U.S. I thought about women I’d photographed voting in Afghan elections last year, despite a threat that the Taliban would cut off the ink-stained finger of anyone who voted. I thought about my mother who grew up in Poland, a country with a single-party dictatorship.
It felt good to be more than just an observer.