The 2020 Presidential Election, Through the Eyes of Magnum Photographers
Over 72 hours, 30 Magnum members photographed across six US states and 13 countries, capturing rallies, debates, simmering tensions, moments of isolation and unity, hope and fear, as the election played out
30 Magnum photographers started making work on Monday, November 2, as the US election drew toward its closing days. From rallies and voting centres across America, to protests outside Planned Parenthood facilities, foreboding street scenes, and reflections on home and family, all the way to jury service in London, abortion protests in Poland, and rememberances on the streets of Tehran, here we share a selection of this material, along with respective the photographers’ notes and thoughts.
This feature is a co-publication with Vogue.
Peter van Agtmael
“It’s early in the morning on monday, the day before the U.S. election. I’ve just finished filing and need to get to sleep, but I wanted to jot down a few words as this climactic moment finally arrives. The future has rarely looked so murky to me, regardless of the outcome of the election. Who will win? Will there be violence? If so, how much, and to what end? Will the results be accepted regardless of the outcome? Has this Pandora’s box of the past four year changed the United States beyond redemption? I suppose Trump’s presidency mostly revealed what has been there all along. We are a completely depraved and nihilistic country in so many ways, but it’s amazing how our potent myths can sustain us, even when our eyes are open. I think I want to watch Hollywood epics from the ’60s when this is all over and pretend we live in a simpler world.
Tonight I’ll go to Trump’s final rally that ends early in the morning, drive a few hours to Detroit, and fly in the morning to DC for the election. I’m exhausted after weeks on the road. I hope I’m doing a decent job. Photography feels very limited right now, but I’m very glad to be keeping my hands and my head busy. I’ve attached a few pictures to this email of the first part of the road trip, with more to come over the coming days… It’s a bit scattered, but it’s a bit too soon for me to effectively process what I’ve been doing.”
“UK. November 2, 2020. The day before US presidential election.
I have not been able to do anything related to the election in these days as I have been sitting in court on jury service. It’s a bit annoying when you get called to do it but the process itself is fascinating to be part of. We were guided through it all and had all the points of law explained to us but they also kept reminding us ‘ladies and gentlemen of the jury, you must use your experience and common sense’. So there we were, this group of suitably random people, given the responsibility of making a decision based on what we believe to be ‘right’. It did of course make me think about the election too. When we were done (he was guilty) I did a quick picture of us each as a record.”
“My wife Anna, on her phone at 6.30am, to check the first results from the US election. I remember the shock of waking up like this four years ago, when we saw Trump’s surprise win. Today when we devourd those first headlines, we were prepared for something similar, but still incredulous it was so close and undecided, even after the last four years of madness. We woke up at 6.30am this morning, and both Anna and I immediately grabbed our phones, much like 4 years ago. Back then we woke up in total shock, this time we were maybe more emotionally prepared… but still dejected today that it is so close. How is it possible after 4 years of this madness, that it is a cliffhanger? Ugh.”
“I returned to New York less than one month ago from Istanbul, living in a racially mixed Brooklyn neighborhood. l was very happy to see such enthusiasm to vote, even though long lines stretched around the block several times. From abroad, America seemed to be like a reality-based TV show: long colorful nails, amazing highlighted hair colors, chopped, ready-to-eat foods, the smell of fried chicken, marijuana fumes, and fantasy animal costumes; a dazzling spectrum of sexy things and inventive curses. But when I saw New York up close, through my lens, I saw some true and sumptuous emotions. A young Republican girl asked me if I wore a headscarf as a stylish costume like Audrey Hepburn which she thought was a nice idea. I also spent a few days near the Trump Tower on the windy Fifth Avenue, near the same Tiffany window where Audrey had her “breakfast.” A cop nearby winked at me. Maybe he saw the movie too.”
“These two images live well together for me as the memorial of flowers and David are a representation of the area of Third Ward and the societal climate we’re transitioning into today. As I roam the area where George Floyd grew up, I think about the death he had to endure and also the death that needs to happen to our crooked justice system. David being a new elected politician at the bright start of his career, gives me the hope of the crooked justice that needs to be refined. This is what this election represents to me, and way of life that will leave, no matter who is elected.”
“I’ve been in South Texas for the past week without a camera and sleeping in a minivan. There’s a lovely sign at the entrance to the parking lot where we’re sleeping tonight before flying home.”
“I’m so far away from everything. I feel like I am in another world. During these election days, I am travelling across France to pick up a historical book I bought. The Carte Photographique du Ciel is probably one of the biggest failed scientific projects ever. For almost 60 years, 20 observatories all over the globe – except for the US – worked together to catalogue the whole sky. For generations, in an attempt to count all the stars, male astronomers spent their nights outdoors, making 22,0000 photographic plates of the stars, while female ‘computers’ spent their days hunched over the results, classifying and measuring the brightness and position of the stars. Hours, days, months, years go by, but they will never count the last star. After all those years, they eventually have to give up. Thinking of all of you over there in the US. I hope for the best outcome, always want to believe in the impossible.”
“Since the beginning of the Covid-19 crisis, I have tried to photograph this new, online world that started to appear. Mainly on Zoom. From weddings, parties, trials, and religious services….. to political events.
The 2020 US presidential campaign, not only because of the extreme polarization, was truly a campaign like no other. At the height of the 2nd wave of the Covid-19 crisis, both candidates had drastically reduced their traditional public campaigning.
The Biden campaign was practically happening in a virtual space. President Trump has survived his Covid infection and continued to campaign in person and disrespect anti-Covid measures repeatedly. For Republicans “ZOOM” is an insult.
In the last days, I signed into a large number of last-minute campaign events and returns watching parties – mostly Democrat. On Monday there were a lot of prayers for Biden and Harris, that the election will happen peacefully. Tuesday: the limbo of waiting for the returns coming in slowly, slowly. As we speak now, on Thursday morning, there is what seems realistic wishful thinking the Biden camp…….
“The fishing village of Marsalforn on the island of Gozo. Malta. November 2, 2020.
I am on an island in the Mediterranean called Gozo, off Malta. But I was out shooting this morning thinking about Trump and the US election. A cab picked me up at 6.30 this morning. I asked if anyone on the island might not have heard of Donald Trump. The driver, after doubting that, said, ‘You know, Trumpa, that’s a word in Maltese. It means getting things upside down.’ I asked for an example. He said it refers to a person who continually makes mistakes: ‘If I’d gone to pick up someone else this morning and not you, I’d be a ‘trumpa’.’ It must be a local idiom because I cannot find it in Google. Anyway I headed to Marsalforn, a sleepy fishing village and tourist trap in the season. I saw some scratched paint on a wall that reminded me of an electoral map. I saw a sewer drain coming out of that same wall that reminded me of Trump. Then I found a wall on the sea and that reminded me all Trump’s total achievement as president: divide and rule. He has increased division in US, created dangerous divides between people, become the king of the Philistines, racists, tax dodgers and far right extremists set against those who wish for a fairer society, less division between rich and poor, and between peoples. So the wall is a symbol for me of Trump’s tenure as president.
Malta. 2020. November 3. Election day in the US. Processing film in my darkroom. The countdown clock.
I got up early to make coffee and process film from yesterday. Some way through the work my humble ancient ticking darkroom countdown clock took on an added significance. “We are all counting down today,” I thought. Fingers crossed for Biden.”
Late Monday afternoon Alessandra and I drove to the rural town of Valley Ford, which is about 10 miles from where we live.
Joel and his family own Dinucci’s which is the oldest restaurant in town. He lives behind the restaurant with his wife, 2 young children, and his mother in law. There are always large pro-Trump banners prominently hanging off the roof of his house, and we decided to knock on his door and talk to him. He is a friendly and welcoming man, with a mohawk and large soul patch, wearing his “commie killer” tee-shirt with pride. Pet rabbits hop around his front lawn while we sit on the porch and Alessandra speaks to him about the election, while he cuddles and kisses his young son.
Joel predicts that Trump will win, and he thinks that most people in the area agree with him- farmers and ranchers alike. They are convinced that if Trump loses and Biden wins then the BLM movement (Black Looters Matter as he put it) will take over the country. Together with the Socialists and Globalist/Zionist mafia, they will control our lives and minds. Joel has guns and a month’s supply of food reserves stored away. He says we should meet his brother who’s a flat earther. We say our goodbyes, leaving more bewildered than we came
On Tuesday Alessandra and I drove to polling stations in the towns of Vallejo and Vacaville, CA. While there we photographed and interviewed people involved in the voting process.
Later in the day we decided to drive up to the State Capitol of Sacramento and attend the Trump Election Night Celebration Party- In God We Trust. Upon arrival we found around 60-70 screaming Christians who were wildly waving Trump flags and huge crosses. People were selling tee shirts and hats. The only people wearing masks were Alessandra and I, and mine was fogging my polaroid viewfinder.
The mass craziness was amplified by the sound of joyful hymns, shouted prayers, and blaring early-night Trump results from a projection above our heads. We looked at each other in disbelief.
Like many of you reading this I spent all of Wednesday anxiously wondering what would happen and agonizing over the fact that more people voted for Trump in 2020 than four years ago. It seemed apropos to combine a double-exposed Polaroid of the headlines from that morning paper ” ……Turnout Soars….Tumult Delivers….” with persimmons hanging to dry from the roof of our shed.”
“My head has been spinning. I feel hungover from the emotional roller coaster. Last night was deep despair, when it appeared Trump had won, but it’s been incredible to watch Biden claw his way back…. And he has just won Michigan, which means it looks like he’s about to clinch it. It’s been a crazy 48 hours, but making these photographs has given me something to channel my anxiety into, if nothing else….”
“Russia. November 3, 2020.
I’m in the South of Russia, staying at the fascinating home of a videographer called Maru Kuleshova. Nothing here feels more far away than the elections in the US.
Putin is probably nervous now but here I think most people don’t even know that they are happening. Maru’s mum learnt that the elections are happening when I tried to turn on the news on their TV today but the Wi-Fi would be stuck all the time.
My fingers are crossed that at least the US nightmare will end today…”
“Mexico. November 2, 2020.
The day before USA’s presidential election. The stars, white, red, blue. United States of America. Fiction – Vision I. Intervened photography.
‘The Star as a symbol of the eternal makes us aware of our fragility, that the time and space we inhabit is finite and our ghosts, however ancient they may seem, are present in times of uncertainty, of fear of what is coming, of what may. This present invites us to reflect, to become aware, to dig deep into ourselves to touch this overwhelming reality. We stand on the shoulders of our parents, grandparents, of all those who burned in the struggle to form an ideal, an image , a voice that is also seen.’
Mexico. November 3, 2020. The territory defines us; It molds us, In the same way that the air to the mountain, the river to the rock. Our body and consciousness is shaped by the land we walk on by the air we breathe. Borders are physical, social, political, cultural; It is fear of the other that divides man.”
“At 6am I began a long day criss-crossing through diverse neighborhoods in Brooklyn and Queens, looking for and at who was voting, thinking about first-time voters and poll workers, those who said this was a moment to participate in their community and reframe our ‘democracy’ without knowing what the outcome might be.”
Cristina de Middel
“Spain. Elche. November 2, 2020.
Life without Trump. Gato lives in the rural area of Elche; in the South East of Spain; where he takes care of his goats and a small field of artichokes. He doesn’t know who Donald Trump is, nor does he know any of the previous US presidents. He says he does not care about polititians because he is only interested in people who work hard. For him, if you never worked hard you do not understand what life is about. Everyday he goes to his field to look after his artichokes and then takes his goats to the countryside and then watches them feed in silence. He never heard of Trump or Obama and rejects any information or conversation that could complicate his simple and balanced life.”
“Warsaw, Poland. 02.11.2020. For the past twelve days women, and supportive men, have been protesting against the introduction of a more restrictive abortion law. They have been the most massive protests since the fall of communism in Poland. The new abortion ban proposal has been raised several times by the right-wing government over the past few years and it has always been protested against. On October 22nd the politicised Constitutional Court declared abortion in the case of a severely damaged fetus illegal.
Warsaw, Poland. 03.11.2020. After the massive protests against the abortion ban that took place on Friday October 30th, several smaller ones took place in various locations. Women’s rights movements consolidated people. Today the city was rather quiet as the pandemic is reaching its peak. Despite the red-zone restrictions, people took to the streets in smaller groups. Critical Mass bikers were supposed to drive through Warsaw in a show of solidarity with the Women’s Strike, but police stopped them. A few blocks away, students were protesting in front of Warsaw University’s gate against a new minister of education who is famous for his homophobic and misogynistic statements.”
“UK. November 2, 2020. We bought this three years ago from Jo’s friend Sue Hurman. I reinserted the pins just now. You never know; it might work.
Brighton, UK. November 3, 2020. After spending a few days in Italy printing a new book I returned to the UK on Friday under strict government instructions to self-isolate for a fortnight. This is strange, since Italy seems to be dealing with the virus far better than we are. I felt completely safe there, but arriving at Heathrow was terrifying; precious little attempt at social distancing by anyone, and very few people wearing masks. Anyway, I’m stuck inside with Kodak, my dog. The TV is on, the fire is roaring, and the exit polls are pending…”
“The election has been very stressful. In Philly people have remained calm and quiet, but internally everyone is stressed. What I hope people learn or realize from this election is that our lives aren’t a game to be played with. It shouldn’t be a game of how masculine and arrogant one is, but for the sake of humanity making sure every human has access to public healthcare, quality education and reasonable income to sustain their lives. I’m not done with politics after this election.”
“I visited a wall in the Third Ward that held a powerful rendering of the face of George Floyd. I felt as if I should pay my respects to George Floyd, even if it was not his place of burial. His death reached well beyond the USA and moved so many human beings to feel the pain of his leaving this life. I decided to let my shadow stay in the photographic image, perhaps in my own mind wanting to add to something in the photograph that would say quietly, ‘we will remember you.'”
“Spain. November 3, 2020.
I am currently in northern Spain walking the “camino” peregrination to Santiago de Compostela. I will be making work here for the next few weeks. I have been walking only for a few days and the path is very empty, because of the new COVID-19 restrictions that have been put into effect, but there are still some shops and bars along the way. I got to watch a bit of the news reportage on the election, and like some of you already said, it feels really remote from here, partly because locals do not seem to care in the current pandemic panic, and partly because of the immensity of the landscape.”
“Jordan. November 4, 2020.
The day after the US presidential election. Obsessively listening to CNN this morning as I drive down to the Dead Sea. I saw this shepherd watching her flock from a vantage point overlooking the ancient Jordan Valley.
Time seems to pass slower in this ancient land.”
“November 2nd. Catalina, wearing my voting sticker watching the news with us on Monday night. She’s worn out from the last three months’ news cycles.
Yesterday Jim and I drove to polling stations in Vallejo and Vacaville, and ended at a nutty Trump/Jesus outdoor party in front of the Sacramento State Capitol. Cat begged us not to go to the latter. She said it was dangerous because they don’t wear masks and they yell in your face, but we promised to social distance (we tried…we couldn’t…don’t tell her…) When we got home she asked us to shower and wash our clothes before we did anything else. She has been so much more responsible about Covid than we have. She’s also been insisting all summer that we should move to Europe, more precisely, Paris, if Trump wins. She’s been fantasizing about the walks she would take, the cafes she’d hang out in, and mostly of being free of the news cycle that she says Jim and I are consumed by. Today she’s been stuck to her computer checking the election results and keeping me updated. She just ran into my studio shrieking happily that Biden won Wisconsin and Michigan.
Here are some pictures of her from the last three days as she followed the election and its results, similar to a picture I took back in 2016 the night Trump won. Can’t believe how much she’s grown since then… And oh, how I hope she doesn’t have to spend her sweet teenage years watching how the country self-destructs under Trump.”
“Monday, November 2nd, 7:30 pm: I sat down near République Square on a Johann Strauss statue. The 2nd lockdown in France is different. All bars, restaurants, cinemas are closed. People are permitted only to go to work and then back home. No silence, no emptiness like in the spring. Just people coming back from work.
Tuesday, November 3rd, 10 pm: My wife and I don’t have any TV, I don’t watch the news on a daily basis, but tonight, we browsed different news channels to follow the US elections. Because of the time difference we won’t be able to know the result until the morning.
Wednesday, November 4th, 7 am: The result of the elections is not yet given. I remember the election of Bush Junior in 2000 and the wars he launched in Iraq, in Afghanistan. These countries still live in chaos and death. 20 years later the world is still paying the consequences of these unnecessary wars. I wonder, can an American president get worse than Bush Junior?”
“South Africa. November 3, 2020.
Today I spent some time with Tayler Friar, a historian lecturer at UCT who is based in Cape Town, but originally from Oakland, California. She voted via absentee ballot from South Africa. Like everyone in the world, she is worried about what the future holds for Black Americans. The person who Tayler is holding is Winnie Madikizela Mandela, a very important figure in South Africa’s history of democracy, she was an anti-apartheid activist and politician, and the second wife of Nelson Mandela. She went through a lot because of the oppression at the time and she was a single mother to her children while Nelson Mandela was serving his time in prison.
Below are Friar’s words:
‘It’s just ironic that today we literally are fighting for a White House that was built by slaves. The sacrifice, the blood, the sweat, the tears, the recurring racism, and systemic oppression that black people face, the degradation of the female body, the brutalization of black men. Black folks have been left out of so much of the American purpose and ethos. Black people have been left out again from the very same White House that they built. I, too am American. It’s a black cry to remember us, our stories, and that we are part of the future of the country.’
Spending time with Tayler today got me thinking about what the future holds for Black people in the world.”
“November 2, 2020.
I’m ashamed of myself. This morning I went to the Planned Parenthood building several blocks away from my studio. As always, there were a half dozen protestors on the public sidewalk. Instead of my normal approach of asking for permission, I decided to harass the protestors the same way they do the young women driving into the parking lot. Tit for tat. The protestors immediately covered their faces. The guy in the Trump hat (“Make Liberals Cry Again”) pulled out his phone and started filming me. What a ridiculous scene: two angry men fighting each other with cameras. And what did our lenses see? Cardboard cutouts that reaffirm the notion that the other side isn’t human.
My 18-year-old daughter Carmen on her first election day as a voter. USA. Minnesota. November 3, 2020.
Gregory McDaniels, 74, has attended the Wednesday evening peace vigil on the Lake Street bridge overlooking the Mississippi River since 1999. This post-election Wednesday felt like just another day in the painfully slow march for peace.”
“Johannesburg, South Africa. November 4, 2020.
Watching the election with my wife and dog – as things in the US start to turn a little more positive, Maria and Lorelei Subotzky join me outside for a much-needed drink. Johannesburg has summer thunderstorms and our garden feels as green as ever.”
“Tehran, Iran. November 3, 2020.
A street peddler gathers up his products along a highway between Tehran and the suburb of Lavasan on the night of the US elections. In the background, is a billboard showing Lt-Gen. Qassem Soleimani, who was killed by a U.S. drone in January in Baghdad. The fates of Iran and the United States are intertwined in an ironic way. American sanctions have worn out the Iranian economy and in the past weeks, everything has been placed on hold to see what the result of the elections will be. It is strange for me that an event so far away can feel so close.”
“Canada. November 2, 2020.
I didn’t have a picture today to accompany [the day before the election] but when I turned around the sun was on my table, so I grabbed some stuff and made a still life. Does the sun move fast indoors! In the background to the right is a migrant’s waterbottle, wrapped in denim, picked up in the Sonora desert. In the foreground is a piece of blanket used by a migrant to wrap his shoes so as not to leave foot prints in the sand – found by The Wall. To the left is a mask, sold in border towns for those about to cross.
November 3, 2020.
I took this photo in case I needed this to smell the coffee in the morning. Canada is very close to the US border and as the saying goes: Everytime the elephant rolls over we feel it. Everytime the elephant sneezes we get a cold.
Morning After: I woke up this morning to sunlight creeping across the ceiling. I use it as my alarm clock. I can always tell what time it is that way. It was 7:32 AM— more or less. It was time to go downstairs and listen to the news…. I didn’t get any answers.”
“I decided to spend some time in some of the Brooklyn neighborhoods that I photographed for Rebecca’s and my book on the borough, to see what, if anything different was happening. These photographs are from the Chinese section of Sunset Park. Most of the images suggest that—at least on the surface—daily life continues uninterrupted by electoral concerns. The exception to this being the two images of the largely empty foot doctor’s waiting room with a television set.”