“Photographers are the hidden heroes of getting out the vote,” Andy Bernstein, the Executive Director at HeadCount, a non-partisan organization that works with musicians to register voters and promote participation in democracy, tells us.
Over the past few months, his organization has worked with photographers to take pictures of hundreds of musicians and influencers wearing VOTE masks or holding ‘Register to Vote Now’ clipboards. The goal: combine eye-catching visuals with a powerful message.
In recent weeks, we’ve spoken with more than half a dozen on-the-ground voting organizations, all of whom have echoed this sentiment. Although photographers usually work behind-the-scenes rather than in the spotlight, they often prove instrumental in educating voters and spreading information and awareness about registration.
In anticipation of the 2020 election, we asked photographers, activists, and experts across different fields to share their ideas for getting out the vote. By turns clever and creative, these are their top tips for using your voice–and your camera–to inspire others and promote voter participation during this critical moment in American history.
Get active on social media.
“Do whatever you think you can and might enjoy,” Cass R. Sunstein, the Robert Walmsley University Professor at Harvard Law School, former White House administrator, and an informal advisor in the Obama campaign, suggests. “A simple one: If you use social media, remind people that you’re going to vote, and that you hope they will too. Or if you don’t use social media, and even if you do, find a way to tell that to at least five friends.
“Do it today, and tomorrow, and the next day, and for sure, on Nov. 1, Nov. 2, and (gulp) Nov. 3. If you have friends or followers in the swing states–say, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Arizona, or Florida–all the better.”
Post a selfie.
If you have a large social media following, this is one simple way to start. Similarly, if your clients include influential people, think about setting up a virtual–or at least, socially distanced–photoshoot.
You can find props and wardrobe items for your photos by shopping Resistance by Design, which collaborates with organizations helping to raise money and awareness to support voting and women’s rights. Michelle Obama’s When We All Vote organization has also released a voting merch collection, called Vote4Ever Merch, and it includes everything from candles to tanks.
You can also check out Levi’s Vote Collection; the brand is donating $2.6 million toward non-profit organizations across the country as part of their #VoteAboutIt campaign. The campaign also includes a powerful PSA made in collaboration with Hailey Bieber and filmmaker Oge Egbuonu, plus the artist Jazmine Williams and photographer Djeneba Aduayom, as well as the #UseYourVoice LIVE series on Instagram, running through election day.
No matter the size of your following, consider switching your profile photo to one where you’re wearing a mask, bandana, or shirt or holding a clipboard. Change your Instagram bio to highlight resources for people to register to vote, including a link to where they can take action.
Create your own photo challenge.
In 2012, the dance troupe Pilobolus teamed up with the photographer Robert Whitman to create a The Pilobolus Vote Project, a get-out-the-vote campaign featuring images of the dancers forming the word “VOTE” with their bodies in famous sites around New York City. They also encouraged others to make their own creative photos and share them using the hashtag #PilobolusVoteProject.
Similar ideas have since undergone multiple evolutions. In 2018, the ceramics artist Brit McDaniel spelled out the word “VOTE” using her tools and materials in the studio and posted a photo of it on Instagram. She invited followers to comment with their reasons for voting; the commenter with the most likes won a prize.
Still life photographers who want to play around with objects, flowers, food, etc., can try something along these lines. In the past few weeks, we’ve seen photographers post pictures of everything from light paintings to veggies spelling out the word “VOTE.”
This August, Maura, the NYC-based grad student behind the Instagram page @maurbooks, created the #VoteVoteVoteStackChallenge, another project encouraging people to start making their voting plans as soon as possible. Here’s how it works: friends and followers are invited to stack their favorite books to spell out the word “VOTE” and post a photo of their work to Instagram using the hashtag #VoteVoteVoteStackChallenge.
This year, Vote Like A Mother, a community group of parent activists, will launch their #VoteLikeAMother campaign, inviting people to respond to the prompt, “What Will You #VoteLikeAMother For?” Responses can be verbal or visual, so photographers can get creative in their answers.
Join one of these challenges, or start your own using a hashtag that you create. “I think there are a lot of opportunities for artists to create social-first content for voters right now,” Sara Berliner, the founder of Vote Like A Mother, tells us. “When artists make art about a particular issue, and it motivates people to vote—that’s a win. I think it’s about not reinventing the wheel. Artists can consider their existing audiences, and what outreach they respond best to.”
Host a giveaway.
Global Citizen and HeadCount recently launched Just Vote, a campaign encouraging your people to check their voter registration status and/or register to vote. Musicians like Tayor Swift, Billie Eilish, DJ Khaled, Usher, and more have donated experiences and memorabilia to the cause; once participants check their voter registration status (you can do this on the Just Vote website), they’re eligible to win some amazing rewards and performances.
Photographers can do something similar by asking followers, clients, or colleagues on Instagram to check their registration status. It takes less than a minute, so provide a link in your bio (Vote.org has one that’s simple to use). If they are registered, ask them to send you a DM confirming their status to be eligible to win a fine art print, calendar, photo session, or another reward of your choice. Maybe you make three prints available on a first-come, first-serve basis.
Similarly, you can post a photo of a product–a print, wall hanging, photo book, etc.–and invite people to comment, “I will vote this year!” One randomly-selected winner will get the product delivered to their doorstep. The ceramics artist Karrita, who runs Queen Bee Pottery, did this earlier this summer when she asked her Facebook fans and Instagram followers to register or confirm their registration; the winner received a bee and garden-inspired porcelain mug.
Another option? On election day, have your followers DM you a selfie wearing their “I Voted!” stickers for a chance to win a print. In 2018, the artist and illustrator Maayan Alper-Swan invited followers to do just that; they sent their mailing address and proof of having voted (“I Voted” sticker, absentee ballot, etc.), and she sent a postcard with her artwork.
Resistance by Design, Alexandra Posen and Dahna Goldstein’s line of everyday “activist wear,” is giving $2,020 to grassroots community organizations through their ongoing initiative #MobilizeMonday. “Every Monday, we are highlighting and donating $2020 to orgs who are touching a critical sector of the voting community,” the team tells us. “We are using our platform and social channels to bring attention and corral more support for these incredibly important organizations.
“So far, Mobilize Monday has focused on Pennsylvania Stands Up, Black Leaders Organizing for Communities, and Florida Rights Restoration Coalition. Because we believe that women are the way to turn the political tide, we support and/or collaborate with organizations that champion women’s rights and female representation in government: Emily’s List, Emerge America, NARAL Pro-Choice America, She Should Run, The Women’s March, and Fair Fight.”
Photographers can take a few approaches to raising funds. One is to put a donate link directly in your Instagram bio. Another way to do this is by opening a shop online. Maybe you team up with a few colleagues to create a collection of donated prints.
Take inspiration from preeminent artists like Shepard Fairey, Barbara Kruger, Hank Willis Thomas, and more, who in August joined forces to create Artists Band Together, a coalition of creative citizens; they each designed a limited-edition bandana for the campaign, available for purchase through eBay for Charity. 100% of the proceeds will go to support Mijente, Rise, and Woke Vote.
Projects that Inspire: Flex Your Vote
In anticipation of the 2020 election, the celebrity and fashion photographer Mike Ruiz created “Flex Your Vote,” a campaign encouraging members and allies of the LGBTQA+ community to register to vote. Knowing that one in five LGBTQA+ people are not registered to vote in the U.S., he enlisted seven other leading fitness photographers to join the cause: Pat Lee, Ulrich Oehman, Jorge Freire, Abel Cruz, Allan Spiers, Michael Downs, and Eric Wainwright, who came up with the “Flex Your Vote” slogan.
“Participating in the campaign is simple,” Ruiz explains. “Photographers are posting images to their Instagram and Facebook accounts and encouraging fans to share them while tagging @flexyourvote and hashtagging #FlexYourVote.” So far, he’s received dozens of messages from people who’ve been inspired to register after seeing the campaign.
Projects that inspire: I Vote Because
The photographer Janette Beckman has been working on I Vote Because, a campaign devoted to getting out the vote in underserved communities and swing states, since 2017. “We traveled across the US, working with local grassroots communities, setting up a makeshift ‘photo booth’ in parking lots, on the street, in colleges, and bus stations, registering people to vote and asking why they think it is important to vote,” she tells us. “These images were then used on billboards and sides of buses to inspire people to get out and vote.”
Although the project has been put on hold due to COVID-19-related travel restrictions, you can still browse their website for portraits, personal stories, and resources. Participants are invited to make the campaign their own using a comprehensive toolkit for creatives, influencers, brands, and more. You can share your own images and stories using the hashtag #IVoteBecause.
Projects that Inspire: Plan Your Vote
As part of the non-partisan initiative Plan Your Vote, launched in partnership with Vote.org and created by the gallerist Christine Messineo, leading artists came together to create images for the cause. The pictures are free to download, and Sally Mann, Laurie Simmons, Calida Garcia Rawles, and more are among the participating artists.
By downloading and sharing the images on social media, you can direct people to PlanYourVote.org, where they’ll receive up-to-date information on voting, including links to register and check your registration status, plus polling locations and details on voting by mail. Museums around the country have already added images and stickers to their sites to help get out the vote.
Projects that Inspire: Drag Out The Vote
Drag Out The Vote is a non-partisan, non-profit organization whose mission is to register, educate and turn out voters with the art and activism of drag. “We work with drag artists in all fifty states, as part of our never-been-done-before Drag Ambassador Program, to help voters sashay to the polls or their mailboxes,” Founder and Executive Director Jackie Huba tells us.
Submit your work to the cause.
The American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA) is also hosting their Get Out the Vote campaign as part of their initiative Design for Democracy. Through election day, they’re accepting poster submissions to two categories: AIGA Get Out the Vote 2020 and AIGA Get Out the Vote: Empowering the Women’s Vote. They’re looking for non-partisan posters motivating people to vote; posters are available to the general public as well as election officials and non-profit organizations.
Write voters directly.
Host a letter-writing party.
On September 9th, VoteRiders organized a virtual letter-writing party over Zoom, co-hosted by the Hamilton cast and crew, inviting participants to write to at-risk voters in critical states. You can do the same thing in your community, including your photography network.
“Volunteers can head to our website and sign up for a number of activities, including hosting your own letter-writing party,” the team at VoteRiders tells us. “We will send voters’ names and addresses (in Florida, Wisconsin, and Georgia), scripts, and everything you need to host a successful event and reach thousands of voters before November!”
Invite colleagues, peers, and crew members to participate. Something to include in your letters? Up-to-date information about voter ID laws. “In 35 states, registering to vote is not enough–you also need or will be asked for an acceptable ID,” the VoteRiders team adds.
Create and print a banner.
“With weeks left, it is essential to use every ounce of our inventive and communicative minds to corral enthusiasm for voting and to make sure that it is front of mind all the time,” Alexandra Posen and Dahna Goldstein of Resistance by Design tell us. “Original and compelling imagery for social media is one channel. Postcard writing and decorating is another. But truly, anything goes!
“If you can paint or print a banner and hang it out your window, do that. Make homemade yard signs, murals, sidewalk chalk, flyers. Tailor your message to the community that you are trying to motivate. Creatives can lean into what they’re uniquely good at and lend their voices to encouraging voting, making sure people are registered, and advocating for voting rights.”
If you’ve created voting-themed images, print them large and hang them up, or create a yard sign supporting the candidate of your choice. All those images you used to promote voting on social media can be brought into the real world; according to the ACLU of New York, posting political signs is protected by the constitution, though limits might apply on posted signs generally, so check your state and county’s regulations.
Document the process.
“There are a lot of opportunities for photographers to use their skills right now,” Kat Calvin of Spread the Vote, tells us. “Most small nonprofits cannot afford professional photos of their work, which are incredibly helpful for recruiting volunteers, fundraising, and so much more. Find a nonprofit in your community doing work that you admire, and ask them if they need a photographer to shadow them while they do they work. They’ll probably be grateful!”
“Any photos that capture what it is like to register people to vote can be very powerful and encourage more people to exercise their right to vote,” Araceli Villezcas, Program Coordinator at One Arizona, tells us. “We are a coalition of 28 diverse partners and many of them have voter registration programs. We can always connect you with an organization looking for volunteers. Your time is the best thing you can give right now.” You can sign up to volunteer for One Arizona here.
“Photographers can help us make voting more real and approachable by putting a human face on it,” the VoteRiders team tells us. “This will help potential voters feel more motivated and less intimidated if they need to update their ID, register, or do other essential prep work.
“It would be great to have candid shots of voters in action–even if they are just sitting at a computer surfing a DMV or the VoteRiders website, filling out mail-in ballots at home, standing in line at the DMV, or dropping off a completed ballot at a collection site.”
The possibilities here are endless; you could photograph your family checking their registration status, creating signs for the front lawn, writing letters to voters, and more. Show what you’re doing behind-the-scenes to help get out the vote, and then share it with others.
Take a page from Janette Beckman’s I Vote Because campaign and share first-person stories from voters in your community. You can even photograph your neighbors from their front porches, while practicing safe social distancing. Look for the untold narratives, and highlight everyday people and their reasons for voting.
“Visuals are powerful, and photography can offer compelling visualizations in regards to empowering people to vote,” Christina Lewis, Digital Content Director at the women’s political activism group Supermajority, tells us. “It is essential that we have a diverse and authentic representation of what women are going through. We accept all volunteers, including photographers–especially now.”
“One of the most powerful things any of us can do is photograph ourselves voting, especially those of us who are voting by mail,” the photographer Greg Miller, who has covered more than half a dozen elections, explains. “‘Ballot selfies,’ a selfie with one’s ballot showing how you actually voted, are prohibited in some states because of existing laws that date back to the 19th century, but when contested, these laws have been found to violate a person’s First Amendment rights.
“According to Ballotpedia, ballot selfies are expressly allowed in the following states: Kansas, Colorado, California, Oklahoma, Connecticut, Hawaii, Idaho, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, Washington, D.C. and Wyoming.”
Just remember to check with your local state government to make sure ballot selfies are legal where you’re living and voting; if ballot selfies are illegal in your jurisdiction, opt instead for a selfie with your ‘I Voted!’ sticker.
As Greg Miller notes, it’s crucial to prepare and know your rights, especially if you’re photographing election day, as he has done for years. “If you are working on a story about voting or simply wish to photograph inside polling locations, which is generally your right, information as well as permission to do so will rest with the office of the Secretary of State or with the local Board of Elections wherever you want to photograph,” he says.
“They often have specific guidelines, but in my experience, once you have obtained permission to photograph inside a polling place, the final say will have to do with the lead poll inspector at whatever location you decide to photograph.” Please read our full conversation with Miller here for important information on documenting election day and getting permissions from the Secretary of State or the local Board of Elections.
Quick tips for everyone (not just photographers)
Support a battleground state.
“Our Adopt A State program is our primary avenue for volunteering ahead of the 2020 election,” the team at Vote Save America tells us. “It’s a remote mobilization program that gives people, no matter where they live, the ability to directly support the work of organizers, volunteers, and candidates in the six key battleground states that will be most important to winning a progressive majority on Election Day.
“Our website is also one of the only resources where voters can find state-specific voting information, volunteer information, information about their ballots, and information about key races in their states.” Key states available for “adoption” include Arizona, Florida, Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin.
Looking to do more for battleground states? Movement Voter Project is home to the Big 5 Battleground Fund, which regrants all donations to 42 groups in Arizona, Florida, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. It’s a tremendous resource for browsing organizations you’re looking to support.
“We have a big ‘Text Out the Vote’ campaign coming up, where you can text voters from your own home,” Andy Bernstein from HeadCount tells us. “Visit our website to learn more.” They have several texting events, hosted virtually over the next several months, right up to election day.
Sara Berliner from Vote Like A Mother also has a suggestion. “OutVote is a handy app you can use to canvass your contact lists, and you can make it fun by ordering yourself some takeout and playing some music.” The app lets you text and call voters, connect with campaign staffers, send reminders to friends, and more.
Make a plan.
Voter registration deadlines vary based on state, as well as voting method (in-person, online, or by mail), so check and confirm your plan as soon as possible. “Right now, the biggest things are to make sure your friends and family have a voting plan, and that if that plan is to vote by mail that they take care of everything early,” Kat Calvin, the Founder of Spread the Vote explains.
“The best thing to do if you live in a state where you can vote by mail is to request your ballot right away if you haven’t yet, find out if you can return your ballot by ballot box or at a polling place in your state, and if you want to mail it, mail it as early as you can.
“If you’re voting in person, know what polling place you’re going to, vote early (both date and time) if at all possible, bring PPE (personal protective equipment), and prepare for a long wait just in case.”
According to research, voter campaign phone calls are more effective when they go through the logistics of voting and encourage people to come up with a plan, rather than simply encouraging them to vote. Ask your friends and family about how and where they’ll vote, how they’ll get there, and what they plan to do for the rest of the day.
Caitlin Donnelly, the Program Director at Nonprofit VOTE, tells us, “Voters should take some time in the next week to learn about the options they have for voting (in person, by mail, early, etc) and what’s on the ballot. I recommend Vote411.org as an accessible, easy-to-use resource for nonpartisan information. Rules and deadlines vary by state, but no matter where you are, just start early! Many states are already allowing mail ballot requests.”
Volunteer with an organization.
“Grassroots organizing groups are in real need of resources and volunteers to help get out the vote and, in many cases, provide aid to communities in need,” Elizabeth Fernandez, Communications Director at Movement Voter Project, explains. “Donate to a local community organizing group, volunteer for a few hours at a community hotline, sign up to make calls or texts, and see how you can get involved in virtual events.”
Become a poll worker.
“For those who want to help physically, become a paid poll worker,” Christina Lewis of Supermajority explains. “Key target states are in dire need of poll workers, and the country is facing a nationwide poll worker shortage; if you can confidently and safely commit, please consider doing so. Poll workers are especially needed in communities of color; if there aren’t enough poll workers, the polling location will likely close.” You can check out Power the Polls for more information.
Polling sites will have rules and protections, so if you do become a poll worker, check to see if and how you could potentially use photography to help spread the word. “The rules probably vary by county, and any photographer should ask the administrator or whoever they’re told during training is the person to ask questions,” Kat Calvin of Spread the Vote says.
2020 marks an unprecedented presidential election in more ways than one, and we feel that photographers can be instrumental in sharing factual, up-to-date information on how to vote this year, whether it’s through documenting their voting process or teaming up with a local organization.
Through November 3rd, Feature Shoot will be amplifying the voices of photographers who are doing just that. We encourage photographers to hashtag their voting-themed photos #PhotographersActNow on Instagram for a chance to be featured on the @featureshoot feed.
All submissions are welcome, from selfies that incorporate voting merch to still life photos spelling out the word “VOTE.” If you’re working with a local organization in your community, we want to hear about it. We’ll be running our favorite submissions leading up to election day, and we look forward to seeing your work!