Michael Mergen: Vote!

Virginia photographer, Michael Mergen, has one of the best series I’ve seen about where and how we vote.  His project, VOTE, shines a stunning light on how “mom and pop” our voting system is and reflects the head-scratching realization that it is truly a miracle that we get anyone elected.  These images speak to the potential of error, but they also speak to the fact that much of America is built on a mom and pop reality, where the corner store is still the heart of the community.

Michael earned a BFA in photography from the Rochester Institute of Technology and an MFA in photography at the Rhode Island School of Design. He began his career as a photojournalist, working for national newspapers and newswire services in Boston and then his hometown of Philadelphia. His current work focuses on ideas and notions of America and its institutions.  He has exhibited nationally and internationally and his work is held in several public and private collections. He is currently an Assistant Professor of Art and Photography at Longwood University in Farmville, VA.

VOTE
 Photographed on Election Day from 2008-2010, Vote documents the spaces where the ideals of our political system meet the mundane realities of participatory democracy. These polling places in unusual, privately owned locations, pointedly do not live up to the majesty of American democracy, yet still speak to a kind of vernacular Americana. The work suggests a collision of public and private.

When a voter is confronted with the decision to vote or shop, vote or eat, vote or skate, which role is expected of us, the role of citizen, or the role of consumer? What happens when confronted with both simultaneously? What does voting in a private home say about the encroachment of government into private life? Or does locating polling machines in places such as supermarkets and shopping malls make voting more convenient and spur a higher turnout? 

The series also points to the temporal quality of Election Day – the days’ brevity contrasting with the perceived permanence of the space it briefly inhabits. In all works, I emphasize the apparent incongruity between the primary function of the space and the temporal use of the space as a polling place. The voting machines act as stand-ins, set up and waiting for voters to activate them. As if transported from another world, the machines remind us of the often haphazard way in which elections are conducted.

Through extensive research at the state, county, and local level, I indentified the locations I intended to photograph. Using Google maps, I created a map of each state or county to determine an itinerary for the particular Election Day, making edits based on proximity of each location, keeping in mind the relatively short day and sometimes hundreds of miles between polling places.