COVID-19 story by Coburn Dukehart, 2020

Coburn Dukehart shares a story about the experience of working as a photojournalist during the primary election in Wisconsin on April 7th, 2020, during the period of social distancing efforts in Wisconsin.

See Coburn's photo essays from April 7th, 2020 here:

This story was originally recorded and shared as part of an episode of the Madison podcast Inside Stories. Listen to that episode and subscribe to the podcast here:

This recording was created on . You can view the original file and full metadata in our digital repository.

  • Identifier: covid19-021
    Narrator Name: Coburn Dukeheart
    Interviewer Name: n/a
    Date of interview: 4/7/2020


    Coburn Dukeheart: On Tuesday, April seventh, I woke up at 5:30 a.m. in Door County, Wisconsin, a rural and scenic part of the state, to start a three-hour drive to Milwaukee to photograph the controversial primary election. Health experts called in-person voting “dangerous,” but the process went forward despite the governor’s best effort to call it off the day before.

    I’m a photojournalist for Wisconsin Watch, a nonprofit investigative journalism center with the mission to protect the vulnerable, expose wrongdoing, and explore solutions. Even though it was still early, my phone was exploding with reports of crazy long lines at Milwaukee’s five polling places, reduced from the usual 180. People of color, students, and the elderly have historically had a harder time voting in Wisconsin, and this pandemic would make it even more challenging.

    The view from my car turned from country road into highway, and eventually into Milwaukee’s cityscape, with its narrow streets. I met my colleague Lauren at Washington High School, where the midday line stretched the length of a playing field and snaked around a corner. We launched a drone and captured an astounding scene: voters, most of them wearing masks, trying their hardest to stand six feet apart while shuffling slowly down the long block.

    When I had left that morning, it was in the forties and overcast, but when I got to Milwaukee, the temperatures were in the high seventies. I was still wearing my winter boots, and felt a bit warm, but with a t-shirt, a lightweight paper mask, and the sun on my face, I was feeling good. That first part of the day was fun and exhilarating as we flew the drone back and forth along a chain-link fence to capture the extent of the line.

    From there, we traveled to Riverside University High School, where we found an even longer line of voters that wrapped around the school, down the block, across a park, and into a nearby neighborhood. Enjoying the warm weather, most of the voters seemed in good spirits, and so were we. Rock music blared from a nearby house, and jazz musicians played on the school’s steps. A pizza guy passed out free pies ordered by someone named Esther.

    From Riverside, we drove about twenty minutes to Marshall High School. Just as we arrived, a massive downpour soaked hundreds of voters. Poll workers passed out garbage bags to try to keep them dry. We switched to taking portraits, and I swapped out my simple mask for an N-100 leftover from a home construction project. I was closer to people now and wanted to make sure I was as safe as possible. Lauren interviewed the voters. Most described themselves as having never missed an election. Many had requested absentee ballots that never arrived. Most people thought in-person voting should have been cancelled.

    Around 7 p.m., I noticed that my mouth was feeling dry, and I was having trouble talking and forming coherent thoughts. I kept pushing myself to take more portraits, knowing that I wanted at least ten solid images that represented the diversity of the people in line: Black. White. Asian. Young. Old. Masked. Unmasked. I kept telling myself: “Three more.” “Two more.” “One more.” But when I finally made a portrait of a family with an eighteen-year-old son who had come to vote for the first time, I knew I could stop. That’s when I noticed I really wasn’t feeling right. The hot weather, the winter boots, carrying a backpack of heavy gear, the lack of water, not enough food, the heavy mask, and shooting in five locations all of a sudden came crashing down on me. A person was passing out bottled water and I slammed one down. Then I stumbled back to my car and found a peanut butter snack bar, which I hurriedly ate, drank the rest of my water, and then lay my head back to try to stop the shaking and dizziness. I spotted a pizza shop employee passing out slices to people waiting to vote from their cars. I rolled down my window and called him over. With blue-gloved hands, he pulled off two slices. I inhaled them.

    I returned to the high school around 8:40 p.m. The line still stretched farther than I could see in the dark. Any voter in line by 8 p.m. would get to vote. When I ventured inside, what I saw more resembled a field hospital than a polling place. And there were a lot of people there—far more than I was comfortable being close to. It was organized, and orderly, but still very crowded. I stayed until the last voter walked in the door around 9:30 p.m. I got my squirt of hand sanitizer and I left to see a line of cars still slowly inching their way around the block, waiting to vote.
    Throughout the day, I was struck by the poise, politeness, and professionalism of the poll workers and the voters. It was hot. There was a downpour. People waited for hours wearing constricting masks. Yet everyone seemed patient and determined to ensure each vote counted. I heard just one slightly raised voice all day. A woman instructed a man next to her, “Please, stay six feet away; you are getting too close!”

    We’ll know soon whether the virus spread during the election. I’m praying that the masks, plexiglass shields, and cones keeping voters apart actually worked. Until then, I’m glad I was there to document the historic scene, and I have a few more days to go before I know if I was exposed to the virus, too.