The Slatest

An Interview With the College Senior Behind the Iconic Photo of Wisconsin’s Pandemic Election

A line of voters spread out on a sidewalk and wearing masks. In the front, a masked woman holds a sign that says "This Is Ridiculous."
Voters in Milwaukee on Tuesday. Patricia McKnight/Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

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Milwaukee residents waited between 90 minutes and 2½ hours to vote on Tuesday, after a coronavirus-induced poll worker shortage forced the city to reduce 180 polling places to just five and a last-ditch effort by the state’s governor to postpone the election was overturned by the state Supreme Court.

With Wisconsin mostly shut down to slow the spread of the virus, Gov. Tony Evers on Monday attempted to delay the election until June, but his decision was reversed hours later by the state’s right-wing Supreme Court. And so, on Tuesday morning, voters donned gloves and masks to cast their votes in the Democratic presidential primary and a state Supreme Court race, as well as for thousands of local offices.

Predictably, the lines were longest in Milwaukee, the state’s largest city and a Democratic stronghold. At Washington High School, one of the five polling places serving a population of 600,000, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel intern Patricia McKnight was on her way to vote when she saw Jennifer Taff holding a sign that said, “This is ridiculous.”

“I’m disgusted,” Taff told McKnight.* “I requested an absentee ballot almost three weeks ago and never got it. I have a father dying from lung disease, and I have to risk my life and his just to exercise my right to vote.” (Also on Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5–4 to force the state to throw away tens of thousands of absentee ballots that would have arrived late due to the state’s inability to process the crush of ballot requests in time.)

McKnight snapped the instantly iconic photograph above, which went viral on Tuesday afternoon. I called McKnight, a college senior graduating next month (and attention, editors: looking for a full-time job), and asked her how she got the shot.

Patricia McKnight: Hi, Henry. How are you doing today?

Henry Grabar: I’m good. How are you?

I am pretty over the moon!

How does it feel to see your photograph branded the “photo of the year”?

It’s mind-blowing. If you would have told me this morning when I was just going to go exercise my right to vote that I would have taken this, I would not have believed you at all. This is completely amazing, and I’m kind of at a loss for words.

How did you end up outside Washington High School this morning?

I was going to vote just like everyone else. It wasn’t an assignment or anything, but I asked my supervisor, “Do you want me to take some observations when I go vote?” and they said yes. Here in Milwaukee we usually have 180 polling places, but they condensed it down to five today. Washington High School is not my usual voting place. I was going because that was the one they decided on yesterday. That’s when I saw the ridiculous long line. I saw the woman holding the cardboard, and I had to stop and talk to her. It turned out great.

I’ve been looking through the other photos. There are people in gas masks, hospital equipment—it looks like bizarro Halloween. Why do you think this caught everyone’s imagination?

I think it was the wording of her sign: “This is ridiculous.” It is, the whole situation, us being there, how many people were there, just the entire thing. It was completely ridiculous to have hundreds of hundreds of people in a mile-long line wrapping around a couple blocks to go vote. It is ridiculous.

What did you take the photo on?

Just my cellphone—the iPhone 11 Plus.

Did you know when you took it you’d gotten something good?

I usually have a good eye, so I took a couple of her. I did portrait mode to highlight her, and that’s kind of how I picked which one was the best. It wasn’t like, “This will be the photo of the day”—it was just the best photo I took.

One great thing is that everyone is wearing a mask. 

Even I was wearing a mask.

So you stood 6 feet away and said, “Hi, I work for the Journal Sentinel”?

That’s exactly what happened.

Did you end up voting? How long did it take?

About an hour and a half. But I sent the photo in right after I finished talking to her.

You’re a college senior. Is this a spring internship?

I’ll be graduating from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee next month. I started at the Journal Sentinel at the beginning of March. I’m majoring in English and journalism, with a digital arts certificate. I’m busy. I’ve done internships all over Milwaukee, and this was the one I was hoping to get my senior year, and it’s paying off!

How are you going to celebrate?

Well, I can’t really go anywhere, so I guess I’ll celebrate in my garden.

Correction, April 7, 2020: This piece originally misspelled Jennifer Taff’s last name.