Photo essay: Scenes from election 2020 in Detroit

Val Waller is a freelance photographer and Model D contributor. The following is her account of documenting the past week, from the protests at TCF Center to the election celebration on Saturday in New Center, as told to Model D managing editor Dorothy Hernandez.


Waller is also working on a series of portraits of Black women election workers. For more information, check out her website.


I haven’t stopped photographing the 2020 election season since the last week of October when I started documenting early voters in Detroit and Ann Arbor for Pizza to the Polls, so the past couple of weeks have been exhausting, to say the least.


I was at home editing photos on Wednesday when I got wind of what was going on at TCF Center. I was feeling a lot of anxiety and trying to keep myself together because the race between Donald Trump and Joe Biden was really tight, but after I heard what was going down, I knew I had to be there to document it. I called my mom, who is my getaway driver in situations when I need to get in and get out, and we headed down Jefferson.


When I arrived, tensions were really high. Trump supporters were eager to voice their grievances, and tensions just continued as the day wore on and as Biden took the lead and widened it (according to the Secretary of State, Biden garnered 51% of the vote compared to Trump’s 48%, leading by 147,000 votes in Michigan).


On Saturday, the mood at the post-election party at the corner of West Grand Boulevard and Second Street was the polar opposite of what I saw on Wednesday and Thursday. It was like the fog had lifted. With temps in the 70s, the weather was absolutely amazing. The sun brought this beautiful golden light, a gift for photographers. People were in high spirits, partying and dancing. There was great music and food trucks were pulled up. Friends found each other on the street and hugged each other in pure joy. Speakers talked about building for the future.


After documenting the past couple of weeks and then coming home from that rally, I just felt such a sense of relief. I didn't realize how mentally and emotionally fatigued I was until I heard the results on Saturday that Biden had won.


The election may be over but I’m still going to be out there, documenting what happens because the next couple of months are going to be crazy. Who knows what will happen? Yes, we won but there’s still a lot of angry people and there will be people fighting the result so this is just the beginning. It’s going to be a pretty bumpy road from now until January — and beyond because there is so much work to do.


But we can finally move on, clean the slate, and figure things out.




With this historical soldier outfit, I was drawn to this man, who arrived with one of the largest Trump signs I had ever seen. He waved this large American flag and later got the crowd going by singing “God Bless America.”



A woman shows off her Declaration of Independence tattoo. What really struck me from these two days of covering the protests at TCF Center was the cognitive dissonance on display and how the protesters were drawing parallels between events like the Revolutionary War and the Civil War to the moment we’re living in now because they’re not equivalent. One side is just super focused on the past and what was and how to best recreate that, even though it didn’t serve everyone — it was just for certain people. And then the other side is looking to the future and progress and addressing so many things that we know is wrong with America.



This protester caught my attention by being one of the loudest in the crowd. You can’t see it, but he’s wearing a T-shirt of Ronald Reagan wearing a Trump hat, which I found incredibly ironic given Reagan’s track record on race and civil rights. Also the sign caught my eye because in Detroit, a city that is 80% Black, 233,908 people voted for Biden, with 12,654 supporting Trump.


A woman holds up a sign from inside TCF Center urging her fellow supporters to chant "stop the count."



Counterprotesters came out to TCF Center to show their support of the counting process. Since last week, three lawsuits seeking a halt to the counting of ballots have been filed and subsequently dismissed for lack of evidence of wrongdoing.





The crowd at the celebration party was a very Joe Biden and Kamala Harris crowd, young and old, Black and white participants. Here, participants listen to speakers talk about the election results and looking ahead to the work to be done when it comes to issues like health care.



Detroit voters came out to the polls on Election Day, with voter turnout at 50%, an increase from 2016.



These two women caught my eye with their positive vibes. While they were mostly on the edges of the crowd and just chilling out, they were still celebrating and in the moment in their own way.


I just happened to be standing right behind these two women. I got the sense they were old friends reuniting because I heard them yell, “Girl!” and they hugged. And it was interesting to see how this friendly embrace shifted into an extended hug as they realized the weight of why they were hugging. It was an extremely emotional moment. I could feel the relief and the gratitude.



These two women were so excited to be there and so happy. Right before this moment, I overheard them say “We need to take a selfie of this.” There’s a lot of joy in this photo. They took a moment in the midst of the crazy happiness to take a photo together.

All photos by Valurian Waller.

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