Marcus Branch photographs his creative community in Pennsylvania

The photographer and his friends discuss leading a pathway to change.

by Marcus Branch
|
11 January 2021, 4:00pm

This election, these circumstances, this pain -- simply applied pressure. Everyone, whether they voted or not, was truly confronted with the reality of their stance based on their decision of action or inaction. I am a Black man. I am a gay man. I am not the desired beneficiary that this political system was designed for. I feel alienated, unheard, but most importantly, uncared for. My security is on such fragile ground. My life’s value feels compromised each day, based solely on my existence — here.

On election day, I woke up, gathered my family and made it an event to hit the polls -- together. I believe voting is one step of many to take in the quest for change and personally prioritised in response to the black lives matter movement, and by that, I include Black trans lives and beyond; for me, that has always gone without saying as I have never even thought to allow my sexual identity to separate myself from my brother, my sister, my tribe whenever one of us have fallen. It is innate to march, to stand, to scream, cry, and demand justice. But I quickly learned that my brother, my sister, my tribe, had conditions to their fight for me/we. I need to bridge that gap; I need for us to all stand for each other, femme, hood, trans, trade, cis, het, ratchet, or queer, Black is Black, and we’re under attack while attacking within.

We must achieve continuity, progression, and the reveal of change in ways our ancestors have only dreamed of. It’s already clear the innovations presented through the turmoil. The tables that have begun turning will only be bolted into place once fully flipped because what’s next isn’t a wave, but an ocean, deep with dreams awakened -- finally.

This one turn in the right direction has reinstated a hope that felt so lost. We were surrounded by such hurt through the year, collectively experiencing pain so strong with people we love the most. This election granted us a victory for change, a reason to smile, and a fight to continue. My heart dripped with joy, affirmation, and belief, seeing and meeting these significant contributions to change. I felt such relief to see the smiling faces of tomorrow AND today as each individual affirmed to me that the fight is never one fought alone, and with us all, we really do win.

Man in blue bowling shirt. Photographed by Marcus Branch.

David AJ Dunnington, 23

**Have you ever felt alienated from the political system or unheard by the government?
**I’ve felt at the very least that me, along with other Black voters, were constantly being pandered to and exploited by the government and the major political parties. The Nancy Pelosi kente cloth nonsense made that very clear.

**Is there a policy or a particular issue that you feel most strongly about?
**I want politicians to acknowledge how capitalism is the foundation of everything abhorrent in this country: racism, misogyny, class struggle, etc., and be willing to challenge the system that benefits them.

**Are there any figures in your life that have shaped your political opinions and beliefs?
**No, but the internet did. I know that sounds suspicious, considering all the intentional fake headlines and articles spread all over the place. Still, I was invested in new and old conversations about things that wouldn’t have been brought to light without this way of connecting. It reminded me of how much my school in my hometown -- a place that is literally built on the trail of the Underground Railroad -- didn’t teach me anything I needed to know about my own history. I didn’t learn about Angela Davis or that MLK was against the Vietnam War until I got to college, and by then, I had already read about them online.

Woman in blue tie-dye hoodie. Photographed by Marcus Branch.

Kadija Koita, 23

Have you encountered any tension about your choice of a political party with friends or family? Not so much with family, but I felt some of my friends shared different views. They did not want to choose either candidate, which I understood. But we had a President that could have literally saved millions of lives if he’d just kept his people in his best interest. So many people did not make it to see another year because of his decisions, and that is something I can never accept.

Have you ever felt alienated from the political system or disenfranchised and unheard by the government? All the time. As a Black woman and as a millennial, our voices are always questioned or not heard. We are the backbone of this country, and we get treated as less than. I also feel like the majority of the voices being heard are white men, then Black men, then white women, then Black women coming in last. It sucks, and I think with this election, we will finally start to get the representation that we deserve.

2020 will be a date remembered in history for centuries to come. The protests, the pandemic, the political divide. What has it felt like to you, and has it changed you and any of your perspective or priorities in life? This has definitely been an eye-opening and scary year. People have lost family members that they could not say goodbye to and their jobs and homes. People are getting barred from adequate healthcare because of their financial status. This year we have seen our own President refuse to denounce white supremacy on national television. I have never, in my 23 years of living, been scared of the future. But I am terrified because 2020 has shown us that even when we think things are getting better, they can get so much worse.

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Reese Florence Coran, 21

**Are there any figures in your life that have shaped your political opinions and beliefs?
**My mother, Frida Kahlo, Nina Simone, Odetta, Alice Coltrane, Agnes Varda, and Joan Baez.

What challenges do you foresee in the next four years? Though I am relieved that Trump will not be serving another four years, and it is also refreshing to witness a woman Vice President who represents my ancestry, I will continue to have more faith in the power of the people than the people in power at this point. It is important to remember that racial, social, and gender injustice dominates day-to-day living in America, along with incarceration, the war on drugs, privatisation, student debt, healthcare, and climate change.

These will be improved within the next four years not because Biden has been elected, but because of leaders and local and national organisers like Stacey Abrams and Alexandria Ocasio Cortez. They have been cutting through convention and doing the work to defend democracy, in addition to the American people collectively cultivating a shift in our country.

Can you surmise in a few words what Pennsylvania is like to those who don’t know it? After three years of living in Philadelphia, I describe it as rich in history, engulfed by art, music, diversity, duality; gentrified yet self-segregated in an impeccable way. Philly doesn’t need to be like any other city, and it doesn’t want to be.

Woman in blue striped dungarees. Photographed by Marcus Branch.

Karissa Kendricks, 22

**Are there any figures in your life that have shaped your political opinions and beliefs?
**It has been really important to have friends that are always down to discuss politics in my life. I have a few friends that I consider to be my teachers. It can be overwhelming and triggering to do all of the research on your own, but discussions with friends are good ways to learn.

**Do you remember how you felt about politics in 2016? What's changed since then?
**I felt optimistic, everyone I knew at least had moderate political views if not a full-on leftist. I supported Bernie Sanders until I couldn't, then I supported Hilary Clinton with a chip on my shoulder but still hopeful nonetheless. Now I understand that the change many Americans want to see must first happen on a local level. We have to get involved in city and state elections to shape the system at large. Most things that went wrong under Trump's presidency is backed with policies.

**Have you encountered any tension about your choice of a political party with friends or family?
**I think closer to 2016, I encountered more tension, but now I'm cool with not speaking to far right-leaning people. The tension is usually when I have to ask myself: is it worth explaining to a brick wall? My close friends and family are moderate to leftist, and the moderate people have always welcomed discourse. Lately, the only point of tension that I have with my family is that I believe in defunding and dismantling all U.S. police departments.

Woman in blue jacket and tie knot blouse. Photographed by Marcus Branch.

Mia Elise Paltrow-Murray, 22

**Do you remember how you felt about politics in 2016? What’s changed since?
**I remember being in high school when the election results happened, and about 90% of my classroom cried. Everything I had ever known was right in terms of politics, felt stepped on. I do not come from money or a high educational background. I was the first to graduate, and we’re relying on both food stamps and welfare, and everything felt jeopardised at that moment, and it has felt that way every day of the past four years.

**Is there a policy or a particular issue that you feel most strongly about?
**Removing the ACA could put me and thousands of others at risk, and truthfully the thought of it makes me feel unwell. I am actively in need of medical assistance and am a self-supporting full-time student. I cannot financially afford things like healthcare and prescription fees.

Then there’s race and policing. To think that President Trump genuinely believes that racism is not a systemic problem in general, let alone within our police forces, is honestly terrifying. Biden can at least acknowledge that racism is a systemic issue, which is a step in the right direction and a positive for our country's state. I can accept acknowledgement over incompetence.

Woman in light blue shirt. Photographed by Marcus Branch.

Marie Li, 22

**Have you ever felt alienated from the political system or disenfranchised or unheard by the government?
**As a young person, as an Asian-American, as a woman, and as a daughter of immigrants -- yes. There was the day Trump was elected, this entire summer, filled with protests for the murders of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, when Trump pulled out of the Paris Accord, during the hearings on Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination, or when the administration rescinded DACA.

At the same time, I am very aware of the fact that I hold a great degree of privilege due to my socioeconomic class, my education, and in some ways, my race and ethnicity, and that it is crucial that I hold space and act and fight for other groups who experience disenfranchisement daily.

**Have you encountered any tension about your choice of a political party with friends or family?
**Unexpectedly, this administration and this election have brought to light how deep the cultural differences are between my parents’ generation and my generation. My parents and their parents all grew up in China, and I feel like they have almost a hands-off attitude towards politics, maybe because they’ve never felt fully accepted into the fabric of American society (i.e. perpetual foreigner complex). I feel a responsibility to help educate the older members of my family because of the privilege I have from learning and studying these subjects over the course of my own education.

**What challenges do you foresee in the next four years?
**Building back trust and accountability in our government, and transparency. I think our biggest task will be holding Biden accountable for what he has run his campaign on.

Man in black Mike Tyson t-shirt. Photographed by Marcus Branch.

Jason Quentin Li, 21

Why was it so important to you to vote in this election? 
Honestly, if I had been registered to vote in New Jersey (where I’m originally from), I probably wouldn’t have felt such a strong urge to vote, since I was confident that the state would turn blue. But since I was registered in Pennsylvania, one of the most important swing states on the map, I felt my vote was somehow much more important, which shouldn’t have been the case.

How do you feel about the result of the election? 
I would rather have had a more progressive candidate than Joe Biden, but having him as our next president is a step in the right direction. Before we can explore more progressive policies, we need to cure the divide in our country that is tearing us apart, and I believe Joe Biden can do that.

What challenges do you foresee in the next four years? Considering how controversial this election was, and how many people voted for Trump, I think the biggest challenge in the next four years will be uniting the American people for real. Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but things are being politicised that shouldn’t be. Wearing a mask can be seen as making a political statement nowadays, instead of being a simple task we can all do to save lives.

Individual with face gems in a navy blue blouse. Photographed by Marcus Branch.

Chrissy Carter, 21

**Why was it so important to you to vote in this election?
**Honestly, I don't think I really felt it was that important. I was not planning on voting. I am aware that the president is a placeholder, and that there are actual people behind the scenes that make the decisions. More often than not, those people are career politicians who are voted in through local elections. Those are the people I care about, the ones making decisions in my everyday life.

**Are there any figures in your life that have shaped your political opinions and beliefs?
**I have to give thanks to my community for really shaping my beliefs and really taking the time to teach me. Education and language are barriers for so many folks, to have a community of radical organisers and artists around me has been a huge blessing. My community has taken the time to teach me so that I can repeat that cycle and teach other young folks. Intergenerational communities allow for a diaspora of people to collectively come together and share lived experiences, and it also challenges us to learn.

**What's next?
**We organise. We continue to call for these police departments to be defunded. We get into books, study groups, and continue to challenge ourselves as we dream of a new world. Our dreams are what will guide us into our liberation. To non-Black folks it's not enough to be against racism you must be anti-racist, invest in Black women, uplift Black femmes and make sure they are able to do the work that is necessary. We cannot expect any products of this system to be our saviour.

Woman in light blue striped blazer and heart necklace. Photographed by Marcus Branch.

Alexandria Deleta Daley, 20

**Do you have particular memories about the Obama era before Trump, and the feeling of growing up during his presidency?
**I vividly recall midnight on November 5, 2008, the moment just when it was announced that Barack Obama had won the presidency. Not even five minutes after hearing that on my TV, I heard screams of joy and my neighbours banging on pots and pans; when I stepped outside of my house, I saw the people parading the streets. One of ‘our own’ was being elected as the next President of the United States. Though eight-year-old me saw this as the start of a better future for myself, my family, and my communities, I began to realise as I got older that that hope was just a false one, built on the facade that my life could really change at the hands of this violently flawed system.

**Have you encountered any tension about your choice of a political party with friends or family?
**Yes, I have. Despite the fact that I have engaged with the political system and vote with my family, I still choose to engage with politics through a critical, social justice-oriented lens that acknowledges how our current political system cannot and will not save us. I don’t tend to find common ground on this with my family, who, in my opinion, place much of their eggs in one basket, so to speak. When I say this, I mean that my family chooses to believe too much in the “democratic process” that is enshrined here in the United States, when in reality, this democratic process is actually not serving them.

**Is there a policy or a particular issue that you feel most strongly about?
**I feel very strongly about abolishing the police force. The fact that it was created during slavery and borne out of slave patrols, and serves only to protect white people and their property, enrages me. It is just another institution that shows us how nothing in this system will ever really change with the same policies and forces in place.

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Illkya Acosta, 26

Why was it so important to you to vote in this election? It’s time for things to change, no more stagnancy. Though there’s nothing promised, it’s long overdue to have a new face in the White House. I felt that if I didn’t, I would be allowing hate to reign as the norm.

**Is there a policy or a particular issue that you feel most strongly about?
**I definitely feel strongly about immigration policies here in the US. People like to talk shit about immigrants, especially Latinx, particularly those that are undocumented, and label us as freeloaders, lazy, welfare abusers, criminals, rapists, drug dealers, job stealers. Yet it’s undocumented or immigrant communities that accept work for what it is, even if it’s exploitive or menial, to feed their own mouths and families. They want to profit from us but don’t want us. There are immigrants of every shade of every ethnicity, and I think there needs to be a massive overhaul, so we stop pointing fingers at each other.

**What makes you most proud to be part of this generation of young American voters who have started to reclaim America from conservatives?
**I think my generation is tired of the tape being on rewind. We want to disintegrate the camouflaged systems still in place of isolation and individualism and greed. As said by James Baldwin, “I love America more than any other country in the world and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticise her perpetually.” There’s so much we have to improve.

Woman in blue top and silver and blue beaded necklace. Photographed by Marcus Branch.

Quincey Robinson, 19

Why was it so important to you to vote in this election? With this being my first time being able to vote, voting in this election was really bigger than me. Yes, I am only one vote, but I represent a collective which continues to fight for justice and change. I represent my ancestors, who were stripped of their rights to vote. I represent the future Black lives that will inhabit this earth. Overall, the importance of voting in this election for me was the fact that my vote held so much power. It made the process really intimidating and stressful, but something that I knew was very important to engage in.

**How do you feel about the result of the election?
**I feel like the result of this election is something to celebrate for the simple fact that it shows the power of the collective coming together. To bring about a certain amount of change that they're passionate about. Pennsylvania really showed up. For the election and throughout the pandemic. This isn't the final solution, and much more work is still needed. But I think we can celebrate ourselves for helping create a huge change within society.

**What challenges do you foresee in the next four years?
**One challenge I foresee in the next four years is that some will view this election's outcome as the overall solution. Yes, this is a better predicament to be in, but much more needs to be done to bring substantial change to the unjust society we are currently in.

Woman with blue eyeshadow in a blue sheer blouse. Photographed by Marcus Branch.

Lily Mello, 22

**Do you remember how you felt about politics in 2016? What’s changed since?
**In 2016 I was very optimistic and beyond excited to vote for the first time and vote for a woman. I put so much energy and time into campaigning and believing that this system would support me in this election. I was very naive and then crushed by the outcome. I never thought that Trump would become the president-elect, and I didn’t think that Americans would vote in someone so harmful. The outcome made me realise the systemic issues embedded in American politics, and made me reconsider all of the trust I had in a system built on suppression. I found myself thinking of better ways to combat politics as a young person. I learned about hope in dark times and the importance of community. Using my voice to advocate for my beliefs felt more important than ever.

**Can you surmise in a few words what Pennsylvania is like to those who don’t know it?
**I’ve lived in PA my whole life, and I’d say it is a nice place to live. It holds lots of wide-open spaces and lovely cities. Philadelphia is a beautiful, creative and unpredictable city. As a queer person, I truly freed myself when I moved there in 2016. I am so lucky to have met so many wonderful and inspiring people there and call it my home.

**What makes you most proud to be part of this generation of young American voters who have started to reclaim America from conservatives?
**I am so proud of the young people in America. So many of us have come together to stand up for human rights. We put the safety and wellbeing of others before economics and finances. The older generations may not prioritise this as we do. I am most proud that I continue to see more young people respecting people as who they really are, and doing so from a place of love.

Man with blue velvet shirt and gold chain. Photographed by Marcus Branch.

Niall Brandon, 25

**Are there any figures in your life that have shaped your political opinions and beliefs?
**So much of my beliefs and political opinions came from conversations I would have with the older folks in my family. In particular, my grandfather and I were able to connect right before he passed away. He spoke about the segregation and racism he had to overcome. It hit me hard when he shared that his mother worked with civil rights activist Cecil B. Moore.

**Do you have particular memories about the Obama era before Trump, and the feeling of growing up during his presidency?
**Obama represents to me the epitome of Black excellence. Obama’s speeches always left me ready to attack the world. He became someone I look up to. He made me want to be more politically active. I remember him being scrutinised heavily in the media for his politics and petty stuff like wearing a tan suit! It made me truly understand how BIPOC can be held to a double standard.

**How do you feel about the result of the election?
**This moment in time has brought so much uncertainty in my life. It’s difficult to find hope and feel trust in a government system that is built to support us and fails to, especially during collectively difficult times like today. Time will tell.

Man with a striped shirt under a black corset. Photographed by Marcus Branch.

Mohamed Mariko, 24

**Are there any figures in your life that have shaped your political opinions and beliefs?
**Former Mayor of Newark, Cory Booker; he gave me hope that people who look like me can be a part of this political system and be leaders. He is currently one of the senators for NJ.

**Is there a policy or a particular issue that you feel most strongly about?
**It would honestly have to be between eliminating college debt and police reform. Both heavily target and affect people of my race and age bracket. We are the next generation that will be the country's leaders, so solving those issues would be really helpful and propel us.

**What next?
**I want to continue to make waves and shake up the comfortable stagnant world that we live in. I want us to continue to evolve and let go of the tired, sad thinking we have about many things in the world currently, and I will do that through my art.

Woman in blue waterproof coat and trousers. Photographed by Marcus Branch.

Chidera Udeh, 21

Why was it so important to you to vote in this election? 
I don’t think I was afforded the grace to not view this election as important. As a Black woman, we are always seen as the saving grace during election season, but we are conveniently ignored after we cast our votes. I’m not sure if I had faith in the system while I cast my ballot, but I also felt bad not trying at all.

Do you have particular memories about the Obama era before Trump, and the feeling of growing up during his presidency? There was definitely a false sense of security I felt during the Obama presidency, but I was also a small child. The older I got, the clearer I saw and had many critiques for him as well. I think a lot of America will feel like racism left the White House with Trump, but that’s not the case. I want the people to be still critical of Biden while he’s in office.

Have you encountered any tension about your choice of a political party with friends or family? Not really. I feel like I can’t afford to keep people around me who don’t have similar politics. Sharing politics with my friends and family ensures my safety and well being. Whether or not my life is important or matters is not something I want to argue with my friends or family about -- they should just get it.

Woman with a white t-shirt, floral blue camisole and silver chain. Photographed by Marcus Branch.

Rachel McCloskey, 18

Why was it so important to you to vote in this election? I thought the 2016 election was one of the most important elections ever. Even though I was 14 years old, I still had a very strong opinion about the policies and ideals that Donald Trump stood behind. I remember crying when he won. I wanted my voice to be heard so badly, but there was nothing I could have done back then.

Are there any figures in your life that have shaped your political opinions and beliefs? Do you remember how you felt about politics in 2016? What’s changed since? I’ve always felt very discouraged but intrigued by politics, even back in 2016 and still to this day. I think back then, I had more hope. I felt hopeful for an honest and good-hearted leader, but now I know that’s nearly impossible. It seems like all of the honest and good-hearted politicians who wanted to do good by our country all got driven away by our corrupt politics. I don’t think I’ll ever forgive this country for how dirty we did Bernie Sanders.

Do you have particular memories about the Obama era before Trump, and the feeling of growing up during his presidency? The only thing I can distinctly remember from Obama’s presidency is the day same-sex marriage was legalised in all 50 states. I was 12 years old back then and questioning my sexuality. All I remember was being so happy for everybody who could finally get married and relieved for myself if that was something I ever chose to do in the future.

Woman with a blue shirt, blue jumper and stone necklace. Photographed by Marcus Branch.

Emily Deyo, 20

**What challenges do you foresee in the next four years?
**I worry that Trump’s damaging ideological movement will continue to go strong, and possibly even be fuelled by the fact that we now have a Democratic president.

**Is there a policy or a particular issue that you feel most strongly about?
**Trans people are so terribly unsafe and unsupported in our society, especially Black trans women. They urgently need protection, so the immediate reversal of Trump’s attack on trans rights and protections is, to me, one of the most important things for the Biden administration to do.

**2020 will be a date remembered in history for centuries to come. The protests, the pandemic, the political divide. What has it felt like to you, and has it changed you and your perspective or priorities in life?
**This pandemic has shown us that pretty much all of these systems and institutions by which we live are unstable, unfair, uncomfortable, and unsustainable. It made me realise that I don’t want things to “go back to normal” because that “normal” was unhealthy. I’ve realised more than ever before that I am in charge of creating my own meaning out of life and that I should put love and happiness first. This is a chance to really radically reimagine our ways of life.

Man with a blue denim shirt, white t-shirt and blue beanie. Photographed by Marcus Branch.

Abdiel Mandella Reynolds, 20

**Why was it so important to you to vote in this election?
**I’ve got a lot to say, and voting is the first step toward being heard. Plus, you know, the democracy was about to collapse.

Is there a policy or a particular issue that you feel most strongly about?It’s genuinely terrifying how economic opportunity is shrinking while surveillance technology and authoritative legislation have been on the rise since 2001. Everything is starting to look like a Bong Joon-ho movie.

**What makes you most proud to be part of this generation of young American voters who have started to reclaim America from conservatives?
**We walk the walk, we’re not afraid of being in your face about what we believe, and if need be, we’re willing to take it to the streets.

Woman with a white t-shirt and blue corduroy blazer. Photographed by Marcus Branch.

Erieon, 20

Have you ever felt alienated from the political system or unheard by the government? All the time! I believe they don’t care what we want, and they aren’t even pretending too. My people are only given enough to keep us peaceful, and that is by design. The only change will come if we fight together because asking for it, we will continue to be ignored.

Are there any figures in your life that have shaped your political opinions and beliefs? My grandmother has taught me that anybody that condemns all of a certain thing or all of a certain race will never be able to represent me.

Do you remember how you felt about politics in 2016? What’s changed since? I didn’t care one way or another. I was too young to vote, and I felt like it wouldn’t make a noticeable difference between the candidates since the founding fathers (allegedly) laid out certain things that kept an individual from implementing too much of his personal opinion. Boy, was I wrong!

Man with blue jumper, metallic chain and sunglasses. Photographed by Marcus Branch.

Sean Ellmore, 24

**Was this your first time voting? How and when did you cast your vote?
**Yes! I originally intended for my first time to be in the 2016 election, but I missed the registration cut off. [This time] I dropped off my mail-in ballot at Eastern State Penitentiary -- very creepy and fitting for this year’s political climate.

Why was it so important to you to vote in this election? I knew as a gay man that my rights could be taken away if I didn’t cast my vote. I was also voting for all of the other people in this country that would have their rights taken away -- or have their rights continually ignored.

**2020 will be a date remembered in history for centuries to come. The protests, the pandemic, the political divide. What has it felt like to you and has it changed you and any of your perspective or priorities in life?
**2020 has completely changed me as a person. When George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and many other black people were killed due to police brutality, my art shifted to help bring light to the political climate. Previously, I had never done any political art and just felt the need to use the platform I have. I’ve learned that, because of the political divide, I needed to tighten my social circle. There were too many people disagreeing with my basic human rights to keep around.

Woman with a blue Commes Des Garçon polka dot shawl. Photographed by Marcus Branch.

Samantha Soffera, 21

**Have you encountered any tension about your choice of a political party with friends or family?
**Yes, of course! One of my brothers was super liberal when he was in college. Once he graduated, his political views took a 180 degree turn. He now votes Republican, and he voted for Trump in the past two elections. Our mother is an immigrant, so it all just felt like a slap in the face when we found out. There have been plenty of heated debates in our household, but I try to not engage in that type of discourse with him because it just gets incredibly uncomfortable and unproductive.

**Is there a policy or a particular issue that you feel most strongly about?
**This year showed me the urgent need for abolition of the police force throughout the United States, followed by a complete restructure and rethinking of what the ‘police’ are meant to do.

**What next?
**We have to continue to take care of each other. Redistributing our funds to others. Listening, growing, and educating. Strengthening our communities. In order to continue this fight, we must be sound and secure, together.

Credits


Photography Marcus Branch

Photography assistance Niall Brandon

Tagged:
Politics
Pennsylvania
Photography