Donald and Melania Trump’s relationship through a lens

February 1, 2017
President Donald J. Trump and the First Lady Melania Trump had their first dance at the Liberty Inauguration Day Ball at the Washington Convention Center on Friday January 20, 2017. (Photo by Melina Mara/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

In the social-media age, the protest sign has become the new pull quote. Demonstrators who took to the streets for the Women’s March took President Donald Trump to task over women’s rights, health care, immigration, xenophobia, and the environment, using thousands of unique and creative messages.

But the sign that most stood out to me was the one below. Here was a visual statement raising the “issues” of intimacy, depth, and public expression of a president’s marriage. As photos are inherently open to interpretation, what are we to make of this?


At the Women’s March on January 21, 2017. Photo by Susan Meiselas, for Magnum Photos.


Naturally, the image draws a comparison between Obama and his successor. The sign in the photo emphasizes a special bond with America’s first couple, and its loss. To many, that relationship was a model and a source of inspiration. The first couple were seen as a fountain of stability, an endorsement of fidelity, and a special partnership—the ultimate embodiment of the anti-Trump campaign slogan “Love Trumps Hate.”

Perhaps that bond was just a presidential anomaly. But it matters as an expression of character. It matters because of our own extra-familial relationship to the president. (In effect, we are all married to the president and dependent on his or her support, concern, and consistency in a relationship lasting at least four years.) And it matters because of Trump’s character, adversarial nature, and blatant narcissism, as well as his documented aggressive attitude toward women, his self-touted sexploits, and his multiple marriages. Donald Trump’s relationship with his wife, Melania, is of legitimate and compelling public interest.

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Before and during the campaign, most images depicting the couple came from controlled photo-ops. In more unscripted moments, including during inauguration festivities, photojournalists have dug deeper into the rapport between president and first lady. Of course, the Trumps are not the Obamas. Donald Trump is as physically blunt in his gestures as he is in his speech. Melania Trump is demure in her manner. Often she wears a poker face. Sometimes she looks sad. Other times, she seems indifferent.

Differences in emotional chemistry and physical vocabulary notwithstanding, arguably every relationship reveals signs of when it is clicking and when it isn’t. Many of the inauguration photos and videos of the Trumps suggested they are not on the same page.


A photo posted by Leigh Vogel (@leighvogel) on


Perhaps the contrast between the couples can be chalked up to jitters; the Obamas probably got more comfortable in the spotlight after almost a decade in the role. But in the image above, by Washington-based photographer and freelancer Leigh Vogel, the Trumps look icier than the weather. It’s a quality that shows up in many images of the couple.


Omg what did he say to her???? RUN MELANIA!!!!

Posted by Blast Avenue on Monday, January 23, 2017


This GIF was made during Trump’s inauguration ceremony. In it, Melania seems to brighten and shine when Trump looks in her direction, then wilts like a flower as soon as he turns away. Again, of course, the behavior could be perfectly random.


A photo posted by monica (@monicafeldman74) on


Then there was this photo taken during the inauguration luncheon in Statuary Hall by Reuters photographer Yuri Gripas. The Trumps’ bizarre expressions could be the result of any number of factors. Still, at this occasion for joy, the apparent unhappiness and disconnection in the photograph is striking. If recent imagery shows some fissures, another question to ask: How did we miss it in the imagery before?

Related: 7 photos that capture the absurdity of the election

It’s possible we are witnessing this behavior between Donald and Melania because they no longer have as much ability to control their own visibility. (Earlier, I detailed Trump’s manipulation of space, media, and visitors at Trump Tower.) Donald and Melania did not spend as much time together on the campaign trail as other couples have, a pattern that continues now that Melania is splitting her time between Washington and New York, where their son attends school. In fact, Us Weekly in a story posted today reported Melania may never move to the White House.

The inauguration activities put the presidential relationship more “under the microscope” than ever before. The photo below in particular generated buzz across the political web. What lent it power, in this case, was its domesticity.



The photo shows Trump and Melania arriving at the White House on inauguration day. The president-elect and his spouse traditionally greet the president and first lady before the official event and then ride to the swearing-in together. It’s also the day the new first couple make their home at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

What you see in the photo, by Mark Wilson for Getty Images, is Donald Trump greeting the first couple while Melania is left in the driveway. On one hand, it’s an act that could be chalked up to excitement or eagerness. At the same time, it’s the kind of rare and unforgettable moment in life a couple would want to share. Given such a clear illustration of “me” instead of “we,” it’s not hard to wonder whether Trump’s disregard is emblematic of something deeper.

Those dynamics, along with the public’s natural curiosity about the first couple’s relationship leads me to Stephen Crowley’s photo. The long-time New York Times political photojournalist, widely known for his editorial acumen, posted this photo on Instagram.



Because most media images of Donald and Melania dancing at the Liberty Ball on inauguration night were pleasant and shining, it’s telling that Crowley chose to represent them like this. Whereas the telegenic couple looked radiant to most, Crowley’s image casts them in an uneasy shadow. What’s really going on between these two? To the extent we, too, are in Trump’s hands, I wonder how much more we’ll get to see in the months ahead.

Michael Shaw is publisher of the nonprofit visual-literacy and media-literacy site ReadingThePictures, an analyst of news photos and visual journalism, and a frequent lecturer and writer on news imagery, photojournalism, and documentary photography. Follow ReadingThePictures via Twitter and Instagram.