“Controlling the zone” is a familiar term in aviation as well as sports. It refers to managing a protective space and governing that space to one’s advantage.
The media has given President-Elect Donald Trump quite a bit of latitude when it comes to operating on his own turf in his own way, as a real estate titan and former political outsider. And Trump has effectively used his eponymous Midtown Manhattan skyscraper to further assert a sense of power and control.
The media, the public, and the political establishment are forced to negotiate the 58-story tower’s spaces, particularly the lobby, on Trump’s terms. The resulting circus of power and influence has flooded the media space with awkward and provocative images.
Potential cabinet officers, political luminaries, policy experts, and celebrities traipsing through Trump Tower have made for powerful theater (or is it reality TV?) since Election Day. Many who are accustomed to operating with more discretion have interacted awkwardly with a phalanx of news photographers and videographers. The setting turns everyone who wants or needs to interact with Trump into real-life actors in a presidential transition drama.
This cartoon by Matt Wuerker for Politico goes right for the jugular, positing how the camera’s incessant gaze, and all the ascending and descending, is an homage to Trump’s ego, as if visitors are demonstrating fealty to a lord.
At times, the scene at Trump Tower feels literally like a show. Last August a man seeking an audience with Trump was arrested for scaling the outside of the building. On any given day, you might find Triumph, the Insult Comic Dog, or a defeated, but still dancing Hillary.
Trump’s M.O. is to make people come to him, to keep people off balance and mindful of who’s in charge. Trump Tower helps him accomplish both. The building’s lobby space–much like the boardroom from Trump’s NBC reality show The Apprentice–puts visitors “on the spot,” forcing them into a candid public situation with little protection.
Trump could arrange for dignitaries to come and go discreetly–if that’s what he wanted. His chief strategist and senior counselor, Steve Bannon, for example, is hardly ever seen in the lobby. But that’s not how Trump rolls with other visitors. In this photo, for example, Jim Brown and former Apprentice star Omarosa Manigault wait awkwardly to see Trump in front of the media pool while two unidentified men stand around just as uncomfortably.
Nobody has suffered harsher treatment running the Trump Tower gauntlet than Al Gore, the last popular-vote winner before Hillary Clinton to lose a presidential election. He came in earnest at the invitation of Ivanka Trump to meet with her and her father to discuss climate change. Presumably Gore had no idea the president-elect would name a climate-change denier as energy secretary the very next morning. The look on Gore’s face and the reflection of the photographers only exacerbates the cruel side of this spectacle.
From the beginning of his campaign, Trump used immigration and terrorism to stoke fear, casting suspicion on non-Christian, brown-skinned people from Asia to the Middle East. Michael Flynn, Trump’s proposed national security advisor, has raised specific alarm for disparaging the entire religion of Islam as violent.
But in front of the cameras at Trump Tower, Michael Flynn poses happily with a Sikh man. Though Sikhs aren’t Muslim, what’s provocative about the photo is that it seems to sanitize the incoming administration’s xenophobic tendencies.
Former campaign manager and senior advisor Kellyann Conway–the face of Team Trump on TV–is especially solicitous of tourists and excited Trump Tower visitors. In contrast to her combative demeanor on talk shows and Twitter, Conway is frequently captured in newswire photos posing for selfies and even joking around with New York fixture and Trump admirer “The Naked Cowboy.”
Similar to the way he uses his Twitter feed, Trump will use the lobby, the assembled media, and attention-grabbing techniques to drive or alter the media narrative. Just when it seemed like Russia’s meddling in the election would lead the day’s news conversation …
Trump appeared with Kanye West the morning after nominating Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson as secretary of state, and the same morning he appointed the former Texas Gov. Rick Perry as his energy secretary. The Trump-Kanye appearance distracted from Tillerson’s close ties to Russia and Putin, the CIA bombshell that Russian hacking was aimed at tipping the US election to Trump, and Trump’s delay of a promised news conference on how he plans to handle his business affairs while serving as president. Not surprisingly, the media (including Politico, ABC, CNN, Getty and Fox, just to name a few) lapped it up.
As much as Trump and his team visually control the zone, they are also encountering pushback. Because the lobby is public space, Trump and his team have no monopoly on political theater. Here, documentary filmmaker Michael Moore, famous for his attempts to meet noteworthy figures, makes sure the cameras can see his request for an audience with The Donald.
The drama is not just confined to the lobby and main elevator banks. A jewelry shop near the building entrance sells Ivanka’s wares and has been an object of satire. With Ivanka using her father’s campaign and subsequent victory to boost her products and her personal brand, this photo subtly mocks her. Echoing the portrait of Ivanka on the store wall, the photographer captures a shopper similarly attending to her hair.
If there are criticisms of Trump’s circus embedded in the mainstream images from Trump Tower, they are subtle. Not so for freelancers or citizen-journalists. The Instagram tag #themaninthetower, for example, mixes street photography with mockery and humor to showcase Trump Tower as a spectacle and to mock Trump’s exercise of power. (It also may be a reference to The Man in the High Castle, a TV series loosely based on the Philip K. Dick novel.)
Freelance photographer Mark Abramson has used multiple exposures as a tool to offer commentary on Team Trump, the Tower, and its heavy-handed staging. Abramson was widely published during the campaign by Harpers, The New Yorker, Time, and Wired. In this case, he combines a photo of Vice President-Elect Mike Pence in front of Trump Tower, with a nearby Saks Fifth Avenue holiday window. Using costume display and the theme of masquerade as a metaphor for the transition show, one could debate how much he’s exaggerating.
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.