Covering the Election

10 photos that capture dawning reality of a new Trump era

November 23, 2016
House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) shows President-elect Donald Trump and his wife

Donald Trump’s election has roiled the country and turned the journalism world on its head. As the Trump administration and this new, unpredictable era unfolds, I plan to follow it visually for CJR, examining and analyzing key pictures.

Trump’s upset and his rejection of the status quo spur many questions, such as: How is the media using photography to frame and editorialize on Trump and his transition? What new trends, themes, and shifts in tone can we detect in popular images? To what extent will Team Trump embrace the visual and social media tools of the White House? Will Trump appoint a White House photographer, following the lead of every president since JFK, except Carter? Finally, what can we infer about the public mood based on Trump-related images that go viral?

Using these questions as a guide, I hope to bring you regular dispatches to visually consider the new era. With that in mind, let’s look at the immediate aftermath of the election and the two weeks after Trump’s stunning victory.

In the days after the election, New Yorkers created a wall of sticky notes in Union Square registering their reactions. This version of the wall, among many others, was posted on Instagram by widely published freelance photojournalist Ben Lowy. The comparison might seem overblown, especially weeks later, but the spontaneity, the intense feelings, and the need for expression–from fear and anger, to care, and solidarity–drew some comparisons to the aftermath of Sept. 11.

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Even for Trump supporters, the shock of his victory made the President-elect’s ritual visit to the Oval Office a visually stunning exercise. Not surprisingly, news outlets focused on Trump and Obama sitting opposite each other and also shaking hands. This photo by Washington photographer Olivier Douliery, however, was particularly riveting. Given Trump’s exploitation of nationalism, and his threat to bar and expel immigrants and foreigners on the basis of religion or nationality, the juxtaposition with Lady Liberty was full of irony.

Related: Dear US journalists: Things are about to change

In the aftermath of the election, activists and journalists have warned about treating Trump’s election as normal. The concern is that his penchant for vitriol and name-calling, his embrace of far-right thinking and actors, and his disregard for protocol and conventional ethics would become accepted by traditional media, as just “Trump being Trump.” 

This concern quickly coalesced around the term “normalization.”
Hillary Clinton and President Obama also became instant targets for their conciliatory tone and well-wishes for the president-elect. To many, the photo above by the AP’s Andy Harnik documents heresy, or at least, a settlement that the country, and the decisive winner of the popular vote, might live to regret.

Taken on the Speaker’s Balcony after Trump visited Capitol Hill, the photo makes it seem like Speaker Ryan and Trump are collaboratively reviewing the political landscape. Comparing the photo and others like it against a Reuters video, however, tells a different story (one obscured by the photo caption and much of the reporting around the visit). In reality, Ryan is pointing to the Washington Monument, while the self-interested Trump is pointing to his hotel property, the former Washington Old Post Office building.

In spite of “normalization” fears, one could instead place this Reuters photo in the “clearly editorializing” category. The file photo, taken last August by Reuters photographer Carlo Allegri, was included in a post-election slideshow titled: “Trump’s Inner Circle.” The photo shows new presidential senior advisor, Steve Bannon, as a shadowy figure. The shadows outside the window and the barely distinguishable visage of a man in the background with his hand on his face makes the image almost macabre. And the caption, too, is bluntly explicit about Bannon’s extremist ties. It reads:

Stephen Bannon has been named Trump’s chief strategist and senior counselor. Before he took over as chief executive of Trump’s campaign in August, Bannon headed Breitbart News, a website and voice for the alt-right movement, a loose right-wing confederation that includes hardcore nationalists, neo-Nazis, white supremacists and anti-Semites.

What hasn’t been normal is Trump’s continued use of Twitter to challenge perceived enemies, confront opposition, and rail against perceived slights. That was evident in an early tweet in which he cast doubt on the integrity of demonstrations against his election, predominantly by young people. Specifically, he suggested the protests were being instigated and infiltrated by “professionals.” Also a popular hashtag, the phrase is indicative of a backlash that is physical as much as virtual.

This photo of Obama’s post-election press conference by photographer Pete Souza was posted to the White House Twitter feed. Reporting on his private meeting with Trump, Obama broadcast cautious hope, and the insistence on giving Trump a chance. Whether a non-verbal commentary or just a telling moment, Pete’s frame captures a thoroughly skeptical-looking press corps.

In response to the long running conflict between the Obama White House and the press over photo access, New York Times photographer Stephen Crowley has, instead, channeled much of his attention and creativity into documenting the trappings and stage management of presidential photo-ops. As you can see, Crowley outdoes himself during the Obama-Trump availability. Incorporating the manager, stage left, and the phalanx of boom mikes, Crowley leverages the extraordinary drama and tension of the encounter to create a scene that would have made Fellini proud. At the same time, Obama’s looseness, mirroring the body language of the manager, creates a notable comparison with the rigid and static Trump.

Related: 7 photos that capture the absurdity of this election season

The Obamas have worked hard to maintain a sense of humor and optimism–as we see, for example, here and here. Given that candidate Trump exhibited little humor, lightness or ease, Crowley’s photo foreshadows a radical change in tone at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

This photo captures the reality of a president-elect and real estate scion living on New York’s 5th Avenue, Trump’s needs colliding with civic life, and the very real security threat to America’s chief executive. At the same time, it also portends a siege mentality promulgated by the president-elect as his early cabinet choices frame the religion of Islam as a threat.

This photo also came from Obama’s post-election press conference after Trump’s victory. I can’t say whether Obama was being any more physically expressive than usual, or if DC photographer Al Drago saw a visual analogy between Obama and Trump. Perhaps, however, it reflects a shift already underway in the physical and visual playing field. In other words, the photo anticipates the coming emphasis on gross gesture, and an outsized preoccupation with sizing and measuring.

Related: ‘The goal is not to fear Trump, but for Trump to fear you’

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.