How much does visual imagery, especially photography, determine the success or failure of a presidency? In the first 100 days, the Trump White House has distinguished itself with largely forgettable imagery, in contrast to the Obama administration’s brilliant orchestration, creation, and curation. The approach to photography under Trump has ranged from haphazard to negligent.
In the early going, team Trump operated with a paucity of photographers and editing staff. Staff members, such as the press secretary, have doubled as photographers. There does not appear to be much strategy in terms of which photographs are posted to staff social media accounts and which land on the president’s personal accounts or official feeds. White House Photographer Shealah Craighead has been poorly utilized. This administration has abandoned the popular White House Flickr feed. And the administration doesn’t even have a photo section on the White House website.
A crescendo of embarrassing images seemed to hit a new peak last week with the administration’s cringe-worthy video touting the release of an American aid worker from Egypt.
Is this an announcement? An ad? A music video? A propaganda clip? If the Trump communications people were competent, we might appreciate the odd melange of photo, text, and song as something different from a student product in an introductory video class. But this, and almost every other visual expression coming from the Trump administration, feels rough, random, distant, out-of-focus, mixed-up, or “thrown together”—no substitute for a style or an aesthetic.
The administration has not only made poor use of photography, it has also suffered for its ineptitude. The most obvious visual gaffes include: “Couch Gate,” in which Kellyanne Conway tweeted photos of a photo-op with black college and university officials from the Oval Office couch; that bizarre scene from the Mar-a-Lago dining room following a North Korean missile scare; and Trump’s awkward meeting during the transition with the Japanese Prime Minister. In that instance, photos distributed by the Japanese government raised hackles over Ivanka Trump’s presence and the President-elect’s conflicts of interest.
— Reading The Pictures (@ReadingThePix) March 28, 2017
Conway’s “Couch Gate” action suggest a White House communications office in disarray and a contempt for internal procedure. That’s why the image above by New York Times photographer Stephen Crowley is so illuminating. What you see on the right side of the frame is the White House photographer in the process of taking a group portrait. (The understandably not-so-great result was posted to the White House Instagram feed). In a rational world, Conway would have been helping stage the official photograph, making sure that the White House photographer had all the support necessary to create the best official shot while doing visual justice to the larger group of educators. Instead, reflecting the truer culture of the West Wing perhaps, Conway took advantage of the moment to serve herself.
What also hasn’t drawn broader attention—saturated as we are by social media and the notion today that “everybody is a photographer”—is the haphazard, do-it-yourself approach to both the marketing and the historical documentation of Trump’s presidency. Until recently, Trump and the administration displayed disregard for the White House photographer and a White House visual-media operation.
— Sean Spicer (@PressSec) March 1, 2017
There is no better example of that disregard than this one. The photo was posted by the press secretary following Trump’s address to Congress. Reflecting Trump’s penchant for adulation, the photo captures the White House staff giving him a hero’s welcome. Wouldn’t the moment have been better served by something other than an amateur-looking cell-phone shot? The irony here is that the photo, which only circulated on the press secretary’s Twitter feed, actually captures the White House photographer in the background.
Artfully applied, White House photography is an essential vehicle for informing, illustrating, and storytelling—all key elements of modern leadership and persuasion. The photos we’ve primarily seen from this White House convey a sense of distraction and amateurism.
Is the White House aiming for some quirkiness in the shot above? The speech to the Congress was one of the high points of the President’s early tenure. The view in this shot from so far away not only minimizes it, but the prominence of the octopus-like mics in the aisle further muddies the view.
In the past month, the White House has added professional photographers to its communication team. The recent Instagram photo above, however, does not provide the sense the White House has raised its visual game. Hashtagged to something called the “Exclusive Team Trump BTS” (read: “Behind the Scenes”), the image reflects a woefully literal interpretation, with an emphasis on “behind.”
— President Trump (@POTUS) February 17, 2017
The Obama imagery was so powerful not just because of how artful it was, but because of its apparent candidness. Obama and Souza gave us the impression we were flies on the wall, or part of the team—even part the family. In numbing contrast, photographs of Trump are often awkwardly, even painfully posed, with Trump almost always ensconced at the center. Like local chamber-of-commerce snaps or old corporate newsletter photos, they call attention to themselves as slavish, clone-like endorsements here accented by gratuitous thumbs-up gestures.
The mundanity of the photos the administration has circulated (mostly through staffers’ social media accounts) also raises a question: What is the role of Craighead, the official White House photographer?
— Reading The Pictures (@ReadingThePix) March 12, 2017
In early March, the White House published a Facebook photo album of 50 photos to commemorate 50 days in office. (I analyzed the collection more thoroughly here.) Perhaps the most curious thing about those photos is what they suggest about Craighead’s access, or lack thereof, to the president, and their lack of chemistry. Craighead’s access to the president is often no better than the press pool’s, and sometimes worse. The album is dominated by pictures of Trump meeting the media, or photos of photo-ops.
Because these scrum photos continue to dominate White House social media, I believe Trump, like in every other way, is simply obsessed with the media and the attention he is receiving. (Of course, these photos also depict how symbiotic the relationship is.)
— The White House (@WhiteHouse) March 11, 2017
To the extent this White House does have a visual agenda, it is focused on reinforcing the president’s political attacks. Take the photo the Trump White House published to promote that 50-day photo album, for example. Nearly three months after the fact, it felt like the administration was still trying to have the last word on inauguration attendance.
Thanks to White House Chief of Staff for this wonderful picture of the MLK bust in the oval pic.twitter.com/Lzgj6RljvI
— Sean Spicer (@PressSec) January 21, 2017
Or, consider this tweet from Sean Spicer on the administration’s first day of work after a White House pool reporter accidentally tweeted that the Oval Office bust of Martin Luther King Jr. had been removed. If you followed the story, Zeke Miller, Time’s White House reporter, immediately and prodigiously apologized for the mistake. That didn’t stop Spicer, however, from calling it out in the White House pool report—and then making it the subject of a tweet.
— Reading The Pictures (@ReadingThePix) February 24, 2017
A visual theme that seems to emerge from this White House is racial pandering. Not three months into the new administration, the examples—the hastily arranged group portrait with the leaders of historically black colleges and universities merely one of them—keep coming. Besides notable transition photo ops with well-known figures such as Kanye West and Don King, White House photo-ops or visual events that have drawn skeptical attention include images showing people of color sitting behind Jeff Sessions at his confirmation hearing, the Administration’s choice of a black park ranger to accept Trump’s salary, and Trump’s photo with Ben Carson in front of the Ben Carson display at the National Museum of African American History and Culture.
Then there’s Trump’s awkward penchant for sitting the one African-American in a room right next to him, such as at a CEO forum in February.
Other photo-ops are strategically seeded with people of color. Hoping to increase their percentage of the African-American vote, George W. Bush and Karl Rove also made this a practice, in one case actually photoshopping a campaign ad shot at a military base to add more black soldiers. The photo above was taken during Trump’s visit to US Central Command at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa.
Also noteworthy was the lack of black faces in the video of Trump’s meeting with the Congressional Black Caucus’s executive board. Arranged in response to Trump’s controversial photo-op with the black college leaders, the board sat opposite the president out of view of TV cameras. “The Congressional Black Caucus is not going to be a potted plant or a photo opportunity,” one of its members told The Washington Post.
Amidst the visual banality of the Trump administration, the photo above stands out. Taken by Craighead, the image of Trump’s team monitoring the Syria strike was widely circulated in the media. As a piece of propaganda, it’s bears a clever likeness to the historic Obama situation room photo taken during the raid that killed Osama bin Laden. In almost every way, however, it is a weak facsimile.
The Obama team was assembled in the high-tech Situation Room in the White House. Team Trump gathered in a secured meeting room in his country club with a “Quiet Area” sign taped to the door.
The Obama team was observing the actual mission. The Trump team was participating in a briefing on the raid an hour later.
In the Obama photo, attendees were limited to senior or strategic personnel with a military, foreign policy, or national security portfolio. The Trump photo displays a hodgepodge of cabinet members, with the only active military officer in the room guarding the door.
In the Obama photo, the military officer guiding the operation sits at the head of the table while the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs is just off his shoulder. The Mar-a-Lago shot, in contrast, and typical of most Trump White House photos, shows the president at the center while others encircle him, in this case, mirrored by other men wearing red ties. The Trump team is also suited up for dinner, indicating how this mission was awkwardly executed right after dessert during a much-touted summit with the President of China.
To some, photographs might seem ephemeral to the act of governing. They might seem superfluous, like illustration or window dressing. In our increasingly visual culture, however, imagery cannot be an afterthought. The Trump administration’s failure to understand that is one more deficit among its heap of woes.