A portrait of Trump’s mental state by photojournalists

February 27, 2018
Donald Trump outside the West Wing on March 30, 2017. Photo: Brendan Smialowski/Getty.

While the mind of Donald Trump remains opaque to many of us—despite a year in office and a lifetime in the public eye—he conveys a lot through his body language, from how he interacts with others to how he presents himself to the camera.

Having looked at thousands of Trump photos, both straight editorial and more suggestive or artistic images, I found one element recurring throughout: fragmentation. An inordinate number of photos show Trump as just a mouth, or with his head cut off, bifurcated, distorted, or absent altogether. If mental health is equated with consistency and wholeness—we say a mentally well person “has it together”—Trump is often depicted as anything but.

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Some of these photos were taken to document major news events, such as the inauguration, a summit, or a holiday celebration. Still more, however, are more abstract or interpretive, published by the DC photo press on their Instagram feeds or used as illustrative leads for more general opinion articles. Some are more editorialized than others.

Note: Many of the examples were analyzed on the Twitter account for Reading the Pictures, a non-profit media and visual literacy site I publish.


The shape-shifter 

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A number of photos represent Trump as a shape-shifter, elusive by design, changeable, or makeshift. Some show him as a trickster—treating the presidency as a shell game—others show him as transient or vaporous.

Before he retired from the Washington beat, the great New York Times photographer Stephen Crowley displayed a special eye for this quality in Trump. This shadow photo from Poland in July 2017 shows Trump as a series of multiples:

Another from Crowley shows Trump disappearing behind or melding into one of the columns in the West Wing colonnade:

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The two-faced

In a recent New Yorker piece, Senator Lindsey Graham was quoted as saying there are “two Trumps,” one, the self-described “dealmaker and the other… recalcitrant and contemptuous.”

Using light, shadow, and other effects, a great number of photos capture Trump as conflicted, inconsistent, contradictory, vacillating, or duplicitous.

In this photo, AP photographer Evan Vucci, with an assist from his photo management program, renders Trump as perpetually split:

A post shared by Evan Vucci (@evanvucci) on

This photo by the Times’s Tom Brenner was taken in January 2018 after Trump led lawmakers to falsely believe he would back a bipartisan proposal on immigration reform. The image draws an visual allusion to the classical Janus head.

This photo by Leigh Vogel captures Trump aligned with a POW/MIA flag. The shadow, as it complements Trump’s downcast expression, speaks to Trump’s depressive side. It can also be seen as commentary, projecting disappointment over Trump’s well-known avoidance of military service during the Vietnam war.

A post shared by Leigh Vogel (@leighvogel) on

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The demon

There are so many photos of Trump in darkness, or split in half shadow. This one by Evan Vucci, of Trump’s face half-shaded prior to the president’s first government shutdown, reflects Trump as torn or vacillating. This one, by Saul Loeb, leading a New Yorker piece, is more ominous, producing a zombie effect.

Tom Brenner’s photo suggests a ghost, or something supernatural, a freak of nature:

Taken during the Republican convention by Daniel Acker for Getty Images, this image suggests an army of phantom followers. It incorporates Trump’s fomenting of fear and prejudice:

Embed from Getty Images


The Confidence Man

There are various photos that capture Trump, either covertly, or proudly and openly, in the role of the manipulator or deceiver. He’s the flim-flam man, the grifter, the con artist, the snake oil salesman.

This multiple exposure created by freelance photographer Nate Gowdy during the campaign seems to amplify Trump’s huckster status:

A post shared by nategowdy (@nategowdy) on


The Narcissist

This is a striking rendering of Trump’s narcissism by photographer Gabriella Demczuk, a case where the movement and the peculiar timing of the image has everything to say.

A post shared by Gabriella Demczuk (@gdemczuk) on

Last April, Donald Trump’s first visit to Walter Reed generated a storm of criticism after he gleefully realized one of his duties as president was to convey the Purple Heart. Trump turned his first opportunity into a photo op. “When I heard about this…I wanted to do it myself,” Trump related during the ceremony. 

Demczuk, the pool photographer for the New York Times that day, elaborates on the experience in a CNN photo feature on Trump’s first 100 days:

The press was taken into the lobby of the hospital to wait for his entrance. Sgt. 1st Class Alvaro Barrientos came in with his wife, Tammy, followed by President Trump and the first lady a couple minutes later. The ceremony lasted only a couple minutes, with very brief remarks by the President. When it ended, Trump and Barrientos went their separate ways and we were ushered back into the motorcade while Trump toured the rest of the facility. That was the first time I had witnessed a president give a Purple Heart, as President Obama would always do so in private.

To me, this photograph represents the disconnect between the administration and its citizens, as well as the disconnect between America and its service members, particularly the community of veterans.

Far from giving Trump his moment, while the soldier serves little more than a prop, Demczuk renders the event literally pedestrian. 

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The Volcano

By now, people understand how thin-skinned and volatile Trump is. Although he hides it pretty well when he’s in front of the cameras, there are many instances in which his temper comes through.

In the photo below, taken by Kevin Lamarque for Reuters, Trump appears even more unhinged for being out of focus:


The Simpleton

Over course, plenty of images represent Trump as a know-nothing, non-reader. The visual press has not only not looked away, but has focused intently.

Getty’s Mark Wilson took the shot below:

A post shared by Mark Wilson (@markphoto__) on


The Outcast

Perhaps Trump’s most damaging quality is his capacity to alienate, to push staff and friends away from himself. Photographers continually communicate that estrangement, eager to capture him as hostile, aggressive, or chilly, even with his family. A great deal of photos show him exaggeratedly offset, barely there, just plain absent, or out-of-sync, separated from others by some kind of divider.

The photo below involved a clever repurposing of a White House moment:

To message that the Democratic leadership was being uncooperative, the White House left two chairs opposite Trump empty in front of name tags for Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi. Their GOP counterparts, McConnell and Ryan, are sitting in the two chairs we cannot see below. The way AFP’s Jim Watson framed the photo, however, it left the two Republican leaders out of it, implying that Trump alienates all who get close.


The Unstable

There are certain photographs captured by photographers, however, that seem more diagnostic.

Reuters’s Joshua Roberts shot this photo in the White House Diplomatic Room last October. It looks like Trump, his eyes closed, his hands rigidly stretched, is having a nervous system reaction:


At the UN

It’s interesting to look at how much unsettling imagery one high visibility event can produce, especially when the performance of the president is at a premium. Take Trump’s appearance at the UN in New York last September. That was the occasion of his bombastic speech rolling out the “Rocket Man” nickname for Kim Jong Un and his threat to “completely destroy North Korea.”

In this shot, New York Times photographer Chang W. Lee makes an issue out of Trump’s ability to see:

In this shot by Getty’s Spencer Platt, the photo functions like a gag over Trump’s mouth (in both senses of the word).

Finally, this shot by Roman Vondrous is the total brew, combining the shape shifter, the demon, the volcano, the confidence man, and the narcissist into something many fear with Trump in charge: the shattering.

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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.