‘I knew there was this tension’: Photographer behind viral Pelosi photo speaks

Nancy Pelosi and Donald Trump during the State of the Union speech on Feb. 5, 2019. (Doug Mills/The New York Times)

Donald Trump’s February 5 State of the Union address, which Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi originally cancelled due to “security concerns,” came three months after Democrats won back a majority in Congress. During those months, tensions between Trump and Pelosi amplified. At a December 11 Oval Office meeting, Trump, Pelosi, and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer argued in front of television cameras over immigration, government funding, and November’s election results. Trump said he would be “proud” to shut down parts of the government in his fight for a border wall. On January 9, weeks into what would become the longest shutdown in US history, Trump stormed out of a closed meeting with congressional leaders when Pelosi again refused to fund the wall.

So when New York Times White House photographer Doug Mills was appointed pool photographer for the State of the Union—a designation that meant he would be the only photographer allowed on the House floor during the event—he planned to follow both Trump and Pelosi with care.

By the time the State of the Union was over, a photo Mills captured early on in the address had already circled the globe, a viral phenomenon that encapsulated the raw conflict between two very public adversaries.

Mills spoke with CJR by phone from outside the White House’s West Wing about that night and the responsibility that comes with photographing Trump’s presidency. His words have been condensed for length and clarity.

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I knew there was this tension, and I was the only news photographer on the floor last night. I was trying to keep my eye on the handshake. It’s traditional that the President hands the Vice President and the Speaker of the House a copy of his speech so they can read along, and they shake hands.

That was cordial, and Pelosi really contained herself at first. But then when Trump brought up unity, said that the two parties were going to start working together, she jumped up out of her seat. Her look said, “OK, you said it, this is on you to deliver.”

If I had missed that moment, maybe been shooting with a different lens, I wouldn’t have slept that night. Many photographers took the same picture, it was just from a different angle. In mine, Pelosi’s right over his shoulder, so you see her lips, her mouth. It’s better to be lucky than good. I was very lucky to be on the floor last night. There are great photographers in this town. I’m sure any of them would have gotten the same shot.

I was using a mirrorless camera. As you push the shutter, you see what you’re getting. I knew what Pelosi was doing right away. From the floor, I sent my disk to an editor upstairs. I said “Hey, there’s some pretty nice frames of Pelosi gesturing in there.” She texted back, “Got it, looks great, got it.”

I didn’t think anymore about it. I just kept shooting. My phone started blowing up while I was still working. Reuters had been the first to tweet it out. My photos were pool, meaning everyone had access. My phone’s going so hard, I thought my battery was going to go dead. Then I started getting direct messages on Twitter about it. But I’m just concentrating on shooting the rest of the speech.

When I got upstairs, one of the guys in the press gallery said, “My son just contacted me and said your photo is going viral.” Gosh, it had probably been 45 minutes since I took it. Someone else called it “global viral.” I was like, “What is that?”

I woke up the following morning to hundreds of notifications. Then people started texting me the memes. Maybe the response is so strong because everyone was expecting some sort of moment between the two of them. It’s been such a chilly relationship since she became speaker.

 

If I had missed that moment, maybe been shooting with a different lens, I wouldn’t have slept that night

 

People told me this is the “women’s movement clap.” Some people thought it meant something like “the Dems are back now, I’ve got my eye on you.” Others on the right thought it was disrespectful. On Twitter, people called it the “f-you clap.” Oh my gosh, I don’t want my name on that.

Some of the impact of the photo is because he’s controversial, he’s not a politician. Interestingly enough, the country did not elect a politician this time. A politician would not speak when they were attacked, they might just blow it off. That’s the last thing this guy does. If someone attacks, he avenges himself.

I really felt I photographed the real Trump during the midterms. I got lots of images that spoke to his not wanting to lose. This president uses the media to his advantage a lot. He’s pretty photo savvy. When he gets onstage, he knows where we are. Not that he plays to us, but he knows that we are there. There’s no doubt he’s giving a message when he comes out yelling and pointing. I mean, he gets up there and pulls audience members up onstage quite often. He did it during midterms.

Someone at the White House today said pictures don’t lie. It was a moment, it was there. No matter what picture you take, both sides will have a way of describing whether they like it or hate it. Thankfully, the press has retweeted my pictures. I don’t have an agenda. I just try to make the best picture I can at each event I go to. I could never work at The New York Times with an agenda.

I’ve been covering the White House since 1983, since Reagan. I have no axe to grind. I plan on staying here, it’s not a four-year term for me. Each president is different. My job is to be fair, record it. It’s a photographer’s job and duty, good or bad. I make sure New York Times readers see the correct image.

One of the things I always say about Trump is that we have more access than we had to the  last five presidents I’ve covered. We’re allowed to stay in the meetings longer. It’s a photographer’s dream.

Being around him the last two years, I’ve gotten to know his tendencies, but he’s not really predictable. He keeps us all on our toes, it’s so exciting. During the shutdown it was like the old days with less access. Plenty of photographers and journalists were happy to have a break. It’s consuming, covering Trump. It’s a daunting task. It’s draining, it’s nonstop. You look for your days off, you look forward to them.

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Amanda Darrach is a CJR Delacorte Fellow. Follow her on Twitter @thedarrach.