Photos of President Trump so far? Sad! Trump meets with business leaders, politicians, and heads of state in the Oval Office. He shakes—or, in the case of German chancellor Angela Merkel, doesn’t shake—their hands. He sits at the Resolute Desk, an intensely serious look on his face as he holds up an executive order for the camera pan. He looks stern, even dour, his frown contrasting with the smiles on the pale faces behind him. The photos are awkward. Impersonal. Formulaic.
Photography: Getty Images and New York Timeswww.wired.com
“You kind of know what you’re going to get,” says AFP photographer Jim Watson. “You walk into a scene, walk into a cabinet room, and you know the president will be sitting in the center with people around him and he’ll make a statement and you’ll get kicked out. There’s nothing special, nothing out of the ordinary that will happen that’s going to make a great image.”
Official photos by White House photographer Shealah Craighead are equally low energy, and any candid photographs tend to be snapped by smartphone-wielding staffers. There are few behind-the-scenes glimpses of life in the White House, few heartwarming photos with his family, little to suggest Trump finds any joy in the job.
All of this stands in contrast to the vast archive of presidential photographs amassed in the five decades since President Kennedy named Cecil Stoughton the first White House photographer. And it speaks to a great irony of the Trump Administration: For a man who understands the power of images to build a brand, Trump has shown remarkably little interest in using photography to shape the narrative of his presidency and his place in history.
Perhaps he thinks the no-nonsense, down-to-business approach looks presidential. Maybe he thinks voters don’t want to see anything else. It could be he thinks he needs only show up for a photo to appear presidential. Whatever the case, Trump—a man who is very much of the moment—seems to view photographs as self-serving opportunities to shine, not documents preserving history for future generations. As with so many other aspects of his presidency, it looks like the administration is making it up as it goes. The White House relied upon military photographers to help shoot the inauguration, and a White House events coordinator who requested anonymity said the administration has on occasion used them to document events typically handled by White House photographers.
The haphazard approach stems in no small part from the fact Trump has not named a director of production. These stage masters manage, in minute detail, the optics of the presidency. Think of Ronald and Nancy Reagan at the Great Wall of China, or President George W. Bush and “Mission Accomplished.” The White House seems to have no recognition of the importance of that role. Asked about the job, deputy press secretary Stephanie Grisham responded, “Production for what?” Granted, Trump has a skilled advance man in George Gigicos, and Grisham says the communications office performs “various production-like roles.” But without someone specifically dedicated to making him look good, Trump’s imagery is floundering.
Production directors work with the president’s White House and advance teams to ensure the best possible photo opportunities both in and outside the White House. The job goes beyond framing pretty pictures to shaping the president’s image, narrative, and, not to put too fine a point on it, his place in history. “Being the president of the United States is very much about imagery and about message,” says Adam Belmar, who served as deputy director of communications for production under President George W. Bush. “The quality of what history will judge, and the way people will perceive your agenda and your accomplishments, are tied directly to production and the quality of the photographs.”
Reagan’s chief of staff Michael Deaver knew this when he laid the groundwork for the job, meticulously staging photo ops for a president with an innate understanding of visuals and storytelling. President Clinton made the role official with the appointment of Steve Rabinowitz in 1993. Bush continued the tradition, and President Obama folded the job into the director of message planning.
Trump’s approach stands in stark contrast to that of Obama. The 44th president only occasionally allowed the press to photograph him—a move that prompted a written protest from photojournalists representing 37 news outlets—but granted White House photographer Pete Souza unfettered access. Souza, who also served under Reagan, and his team snapped as many as 20,000 frames each week, and uploaded nearly 10,000 photos to Facebook and Flickr over the years, They include a now-iconic photo of 5-year-old Jacob Philadelphia touching Obama’s hair and a moving visit with the nation’s oldest living war veteran. “It was a really nice moment,” says New York Times photographer Douglas Mills. “But unfortunately we saw it on Whitehouse.gov, and we saw it on Flickr, and we saw it through Instagram and Twitter.”
Trump immediately reversed that, kicking off his presidency with as many as five photo ops daily. Photographers loved it. Yet his administration has done little to foster an ideal environment in which they can work. The White House has on occasion relegated them to the back of the room, requiring them to hoist their cameras high overhead. They work with available light, because the White House Communications Agency—the Pentagon agency that handles audio-visual production—does not erect battery-powered strobes. (Rumor has it the strobes wash out Trump’s hair.) This isn’t a problem in the Oval Office, where large windows offer plenty of light, but it is elsewhere in the White House. “You just can’t make good pictures without good lighting,” Belmar says. One longtime photographer told WIRED that Trump dislikes TV boom mics near him, so they sit back with the film crew and photographers, where they pick up the clickclickclick of the shutters. The White House Correspondents’ Association now asks photographers not to use rapid-fire modes at pool-only events.
But even photo ops planned well in advance lack pizzazz. Josh King, Clinton’s second director of production, cites Trump’s visit to Detroit. Although Trump’s team nailed the optics when he joined auto industry execs in walking down a blue carpet lined by cars with the American flag in the background, King says they fumbled a rally in which the president appeared beneath a “Hire American, Buy American” banner. “You and I could have thought that up back in 1989,” King says. That’s not to say these staged events aren’t effective. They just aren’t memorable.
To be fair, you can find great photos of Trump. Inauguration day (which was overseen by a director of production) in particular provided glimpses of a presidential Trump. The sweeping overhead shot of him striding out of the Capitol toward the podium to deliver his inaugural address. The front-row view of him taking the oath of office. Craighead’s photo of Trump gazing through a White House window. Rob Carr’s photo of Trump dancing with Melania, an image that revealed genuine warmth and tenderness.
Those photos occurred in candid moments that photographers strive to document, because they humanize. One of the most intimate looks at Trump might just be Stephen Crowley’s shot of the wind catching Trump’s tie, revealing the tape securing it. Yet these are exceptions to the generally lackluster optics the White House creates. After all, the most iconic photo of Trump’s presidency thus far makes him look like a little boy playing truck driver.
It isn’t that POTUS doesn’t think about this stuff. With his background in reality TV, Trump carefully checks video monitors before tapings. He loves the attention the cameras bestow, acts naturally in front of them, and knows how they best flatter him. “He hasn’t said anything to me or my colleagues,” Mills says, “but sometimes where we’re put at events, it’s pretty clear they have a certain look and they like to keep it.”
Perhaps that is the problem: Trump has a certain look, and he wants to keep it. It’s as if he views every event as a red carpet photo op, where he’s the center of every frame. But Trump usually looks most presidential when he doesn’t appear so self-absorbed, and he needs someone to tell him that. “The ability of the American people and the rest of the world to see the president in the best light, to help the president communicate most effectively, takes a great deal of effort and good experts,” Belmar says. “It is a lesson that has been well-learned and hard fought, and something every good presidency has to pay close attention to.”
The optics of this depend upon the viewer, of course. To his supporters, every photo of Trump reveals a no-frills executive more interested in the job than the pageantry. To his critics, well, Trump will never appear presidential. And it’s important to remember Trump is not even six months into his presidency. He may yet come to realize the role of photography, and how to use it. But at the moment, everything suggests Trump has little interest in anything beyond the moment, and how that moment reflects on him. He does not yet understand that the cameras are not there to record his story. They are there to record history.