February 23, 2017

How Much is Barron Trump Off-limits? A Risky News Photo Award

BARRON: WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 20: President Trump waves as his son Barron Trump looks out during the inaugural parade as it makes its way down Pennsylvania Avenue on Inauguration day in Washington, DC on Friday, Jan. 20, 2017.

If your passion is politics, nothing tops the photo contest each February by The White House News Photographers Association. And that is especially true every fourth year when the awards include an inauguration category. Washington Post photographer Jabin Botsford not only won the category prize, his shot of Donald and Barron Trump, the photo titled “BARRON” (below), might be the most fascinating and provocative choice of all the photo contests this year.

But given the media blackout on children of the president, how far can we go in analyzing this now acclaimed piece of journalism? To what extent is it respectful (or safe) to tease out the meaning, power and symbolism of the prized scene? Where does one draw the line in addressing this photo as a cultural artifact? And the most fraught question: how much are we allowed to probe the expressions and personalities as they inform the composition?

On one level, of course, the face in the front window could belong to anyone. As a visual counter to Trump’s “thumbs up,” the child’s expression could be seen to represent the alienation, the horror even, so many people feel  over Trump’s election. Call it a “silent scream.” The fact it’s Barron though makes the photo a lot more complicated, and turns the silent scream allusion into blasphemy. It turns the photo — like a child itself, especially an unruly one — into something that “should be seen but not heard.” With creative and political license curtailed, the suggestive power that makes the photo a winner in the first place gives way to a family rating. Hail the president, and a kid fascinated with soldiers in uniform.

Art and symbolism aside, however, what can we say about the politics of the choice? How much was the  selection made in literal spite of the journalistic demilitarized zone around Trump’s son? The fact Trump is constantly going low is no excuse, of course, to follow him there. The award is ironic, though, given Trump’s absence of boundaries. Apparently, there is nothing sacred or off limits to him, whether it involves the allegedly fake, lying, enemy-of-the-state media or even his own loved ones. Is it possible the elevation of this photo, at least in part, is a pushback to that?

Here’s where the photo gets really dangerous though. The fact the WHNPA chose to bestow significance on this particular image turns Trump’s role as a father, and this father-son relationship into subject matter. Exhibited side-by-side, the expressions and behaviors of Donald and Barron being highly compelling while thoroughly disconnected, the photo literally frames the question of how father and son relate, and how the behavior of one informs the other.

And it gets even stickier than that.

Given the child’s animation, the photo also raises the question of whether Barron is all right. It’s the question that guarantees to rip off the presidential seal off Pandora’s box. Last month, I wrote a post for Columbia Journalism Review laying out the case for the civic relevance of the Trump marriage. If we were a healthier society, if we weren’t polarized to death and the digital commons wasn’t beset by trolls, perhaps that question and answer, whatever it might be, might prove cathartic, might strike a blow for tolerance. Perhaps a little more information, while still protective of Barron, might actually create a healthier and more dimensional picture of Donald Trump, and his wife’s compassion, say. Dare I say it, it might even imbue such an adversarial figure with some empathy. Without pushing further, though, I would propose that Trump’s aversion to weakness in any form is probably a much larger rationale for total privacy than anything else.

Anyway, it’s a fierce and striking choice for an award. I know I could say more, but perhaps I shouldn’t have said anything at all.

(photo: Jabin Botsford. caption: BARRON: WASHINGTON, DC – JANUARY 20: President Trump waves as his son Barron Trump looks out during the inaugural parade as it makes its way down Pennsylvania Avenue on Inauguration day in Washington, DC on Friday, Jan. 20, 2017.)

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Michael Shaw
See other posts by Michael here.

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