Reading The Pictures is dedicated to the analysis of news photos and media images.
July 18, 2017

On that Creepy Don Jr. Elevator Photo

Donald Trump Jr. arrives at Trump Tower in New York City, U.S. January 18, 2017. Stephanie Keith/Reuters

During the presidential transition, I looked at thousand of photos taken in the lobby of the Trump Tower. I also wrote an article last December for Columbia Journalism Review visually analyzing how the Trump’s tactically leveraged the lobby space. One thing we know about photos, however, is that the same image can be read much differently at different points in time. That certainly goes for Stephanie Keith’s photo of Donald Trump Jr. taken last January, two days before the inauguration. The photo has been used repeatedly over the past two weeks to illustrate stories of the younger Don’s secret meeting with a Russian lawyer and other figures connected to Russia that took place last June.

Photographed at the mechanical gateway to Trump’s headquarters, the photo epitomizes the privilege, status and exclusionary nature of the Trump family. But the dark quality of the photo is especially peculiar. Certainly it’s at odds with the moment, flying in the face of Trump’s shocking victory and the gloating and swagger that followed.

Today, the photo can be seen as a premonition. It mirrors the surreptitiousness of the Trump Russia meeting, stealth as it was, and the fact that Don Jr., is not feeling nearly so brash or boastful anymore. Just as parodists and social media have likened Don Jr. to Fredo Corleone, the grim expression and darkened eyes reinforces the notion of something fetid here. (I should add that elevators make for good candid photos because a subject will often assume he or she is no longer in camera view.)

The sickly greenish hue is also a striking defilement of the Trump’s, and the Tower’s ubiquitous gold. In contrast to how the elevators typically appear, Keith’s photo muddies things, just like the family’s ethics, their conflicts of interest, and Don Jr.’s secret meeting also does.

Perhaps the most interesting feature of the photo, though, is the reflection of the photographers. During the transition, this element spoke more to the visual press as a captive audience, and the transformation of the lobby into the Trump show. That’s not how it reads today though. In light of the Russia controversy, the President’s avoidance of the media and the administration’s floundering and obfuscation, the cameras now embody the persistent demand for accountability and answers.

— Michael Shaw

(photo: Stephanie Keith/Reuters. caption: Donald Trump Jr. arrives at Trump Tower in New York City, U.S. January 18, 2017.)

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