Reading The Pictures is dedicated to the analysis of news photos and media images.
October 6, 2017

On that Photo of Air Force One Passing the Scene of the Vegas Massacre

Mike Blake/Reuters. Caption: Air Force One departs Las Vegas past the broken windows on the Mandalay Bay hotel, where shooter Stephen Paddock conducted his mass shooting along the Las Vegas Strip.

Just on the surface, it’s a clever idea, a compelling one-liner. The president comes to town to show his support after the worst mass shooting in American history. Coincidentally, the site of the attack, the Mandalay Hotel — the broken windows of the shooter’s room as notorious today as the scene of the smoking World Trade Towers in 2001 — lines up perfectly with the airport. I don’t know if the Reuters photographer just happened to notice Air Force One going by, or he actually planned it in advance. Either way, it’s stunning.

It’s deeper than a one-liner, though. The act of putting the president’s plane and the stricken hotel together as objects demands the consideration of one in terms of the other. Given the president’s inadequacies, and the shaky status of our republic right now, I also believe the forced comparison is completely fair. In fact, I believe the photographer, Mike Blake, along with the people at Reuters have done us a service putting the parallel in our face.

And I say the same thing about the Reuters photo by Carlos Barria, taken the day before as Trump was landing in Puerto Rico.

Air Force One transporting President Donald Trump lands at Luis Munoz Marin International Airport, as part of a visit to the areas affected by Hurricane Maria, in San Juan, Puerto Rico. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

On the simplest level, the two photos mark tragedies or catastrophes that Trump has had to deal with. They indicate that he’s got his hands full. Now, if Obama was still the president, I’m not sure the conversation between the objects would be all that interesting. With Trump in the White House, however, I think the relationship between Air Force One and these scenes of destruction are more provocative and more toxic. (Otherwise, I don’t think so many people would have written or tweeted us specifically about the Mandalay shot.)

Far from playing a healing or a unifying role, Trump has been blatantly divisive. You needn’t look further than that rude, flippant and blaming visit to hurricane-decimated Puerto Rico. In the case of the damaged traffic sign and the desperate island, these objects, in dialogue with each other, serve to punctuate the government’s slow response and Trump’s antagonism for Puerto Rico’s plight. Even further, the downed tree and the damaged sign serve as artifacts of Trump’s, and the government’s climate change denial.

I do need to make one thing clear about the Vegas photo. I am in no way suggesting Trump either motivated or inspired the shooting spree. If the photo invites more provocative parallels though, the concordance is there. Trump’s hostility has given tacit recognition to neo-Nazis and encouraged police to go rough. He has stoked anger and division at every turn, having set the national tone with a dog whistle. As I said about the photo the other day: “So much trouble in his wake.” If the unique circumstances of this photo and the elements in the photo demand connection, it’s easy to find in the culture of violence.

— Michael Shaw

(Photo 1: Mike Blake/Reuters. Caption: Air Force One departs Las Vegas past the broken windows on the Mandalay Bay hotel, where shooter Stephen Paddock conducted his mass shooting along the Las Vegas Strip. Photo 2: Carlos Barria/Reuters. Caption: Air Force One transporting President Donald Trump lands at Luis Munoz Marin International Airport, as part of a visit to the areas affected by Hurricane Maria, in San Juan, Puerto Rico.)

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