Reading The Pictures is dedicated to the analysis of news photos and media images.
July 24, 2019

Religious Persecution Survivors on the Oval Stage

President Donald J. Trump meets with survivors of religious persecution from 17 countries Wednesday, July 17, 2019, in the Oval Office of the White House. (Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead)

A photo-op can either go well or very badly. When it goes badly, a keen eye can expose it to its hollow core. And that’s what we did in our latest tweet thread, where we examined what role President Trump’s meeting with survivors of religious persecution had in his political agenda. 

Last week, 27 survivors of religious persecution met with President Donald Trump to share their stories. The survivors came from 17 different countries, including China, Myanmar, Iran, Iraq and North Korea. 

All of this is ironic, considering what happened after. Vox wrote, “Immediately afterward, the president attended a rally and whipped up xenophobic anger at Ilhan Omar perhaps the most prominent refugee and religious minority in American politics. And the next day, Politico reported that security officials in the Trump administration are considering cutting refugee admissions ‘to nearly zero’ next year.”

It can’t be said that the event was Trump’s form of lip service, since he barely expressed words of sympathy. According to media reports, which described the meeting as “awkward,” he seemed unaware of what was happening in the attendee’s home countries. 

Circled around him and unnecessarily crammed into the Oval Office, Trump’s guests looked more like props. On Trump’s stage, he was the star, and everyone else was pushed into the background.

Given the sensitive nature of what those survivors have gone through, a quiet, intimate and comfortable space would have been more fitting. The blocking was clearly deliberately planned for the camera, and it was challenging for certain people to make eye contact and sustain a conversation with the president without having to lean or hover over him. 

Context is everything. One has to ask, “Why meet with survivors of religious persecution? And why survivors from those specific countries?” As indicated, the meeting was aimed and structured as a message to his evangelical base.

Trump has always been strategic. This time, he used survivors as pawns. 

The White House’s choice of imagery was interesting, since it sent a completely different message from that of the photographs taken by the press. 

Once again, we see that perspective is everything. With the weaponization of photography in politics, photographer Elliott Erwitt couldn’t have been more right when he said, “It has little to do with the things you see and everything to do with the way you see them.”

Photo: Shealah Craighead/Official White House Photo Caption: President Donald J. Trump meets with survivors of religious persecution from 17 countries Wednesday, July 17, 2019, in the Oval Office of the White House. 

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