A Photo for the Ages of Our Unfolding Disaster

In the aftermath of what can only be called the debacle of the G-7 Summit this photograph is rapidly taking on an iconic significance.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel speaks to U.S. President Donald Trump during the second day of the G7 meeting in Charlevoix city of La Malbaie, Quebec, Canada, June 9, 2018. Bundesregierung/Jesco Denzel/Handout

(Click through to the full post to see a larger version of the photo or click the photo itself for a fullscreen version.)

I want to share my thoughts about the visual impact and significance of this photo. But before I do that let me note another fact. There appear to have been no press photographers to capture this moment. I looked around for a while to see where this photo was from. I didn’t see it in our Getty Images wire feed. It turns out it’s by a German government photographer from the Chancellor’s office, Jesco Denzel. As I noted, there were no press photographers. But the different leaders had their own photographers there. Or aides took pictures. So far I’ve found versions of this moment from the delegations of Germany, Italy, France, Canada and the United States, which I share below.

About the Jesco Denzel photo, there is a certain Last Supper quality to it. Each face seems to capture an entire story, a different version of just what is happening. What is Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at the center thinking? What about what appears to be one of his aides between Abe and Merkel? Prime Minister Theresa May is, somehow appropriately, blocked out of the picture by Larry Kudlow and President Macron. When I first saw this photo I said that it captured the essence of the Trump presidency. Trump’s small and clearly overawed. Yet he has hands clasped over his chest like a stubborn child. Arms clasped over the chest is classic resistant body language. Trump particularly uses it when he feels threatened or challenged.

But when I saw a larger version of the picture I saw something different. At least in this moment, Trump’s face doesn’t show anger or defiance. It’s more like calmly standing his ground. He looks like a Trump supporter might like him to look. They’re exasperated. He’s standing his ground, imperturbable. I still see it basically as I first described it. But his expression in this photo at least partly challenges that interpretation. As you can see, the photo has an iconic quality in part because it can tell very different stories. Are Merkel et al. overawing a petulant child? Or are they haggling, paying court to the king?

Let me show you the other photographs.

These two are by Adam Scotti, official photographer for Prime Minister Trudeau.

President Trump, Prime Minister Trudeau Meet with Leaders at G-7 Summit. Credit: Adam Scotti/Canadian Prime Minister’s Office
President Trump, Prime Minister Trudeau Meet with Leaders at G-7 Summit. Credit: Adam Scotti/Canadian Prime Minister’s Office

This is from the Italian delegation.

G-7 Leaders Meet in Canada / Credit: Italian Government Photographer

Presidential aide Stephen Miller shows up there in the upper left as the sort of gargoyle-type figure that once illuminated the out-of-the-way spaces in a medieval manuscript.

This is from the French delegation.

President Trump with Macron, Merkel, May, et al at G-7 meeting. French Government Photographer.

Finally, this photo is from White House Social Media Director Dan Scavino.

Leaders Meet at G-7 Summit / Credit: Dan Scavino

For me the whole thing is a commentary on the power and what we might call the falsity of photography. Unsurprisingly, most photographs put the given country’s leader in a central position. But more than this the photographs seem to capture very different things. The German photo has an almost neo-Gothic portentous quality to it. Scavino’s picture has Trump holding court in what seems like a light-hearted moment. In Scavino’s version everyone seems to like Trump. Meanwhile, the French and Italian photographs capture an all business moment in which Trump is literally barely visible. We know he is the center of attention only because we’ve seen the other photos.

Tell me what you see in these pictures.

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