After a week of negative media coverage over Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw US forces from the northeast region of Syria, known by Kurds as Rojava, this past weekend’s news that the death of ISIS leader Abū Bakr al-Baghdadi (which has strangely been reported before, but never verified) has given the president something to brag about. While extrajudicial killings by governments are not something we should ever applaud, the official photo of the president watching the execution unfold is stunning for its clear parallel with the photo released of the killing of Osama bin Laden by the Obama White House.
It’s no secret that Trump has a bone to pick with Barack Obama — the former reality star’s rage is still simmering after the White House Correspondent’s Dinner Roast in 2011 — but the latest image points to a clear attempt to erase one more aspect of Obama’s legacy.
What I find more peculiar about the Trump version of this image is the perspective of the photographer. Rather than oblique angle used by Pete D’Souza (Obama’s White House photographer), the Trump White House photographer Shealah Craighead’s image is straight ahead. D’Souza also pointed out the strange timeline for the image, since the time of the raid was reported to be more than an hour before the image was taken, but I don’t want to jump to conclusions on that issue.
While a few of the men — and they’re all white men — in the image look away from the camera, at least three of them appear to be staring straight at the photographer, giving the photo a clear authoritative air. Unlike the more ambient lighting of the Obama image, which includes various emotional responses, the Trump image is austere and strangely lit, with the figures highlighted by a glow from the wall behind them. The depth of field gives the image a more contemporary feel, more akin to the smartphone digital photography we’ve become accustomed to.
If the Obama image offered a moment of insight into the humanity of those in the room, perhaps suggesting we have unwittingly walked upon this scene, it’s clear the Trump image is more carefully contrived, offering little humanity and preferring the perspective of power. The perspective in the Trump image is lower, though, shifted down so that we, as the viewer, are eye-level with the group. I see similarities with Dutch Guild portraits, a very business-oriented genre, but also with the sternness of early US portraiture.
Here we have the most powerful man in the world, continuing to look over his shoulder at someone who has proved to be his social nemesis: the dapper, well-spoken world leader in contrast to his buffoonish caricature of one. Trump has become Lady Macbeth, desperate to unsee something that is obvious to themselves and others. I almost hear him thinking to himself, “Out, damn spot.” What that spot is can be many things at this point — but he knows, like we do, that the stain won’t go away no matter what angle the photo is taken.