Barack Obama and Justin Trudeau remain the kings of the humanizing photo-op.
While the former US president was in Montreal to speak to the Canadian city’s Chamber of Commerce, he dined with the country’s prime minister at a trendy restaurant. Photos from the evening became instant social-media fodder, showing Obama and Trudeau relaxed over dinner, two men floating above whatever drama might be engulfing American government and U.S-Canadian relations at the moment.
The moment was constructed by two leaders who understand how to capture media attention and craft a subtle narrative.
Photography helped define Obama’s messaging throughout his administration with the help of chief White House photographer Pete Souza. Souza’s Instagram feed in the early months of the Trump administration has been used cleverly to contrast Obama’s appeal with Trump’s erratic and sometimes petty outbursts.
Indelible, sometimes heroically positioned, images distributed by the White House photo office reinforced Obama’s persona as an easily approachable man of substance. And his penchant for food has lent itself to countless photo-ops, from Obama’s many burger runs, to sharing bun cha with Anthony Bourdain in Hanoi.
Trudeau’s approach has been a bit different. He favors putting himself right in the middle of stories, like personally welcoming Syrian refugees at the airport or just showing off his runner’s body when somehow there happens to be a camera around. But while he enjoys viral fandom in the US, it’s doubtful most Americans could name five Trudeau policies that don’t have a panda-cuddling element. These images provide, as Ashifa Kassam of the Guardian calls them, “a sunny antidote to the turbulent news spilling out from other parts of the world.”
This all comes together with the Montreal dinner photos. These relaxed, humanizing pictures would seem entirely out of place with the image of the Trump White House. As much as Trump clamors for popularity and adulation, he prefers the scenes that define his administration to project power and authority.
Even sitting down at a seemingly casual restaurant that appears to serves rustic but upscale comfort food contrasts perfectly with Trump’s preference for well-done steaks drowning in ketchup and buckets of chicken in the isolation of gilded ballrooms and private jets.
Trudeau, along with German chancellor Angela Merkel and now newly elected French president Emmanuel Macron, have positioned themselves as the sane, competent leaders leading the West, as Trump is leading America, tweet by tweet, into more belligerent, volatile territory.
Sitting down for a casual meal with Obama is a deliciously unsubtle message from Trudeau. It’s quite clear of whose point of view he respects—and which style of leadership he sees as fit for the great democracies.