One of the most memorable, if roundly ridiculed images of the Trump presidency so far has been that of the “mystical orb.”
During his visit to Saudi Arabia in May, US president Donald Trump posed with Saudi king Salman and Egyptian president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi at the opening of the Global Center for Combating Extremist Ideology. Due to the dramatic lighting, press images of the event made the three leaders look like movie villains casting a spell over the globe.
The moment became an instant meme. But months later, it seems the White House didn’t mind the mockery; this week Yahoo News’s White House correspondent Hunter Walker noticed a framed image of the orb-holding on show in the West Wing.
Most likely, the administration doesn’t care that lots of people thought that moment looked weird and sinister. In the attitude of rejecting haters, perhaps Trump’s team just decided to own the moment. After all, it was for a good cause: dedicating a institution that combats extremism and violence. But the choice of décor reveals an interesting dynamic within the White House itself.
This image, shot by White House photographer Shealah Craighead, and mounted on a black frame is likely one of the many “jumbos” produced by the White House photo office. Members of the photo office periodically hang these large format prints throughout the West Wing and loan them out to offices within the administration. Often staffers may request certain ones for their offices, if for example the president was photographed with them personally.
I interned with the White House photo office during the early years of the Obama administration. The jumbos I recall handling included not only public events like the orb-holding, but also behind-the-scenes, unguarded moments between the president, his staff, the public, world leaders and even the media. Generally, jumbos offer a way for administration staffers to feel connected to the presidency’s larger mission, even while toiling away on very specific roles and day-to-day tasks within the administration.
The Obama family had plenty of those nice behind-the-scenes photos thanks to their close rapport with White House photographer Pete Souza, whose photos revealed a human at the head of government. But while the Trump administration might have just as nice day-to-day moments, it has a far cooler relationship with its own photo office. Images released by the office so far have been mostly shots of Trump at a distance: Standing at a a podium, static grip-and-grin handshakes, and large crowds greeting the traveling leader.
Consider the photo below, taken during Trump’s recent visit to Poland. Shot by administration photographer Andrea Hanks, the picture shows Trump speaking at the Warsaw Uprising Monument. Not only is Hanks far away, Trump is actually standing behind a (transparent) wall. The image is nearly identical to normal wire images of the event. Instead of using his personal photographer to provide a unique perspective on an important event or himself, the media-conscious Trump limits his photographer to just another lens in the crowd.
And that leads us back to the photos in the West Wing. When it came time to print enough jumbos to decorate hallways and offices to motivate the people who work there, what did the White House photo office actually have to work with? A look at the current White House Flickr page reveals a tour of stilted photo ops, hardly different from what you might find in news photos. Compared to those, the drama of the legendary orb can look pretty good.