Photographer Behind Sanders Meme: ‘I’m Not Going To Be Putting This In A Portfolio’

The photographer who snapped the now-iconic image of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) sitting socially distant from other attendees at Wednesday’s inauguration, looking rather unimpressed yet cozy in his large mittens, spoke with Rolling Stone about the photo becoming an instant meme, despite its quality. 

“The picture itself is not that nice,” Brendan Smialowski, a photojournalist for Agence France-Press (AFP), admitted. “It’s not a great composition. I’m not going to be putting this in a portfolio.”

Smialowski, who captured the image with his Nikon DSLR, said that he actually took two photos of Sanders during the inauguration, and thought that the second shot was better. But he filed the first one due to the senator’s posture in it, despite the fact that the composition was, in his own words, “garbage.”

“I always say that in photojournalism, composition comes second to content,” Smialowski said. “And content is the moment. Make it look pretty after. If I can’t put it together in a way that looks really good, with every piece of the picture adding, that’s okay.”

Describing the job of photographing all the famous faces at the inauguration as a “Where’s Waldo” challenge, Smialowski said that initially, he had been focused on Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) due to their recent objection to certifying the results of the 2020 election. Suddenly, however, he spotted Sanders “taking a seat and fiddling a little bit,” and the perfect meme fodder was snapped. 

When asked about Sanders’ expression — which many have interpreted as disgruntled or bored — Smialowski said that the photo captured a “very specific moment in time, that gives kind of a misconception.”

“I do not like this type of photo and I do not try to take it,” Smialowski said. “I think it’s fair to say that the next second, he was a different photo. But I think the feeling of it is accurate and fair … You can say that Senator Sanders is politically independent and I think he’s probably personally independent, too. I think he’s probably perfectly comfortable coming out there, sitting alone, holding his papers and then going back in to do the rest of his day.”

Smialowski admitted that while he would have been “more than happy to never have a meme” created out of one of his images, he did enjoy some of the more outlandish Photoshop creations that hit the internet, showing Sanders doing everything from riding the New York City subway to sitting next to Forrest Gump and bumping shoulders with the Avengers. 

Smialowski said that he admired Sanders’ oversized mittens, which were made by Jen Ellis, a Vermont teacher who gave them to the senator two years ago.

“It’s important for your fingers to work and for your hands to be warm,” Smialowski said of his profession, noting that photojournalism often requires being outdoors, and that temperatures on Inauguration Day were especially chilly. “They looked like good mittens.”




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