It’s the viral picture that has captivated a nation. The sight of bundled, mitten-clad, mask-wearing Senator Bernie Sanders sitting on a folding chair at the inauguration of Joe Biden was just one of many the veteran photographer Brendan Smialowski snapped on Wednesday. Little did he know that the seemingly innocent view of the proceedings would go onto break the internet wide open, becoming an iconic peek into an event like no other, and sparking a tidal wave of creative memes the world over.
Smialowski, the Washington D.C.-based photographer who was working the inauguration behalf of the global news agency AFP, isn’t a stranger to having a front row seat to history or even going viral, but his shot of Sanders has served as a unique lighthearted respite during a lead-up that was anything but. The eye behind the iconic shot spoke to Esquire about the photo that inspired the masses. “It’s not a great photo, but it is a nice moment,” he says.
ESQ: Congratulations on capturing the photo of the century. You gave a gift to the world.
Smialowski: (Laughs) Uh, maybe. I’m not sure what kind of gift it is. Maybe it’s a pair of socks.
Why do you think this picture, out of all the photos taken at the Inauguration, resonated with people? I don’t think it’s hyperbole to say that it’s now in the annals of American political history.
When it comes to memes or virality, it’s kind of crazy to try to make sense of it; you probably needed an education in sociology or psychology, which I don’t have. But that said, it’s not a great photo, but it is a nice moment. I took the picture for a reason, it’s a good slice of life. It trades on who this man is. I think why it’s successful has very little to do with my actual picture, but more to do with Bernie Sanders and his followers and his well-defined image that can carry something like this.
Take me through your Inauguration Day leading up to the ceremony. What was the mood like?
I think this was my fourth or fifth inauguration, I’ve done. They all kind of blend into one another after a while. It was a little different this year, as obviously there’s heightened security around D.C. The ceremony starts around noon, but I got there when the gates and security checkpoints opened at 4 a.m. You don’t need to arrive that early, but there’s just a lot of new things with COVID and security, so I gave it extra time. Plus, everything has been a little chaotic on the Hill after the insurrection on January 6th. But we have a little trailer workspace for the inauguration which is very nice, and I went to my position and made sure everything was working. Our positions are hardwired with internet and power so we can send what we take straight from the camera to an editor. It’s very convenient. So, I double checked everything and went to some other positions where I set up some remote, robot cameras and made sure those were working and transmitting and focused right. I like to have these quiet moments beforehand and have fun with the photography, just taking pictures that probably nobody needs.
So, your perspective was from a viewing platform?
Yeah, it was a fixed position which looks at the President-Elect being sworn in as they’re becoming President. There’s usually a lot of people there—it’s a big platform. But because of COVID, it’s significantly less now that each position is six feet apart, which actually makes it pretty easy to work on with nobody next to you. There are times when you can’t turn because you’re going to hit another photographer; we’re holding cameras with pretty long lenses, and as you turn you usually have to be careful not to clobber somebody. That wasn’t the case this time, you have all the space in the world. But it was cold and windy and you're 30 feet high up on scaffolding, and that does get to you.
At what point during the day was the photo taken?
It was taken around 11:30 a.m., about a half hour before the actual swearing in began. It was during the arrivals. These folks are VIPs, they can just wander out of the Hill and be out on the platform. The actual inaugural platform is pretty much built onto the basement level of the Capitol, it’s a short walk for the Senators attending.
When your lens found Senator Sanders, were you simply scanning the crowd trying to find a good shot?
Well, you’re in a fixed position and it makes it pretty difficult to be creative and that’s really not what you’re doing at an event like this anyway. You’re there for history and taking very matter-of-fact images. But a few of the things that make this inauguration different is obviously COVID and this riot on the Hill on January 6, and the former President really fighting these election results, so I’m looking for ways to visually show [those storylines]. You can show that through security, you can show that through the fact everyone’s seats are spread out, you can show that by looking towards the mall and all the grass where it’s typically packed with people. So in the morning, I’m trying to see how to tell this story and if this is going to be a one picture shot, how do you show it?
When people start to arrive, you have to be careful because you’re going to see people you normally don’t see and politicians who maybe retired or were forced out and how they’re interacting with people. It can be very inside the Beltway stuff. One of the big things I’m watching for are the people who are involved in the 2020 election. Bernie Sanders, of course, is somebody who was a heavy hitter during the primaries and has a very popular brand of politics. He certainly carries a lot of weight, so I’m keeping an eye on him, as well as Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley and how they’re acting with other people. Sanders was low down on the platform close to the swearing in.
Take me to the exact moment. How did the iconic picture come about?
I’d seen him walk in and was watching how he mingled with people, but he kept to himself. Bernie is politically independent, and he’s probably personally independent as well. So I think he’s fine sitting in a chair by himself. But I was keeping an eye on him because he’s one of these people who is also actually very easy to photograph. There’s some technical challenges from taking pictures from my physical position, so you need people who are easily identifiable and easy to photograph to carry the photo. These aren’t beautiful photos and there isn’t amazing composition involved in this. It can be very difficult to make one because it’s very busy up there. When I took the photo,I practiced a technique I learned from photographing sports: you look through the camera with one eye, but then you keep your other eye open to kind of look around (for other possibilities). So when you have a long lens, you can use your other eye to see everything at once. My lens was originally on somebody else, but out of my other eye I saw him fiddling with his hands and I just very quickly went back to him. I originally thought I had missed it.
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When you got the shot, with what he was wearing, the framing, his chair, it all really conveys Bernie resembling something like a supportive grandfather at his grandson's little league game as opposed to a Senator at a Presidential Inauguration. Did you immediately realize it was something special?
When I captured the moment, I had just decided to swing back, take it, and then I transmitted that photo from my camera to my editor. So there were three moments there and if your timings are not just right, it wouldn’t have come together.
When did you realize that this photo was starting to make an impact? Was it after the ceremony?
Oh, it was the next day. I don’t really pay attention to this stuff. There’s plenty to be doing and I had my job cut out for me, not only because I was busy but it was pretty damn cold. It wasn’t the coldest inauguration, Obama’s first was really cold, but it’s cold enough that I’m not fiddling with my phone. I also have a big heavy coat on, so I don’t feel my phone vibrate.
The photo struck something in the collective consciousness, with the world dropping Bernie into everything you could imagine. My local coffeeshop put him sitting in front of their storefront, there’s one of Bernie sitting with the Sex and the City girls, another with Bernie on the cover of a Bruce Springsteen album. Then, little Bernies making up the design of Melania Trump’s dress when she arrived in Palm Beach, or dozens of sitting Bernies in place of Beyonce’s backup dancers. How did you grasp that it became a meme?
The next morning I had a bunch of emails from bosses and such. I think when there’s a webpage that automatically drops Bernie into a photo, I think that makes it pretty clear that it made it.
Do you have any favorites?
I haven’t looked at too many, just because I’m juggling work with a little baby at home. Sleep is a premium right now, so I haven’t been looking too close. In general, the ones I enjoy the most are art, where they take a nice piece of art and drop in the image in there and not just do a paste job, but make it look like it belongs by changing something like the texture. They’re not only cool to look at, but somebody’s certainly taking a lot of effort and didn’t just drop my photo in. I’m not crazy about having it become a meme. I wish that photojournalism is consumed as photojournalism. People are having fun with this and that’s fine, and cool to see the creativity involved. What’s nice about it is that it’s fairly lighthearted. Literally two weeks before, I was just yards away from where Bernie was sitting, making my way through a fairly violent crowd of protestors, choking through tear gas. So It is nice to see people taking a break.
I think that’s a great point with these two polarizing events, insurrection and inauguration, in just two weeks. It does seem like people were craving lightheartedness and warmth, and that’s something you certainly delivered.
I grew up without the Internet and have seen it all evolve since and in the early days, it was fairly lighthearted, fun, goofy and jokes. Maybe it feels like the early days.
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