Did President Trump Stage Photos While Being Treated for COVID-19?

Did President Trump Stage Photos While Being Treated for COVID-19?

On Saturday, while President Donald Trump was being treated for COVID-19 at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, the AP distributed two handout photos taken by White House photographer Joyce Boghosian.

Jon Ostrower, the Editor-in-chief of The Air Current, tweeted that the president appeared in two different locations taken 10 minutes apart based on the EXIF data included in the file.

Pundits immediately casts suspicions over whether the scene was staged, followed by a set of questions regarding whether the images were Photoshopped, and whether Trump was signing a blank sheet of paper.

In this episode of Vision Slightly Blurred, Sarah Jacobs and Allen Murabayashi discuss the controversy around the White House photos, Chrissy Teigen’s photos of her stillborn child, and the Umit Bektas’ photos of dismantled cruise ships.

What the metadata tells us

Image 1: Trump at circular table

In this image released by the White House, President Donald Trump works in the Presidential Suite at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md. Saturday, Oct. 3, 2020, after testing positive for COVID-19. (Joyce N. Boghosian/The White House via AP)
  • Creation Date: October 03, 2020 05:25:59 PM
  • Photographer: Joyce N. Boghosian
  • Source: The White House
  • Credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS
  • Special Instruction: AP PROVIDES ACCESS TO THIS PUBLICLY DISTRIBUTED HANDOUT PHOTO PROVIDED BY THE WHITE HOUSE; MANDATORY CREDIT.
  • Resolution: 3000 x 2002 4.04 MB

Further analysis in Photoshop’s File Info reveals the following info: Sony A9, FE 70-200mm F2.8 GM OSS, 123mm, 1/250s, f/2.8, ISO 3200, Flash did not fire.

The A9’s native resolution is 6000×4000, but if you set the camera to APS-C mode, the camera shoots at a 1.5 crop at half the resolution. This could explain the non-native resolution.

Image 2: Trump at long conference table

In this image released by the White House, President Donald Trump works in his conference room at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., Saturday, Oct. 3, 2020, after testing positive for COVID-19. (Joyce N. Boghosian/The White House via AP)
  • Creation Date: October 03, 2020 05:35:40 PM
  • Photographer: Joyce N. Boghosian
  • Source: The White House
  • Credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS
  • Special Instruction: AP PROVIDES ACCESS TO THIS PUBLICLY DISTRIBUTED HANDOUT PHOTO PROVIDED BY THE WHITE HOUSE; MANDATORY CREDIT.
  • Resolution: 3000 x 2002 4.04 MB

Were the reflections indicative of a Photoshopped image?

In one image, Trump is seated at a circular table with what appears to be an acrylic or glass protective top. FLmomma104 tweeted “How does this reflection make sense? Like, the folders are in the way. Why are we seeing a reflection on this side?”

@roughlyhewn responded that the “Fresnel Effect,” which describes the observation that surface reflectance varies by viewing angle, explained the reflections. Boghosian’s camera is positioned at a shallow angle relative to the desk, so the camera “sees” a lot of reflected light.

Illustration: https://www.dorian-iten.com/fresnel

To further address the controversy, I analyzed the image using two freely available forensic tools: fotoforensics and Forensically. Although these tools have limitations, they do a decent job of detecting manipulation through a variety of methodologies. I did not find any anomalies using these tools.

Was Trump signing a blank piece of paper?

Trump has previously been accused of signing blank sheets of paper for photo ops, and potentially using stacks of folders with blank piece of paper as props.

But unless you’re specifically exposing for a sheet of paper, it’s very difficult to see small type on a white page that is lit by overhead light. Trump famously uses a fat marker to sign his documents, so it’s not really possible to determine whether the pages were blank without seeing the RAW files and/or more images from the scene.

Were the scenes staged?

Trump’s photo clutching a bible in front of St. John’s Church was a staged scene. He wasn’t at the church, nor holding a bible for any other reason than a photo. U.S. Park Police cleared the park using “riot control agents” (aka tear gas) for the sole purpose of clearing a path for Trump to the church.

As far as the Walter Reed photos are concerned, Presidents sign documents all the time, and in fact, Trump did sign three proclamations on October 3, 2020. Did he actually sign the documents while seated in the Presidential Suite in the presence of Boghosian? It’s possible.

Is the scene staged if the president says “I want you to take a picture while I sign these documents?” Is it staged if he signs documents while in the presence of a White House photographer without explicitly asking for a photo to be taken? Your answers probably align with your political alignment.

One point of note. In the circular table image, there is a bright reflection from the front of the table. The color temperature of the reflection is considerable cooler than the ambient light. The shadows cast by the metal knobs on the right side of the frame are significantly darker than the left, and you can actually see a double shadow on the left.

In other words, there is an external light source with a different color temperature that is inside of the room beyond the doors through which Boghosian is photographing. I suspect that it is an LED panel that was used to supplement the lighting for the video that Trump also filmed at the same table. Does the use of supplemental lighting constitute staging?

It’s plausible that Trump reviewed and signed materials in the Presidential Suite at the same time that he filmed his video. It’s also plausible that he decided to then move locations for the sole purpose of capturing a different look.

Staged? Most likely.

Is it propaganda?

The word “propaganda” is a loaded term because it’s so often associated with authoritarian governments and leaders like Stalin, Hitler, Mao, et al. But by definition, propaganda is biased content that shows an entity – particularly political one – in a favorable light and tries to manipulate the emotional response of the viewer.

The White House News Photographers Association has opposed the use of handouts (with the exception of Situation Room images where operational security would preclude the press from attending) from all administrations because White House-produced imagery is propaganda, and not news.

Whereas the press would release a photo of a president in a hospital gown, the White House would probably never do so. Presidential scholar Lara Brown noted in the FiveThirtyEight podcast that about half U.S. presidents have had serious illnesses, but outside of assassination attempts, these illnesses are rarely disclosed during the presidency. The optics and national security implications prevent such disclosures, and as we’ve seen with Trump’s own retweets, political opponents and foreign governments can manipulate stills and video to their advantage.

That said, the intentional staging of a scene for a photo, and the production of Hollywood style video with an unmasked, presumably COVID-19 positive president is beyond anything we’ve seen. If the work of previous White House photographers constituted little “p” propaganda, the photos and video of the past 72 hours is veering into the types of propaganda that we’ve seen from North Korea (or perhaps more accurately from a former reality TV star).

Does it matter?

Since Watergate, the public has demanded more transparency from the president to try to avoid improprieties and criminal behavior. Trump is a norm-busting president who cares very little about precedent. Yet compared to the deaths and economic destruction caused by COVID-19, the release of the two photos, staged or not, seems unimportant, or at least, unsurprising considering the past actions of the administration.

However, the insistence on being unmasked for a photo in the presence of others is scientifically fraught with risk. And the use of Regeneron, dexamethasone, remdesivir, suggest serious illness. The projection of power through photos and videos while exposing his staff (from photographers to butlers) to disease seems ill-conceived, thoughtless, and unnecessary.

The American Experiment is predicated on the people’s trust in goverment, and since the Pew Research began polling on this topic in 1958, Americans trust is at historic lows. There are a myriad of reasons for this growing distrust, but the creation and dissemination of propaganda in the midst of a pandemic has undoubtedly fanned the flames of mistrust. Photos and video shape our perceptions in a way that text cannot, and the average consumer doesn’t have the visual sophistication to parse a handout from a news image, a staged scene from a real one, a campaign ad from foreign interference.

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This article was written by

Allen Murabayashi is the Chairman and co-founder of PhotoShelter.

There is 1 comment for this article
  1. PSD12 at 1:33 pm

    It seems that American citizens are trusted on the government there and they are faithfully following their instructions. Corona has given a lot to learn and has brought the whole world closer to nature.

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