For Getty Images photographer Mark Wilson, it was just another day at the office.
It’s a simple photograph, just a close-up on a notepad filled with Sharpie letters scrawled in an all-caps shout. But the pad is Donald Trump’s, the notes are a strangled refutation of fact, and the image has instantly become the most iconic yet of the impeachment proceedings that have enveloped his presidency. In an email, Getty Images photographer Mark Wilson shared with WIRED how he got the shot.
Wilson has been with Getty for 20 years; in that time he’s covered presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and now Trump. More recently, he’s been on the scene at the trial of Trump associate Roger Stone, as well as the Capitol Hill impeachment testimony of Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman and foreign service officer Jennifer Williams. On Tuesday, though, Wilson was stationed at the White House South Lawn, where Trump gave brief remarks before departing on Marine One.
“Today was a little different because a number of reporters who would have typically been at this press conference were covering the impeachment hearings on the Hill,” Wilson said in an email. “However, one area where reporters and photographers are stationed, behind the president, was still quite congested and we were jostling for space.”
Wilson had brought a Canon 1DX 100–400mm lens and a 1DX 24–35mm lens; the longer lens was a contingency, in case Trump had decided not to talk to the media at all and proceeded straight to his awaiting helicopter. Fortunately, he stopped.
The remarks began, well, unremarkably: Trump gave his usual talking points about the economy. But then the press conference took a turn, as the president began reading from his notes and waving his arms, giving a clear view of the black lettering.
“I quickly noticed that the pad contained large handwritten notes in Sharpie and focused my camera to capture what was on the page,” Wilson said.
What was on the page was Trump’s talking points, an apparent paraphrase of what US ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland testified had been the contents of their September phone call: “I WANT NOTHING. I WANT NOTHING. I WANT NO QUID PRO QUO. TELL ZELLINSKY [sic] TO DO THE RIGHT THING. THIS IS THE FINAL WORD FROM THE PRES OF THE U.S.”
The notes say so much, less about what Trump said or Sondland testified—the ambassador stated explicitly before Congress that Ukraine had been subject to a quid pro quo—than how he views himself in this moment. “THE FINAL WORD FROM THE PRES OF THE U.S.” sounds more like a dictum from the great and powerful Oz than from a democratically elected leader. The misspelling of Ukraine president Volodymyr Zelensky’s name betrays a casual disregard for even the most basic facts of the matter. And the giant lettering supports the operating theory that Trump refuses to wear glasses that he sorely needs.
The public would have none of that additional insight without Wilson’s photograph. “I am always trying to take a picture that no one else has,” he said. “As news consumers, we tend to see the same images from press conferences day after day, and sometimes situations arise that allow me to use my expertise to take a picture that is really quite unique and different.”
At the time, Wilson didn’t realize that he had captured an instantly iconic moment. “Honestly, I was just taking a picture of a page of notes,” he says. But Getty Images quickly tweeted it, and then so did everyone else, and suddenly his phone wouldn’t stop buzzing with notifications from friends and colleagues letting him know that his photo had gone viral.
After the press conference, it was back to work. A quick look at Wilson’s Getty Images page shows his most recent upload: “Fall Colors on Display in Front of the US Capitol.” It’s as bucolic a shot as you’ll get out of downtown DC, the calm of autumn buttressing the dome of the Capitol building, belying the rancor inside.
“I view my role as a photographer—more so now than ever in covering this administration—as a duty or service to provide a historical record for people to look back on hundreds of years from now,” Wilson said.
As unlikely as it may have seemed at the time, a simple close-up shot of a notepad may well be one of those indelible images. It’s hard to think of one that explains this moment, and this president, more clearly.
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