Roland Barthes famously analyzed photographs in terms of studium and punctum: studium is the visual and intellectual setting of a picture, punctum the crucial disturbance that holds a memorable image in our mind—“that accident which pricks, bruises me.”
The accidental, bruising prick in the now-infamous photo from the hospital in El Paso is obviously Donald Trump himself. But what has kept the picture in everyone’s mind, or their social media feed, over the past week is his asinine thumbs-up gesture. To the extent that it can be useful, the thumb functions as a search term when you are trying to track down this exact image online; it is a kind of internet-era extension of Barthes’s ideas about what holds something in our collective memory. The thumb is also the point where the various strains of this awful story converge: our leader fucks up a photo-op with an orphan whose parents were killed by a white supremacist inspired by the words and deeds of that same leader, near the border where that leader centers his violent fantasies of exclusion. To stage the photo is itself a horror. But Trump is so callous (or idiotic?) that his response to the occasion of the photo-op is to give a thumbs-up, because he is pleased—or at best indifferent—that so many brown people died, or because he is a B-list celebrity-bot who can’t stop posing, even when the poses make no sense. His face tells you that he is tired of being propped so close to the little people. This freeze-frame shows Trump grinning but not really bearing it. His external monologue on the day was about his crowd size as compared to Beto’s, which makes you wonder how bad the internal monologue must have been. Everyone wants a picture with me, so many pictures! Another one? OK, thumbs up!
I am certain that the thumbs-up is what elates and excites the right’s trolls and sadists, the deep Trumpers: The racist mass shooting here reduced to a little thumb-erection. They will be smiling at that particular detail, sharing it with glee. Haha, they will think, he gives no fucks. Just like us.
But we already know all this about Trump. The El Paso thumbs-up merely extends a long series of disgusting moves. It remains difficult to predict which outrageous pose he will strike next, but they come like clockwork. After I looked at the picture for a week or so, the thumb had almost sunk back into the studium realm, until a friend reminded me that for Barthes, the arresting detail also reveals the nature and purpose of photographs: They literally stop time, so history is regained and revealed. For many of us, that stupid thumb momentarily pins down the last eighteen years of American carnage, since September 11, through its resemblance to the now infamous photos of Lynndie England and Charles Graner at Abu Ghraib. Cheeriness, cluelessness in the face of atrocity, that’s what’s become of the American “can-do,” “A-OK” spirit that the gesture used to epitomize.
Trained in a different image tradition, Melania stays in the mind longer because she seems not uncomfortable, but genuinely happy. She is a model, so maybe she is simply better at giving a good smile. But since she is the one who released this photo, maybe she is truly pleased with what it depicts. Does she think it represents her giving comfort and her husband . . . what, being positive in hard times? Imagine looking at this photo and deciding that that’s what it shows. If you succeed, good—you are now inside Melania’s mind. Your job in this time of pain is to be the nation’s mother, for the social media campaign! Your hands are beautiful; they should be at a pleasing angle. Hold your arms out so their muscular definition is apparent. Feature the ring, don’t hide it. Good! Breathe in. Let your eyes become bottomless dark pits, into which the nation can pour its endless grief. Good, hold right there and . . . smile!
The more I look at it, the more this photograph is punctum, punctum, punctum. It barely holds together. It is all disturbance, all accident. Even the wallpaper starts to tremble: Who at the University of El Paso Medical Center violated the Hippocratic Oath by approving this particular photo-op?
Eventually, you see the two dark fingers clinging to Trump’s left shoulder. They have scaled a mountain and will quickly slide off that same mountain, but for an instant, they are perched near the top. Tito is a Trump supporter and his dead brother was too. His orphaned nephew was recruited to be in a photo with the President, so he got to tag along. He is smiling proudly, in an off-kilter way that seems to say, “Would you look at this!” He might still be in shock, I don’t know. I would like to give him the benefit of the doubt, but he is a Latino Trump supporter, so I just keep looking at those two fingers, grasping almost invisibly for the big man’s shoulder. Brother, he doesn’t like it like you like it. He came to eat your nephew’s soul, and he’s eating yours for dessert. He will shake you off. On any another day, he would be ordering his minions to crush you. Just look at his goddamned smile.
I have to confess that my eyes always avoid looking directly at the infant. Can any of us begin to imagine his present circumstances, his eventual pain? I initially hesitated to write about this image because its mere existence is so thoroughly wrong. For us, staring into our screens, it neatly documents our horrific moment: this ridiculous fake of a human is presiding over our very real destruction. For the baby in the scene, however, the picture exacerbates the loss of his parents by taking away his privacy—and his agency, too. His mother died shielding him from gunfire. He had already been discharged from the hospital, but then they brought him back to meet the President. We see him twisting himself out of Melania’s arms, toward his aunt, whose mouth and eyes bear the only signs of adult solemnity in the image. Someone to her left, who is out of the frame, has placed their brown hand on her shoulder. The baby seems to be looking at that person, whom I kept imagining as a kind of off-stage savior: a comfort for the aunt, a beacon for the poor baby. The boy seems to want to escape the picture, and my sincere hope is that he eventually does.