One image, one face, one American moment: The Donald Trump mug shot
A camera clicks. In a fraction of a second, the shutter opens and then closes, freezing forever the image in front of it.
When the camera shutter blinked inside a jail in downtown Atlanta on Thursday, it both created and documented a tiny inflection point in American life. Captured for posterity, there was a former president of the United States, for the first time in history, under arrest and captured in the sort of frame more commonly associated with drug dealers or drunken drivers. The trappings of power gone, for that split second.
Left behind: an enduring image that will appear in history books long after Donald Trump is gone.
“It will be forever part of the iconography of being alive in this time,” said Marty Kaplan, a professor at the University of Southern California Annenberg School of Communications.
In the photo, Trump confronts the camera in front of a bland grey backdrop, his eyes meeting the lens in an intense glare. He’s wearing a blue suit, white shirt and red tie, his shoulders squared, his head tilted slightly toward the camera. The sheriff’s logo has been digitally added above his right shoulder.
Some of the 18 others charged with him in Georgia smiled in their booking photos like they were posing for a yearbook. Not Trump. His defiance is palpable, as if he’s staring down a nemesis through the lens.
Trump facing charges is by now a familiar sight of 2023 to Americans who watched him stand before a judge in a New York courtroom or saw watercolour sketches from the inside of federal courthouses in Miami and Washington, where cameras aren’t allowed.
This is different.
As Anderson Cooper put it on CNN: “The former president of the United States has an inmate number.” P01135809, to be exact. But until he surrendered to face charges of trying to steal the 2020 election in Georgia, his fourth indictment this year, he avoided having to pose for the iconic booking photo like millions accused of crimes before him.
Never mind that Trump, like all Americans, is innocent until proven guilty in court; the mug shot, and all it connotes, packs an extra emotional and cultural punch.
A mug shot is a visceral representation of the criminal justice system, a symbol of lost freedom. It permanently memorialised one of the worst days of a person’s life, a moment not meant for a scrapbook. It must be particularly foreign to a man born into privilege, who famously loves to be in control, who is highly attentive to his image and who rose to be the most powerful figure in the world.
“`Indictment’ is a sort of bloodless word. And words are pale compared to images,” said Kaplan, a former speechwriter for Vice President Walter Mondale and Hollywood screenwriter. “A mug shot is a genre. Its frame is, `This is a deer caught in the headlights. This is the crook being nailed.’ It’s the walk of shame moment.”