Donald Trump’s Inauguration was the fourth I have covered. I’ve also photographed George W. Bush’s second Inauguration and both of Barack Obama’s.
The furor at White House press secretary Sean Spicer’s first statement over alleged media misrepresentation of Inauguration numbers brought to mind ongoing questions of subjectivity in photography. Images taken by Reuters photographer Lucas Jackson from the top of the Washington Monument showed relatively sparse crowds in attendance at the moment Trump was sworn in, the perceived time for peak attendance. The photograph is a perfect example of objectivity in photography. In the totality of its perspective it is utterly trustworthy (at least by any objective measure, a standard seemingly considered antiquated by the current Administration).
From the ground, the photographer’s role becomes a bit more complex. Most examples of memorable photography rely on an intersection of form, light, symmetry, emotion and a healthy dose of the mysterious and undefinable. The best pictures reveal themselves unexpectedly, and sometimes against one’s expectations or desires.
My favorite photograph from Obama’s first Inauguration is one that I hardly thought I’d take. It reveals a desolate Mall after the day ended, the wind whipping up dust and garbage while frozen attendees huddle together. I showed the picture afterward to my mom and she asked me, “Were you even at the same event as me?” But that photograph revealed much of my own inner turmoil after years spent covering the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. I feared the forces that had been decisively unleashed on Sept. 11 couldn’t be contained by any change of Administration.
Peter van Agtmael—MagnumThe scene on the National Mall after Barack Obama’s Inauguration in Washington on Jan. 20, 2009.
With Trump’s Inauguration, I went in as I try to go into all things: with an openness to the subconscious guiding forces of photography, but with the active intention of representing what I saw fairly and complexly. What that means is individually interpreted, but I believe these photos represent the spirit of what I saw and felt in those days.
Peter van Agtmael is a photographer represented by Magnum Photos.
Paul Moakley, who edited this photo essay, is TIME’s deputy director of photography and visual enterprise.