That Viral Photo of Justin Trudeau and Donald Trump Is Not What It Seems

3 minute read

That’s Justin Trudeau, the Canadian Prime Minister, looking down contemplatively at the open right palm of President Trump during their Oval Office meeting on Monday. Trudeau appears unsure whether he wants to engage any further, specifically whether he wants to reach out in front of a horde of cameras and grab it while they go click, click, click.

It begs the question: Does Trudeau really want to shake Trump’s hand? (His fingers are intertwined like he’s thinking hard about it, like it was the biggest choice he’ll make on this trip. Had he seen Trump shake the hand of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and hesitated?) On Twitter, the answer appeared to be no.

“Justin Trudeau is all of us,” one tweet reads.

“Justin Trudeau is looking at Trump’s hand like he just read the Russian Dossier,” says another.

“And Reuters may have scored the still of the day,” reads a third.

Even I tweeted about it.

The headlines started to write themselves, on the likes of BuzzFeed and Jezebel.

But let’s pull back a minute. There’s nothing exceptional about its composition or color, nor did it capture a historic moment that will be displayed in gallery halls or textbooks. These two men, who are at opposite ends of both policy and approach, are both photographed often, and so it made sense for photographers to focus on their every interaction together.

In this case, the photographer, Kevin Lamarque of Reuters, pushed the shutter in the fraction of the second that it took Trudeau to register Trump’s request to shake hands, isolating a moment that was never meant to be so editorialized.

A photo editor spends much of their day looking at pictures, mostly from wire agencies. We’re hunting for the best images to illustrate the news or feature, and the ones that make news on their own. This image falls in the latter category, specifically because it was taken out of context.

When a picture is ripped and shared—an unquantifiable occurrence today, and which is the case here—there is breathing room for the audience to read too little, or too much, into the reality of the moment. If not done carefully, doing so can ignite an alternative narrative that consumes the original meaning and spreads like wildfire.

Ordinarily, a photo like this wouldn’t have made the rounds. If it were Trudeau and Barack Obama, perhaps one of them looking into each others’ eyes or hamming for the cameras might have gone over better. But these aren’t ordinary times. We live in a new normal of misinformation sharing, one where falsities are pushed as truths by the highest levels of power. And so people are grasping for images that either back up their preexisting notions or turn the mainstream narrative on its head, and then sharing with their followers to further the reach.

Did Trudeau really want to shake Trump’s hand? It’s unclear. Did he? Yes. There are plenty of photos and videos as proof. You just might not have seen them.

Andrew Katz, who wrote this article, is TIME’s International Multimedia Editor. Follow him on Twitter @katz.

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