The Story Behind the Viral Photo of Pope Francis and Donald Trump

4 minute read

Did Pope Francis smile when he met President Trump? It depends on the picture.

All eyes were on the Vatican on Wednesday when Trump, along with members of his family and political inner circle, shared a private audience with the pontiff. Trump had a half hour of the pope’s time for a discussion; they also exchanged gifts and posed for pictures. One image in particular, of a grinning Trump next to a stone-faced Pope Francis, has gone viral.

The Pope does not look happy to be standing next to Trump, with whom he has publicly feuded in the past. It was noted that Francis has smiled during similar photo-ops with other heads of state, from German Chancellor Angela Merkel to Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto to former President Obama. On Wednesday, photos of Obama with a smiley pope in March 2014 made the rounds alongside the Trump image, suggesting Francis was happier to meet Obama than Trump.

But that’s not quite the full picture. Evan Vucci, the Associated Press photographer who made this picture, recalled the rapidly unfolding scene in a phone call on Wednesday. “It happens so fast, like a pool spray at the White House,” he tells TIME.

Vucci was among six photographers who got into the room. The group was first ushered in to photograph Trump and Francis as they sat across from one another at a desk, then back out so the pair could meet. About a half hour later, they returned for more pictures. “We were instructed to stay behind the gift table. It’s packed and everyone is jostling for position,” Vucci says. “They’re shaking hands, [Trump’s] introducing the delegation. Then they do this big group photo.”

The whole group scene was “probably 30 seconds,” he adds. “The mood in the room, it didn’t seem somber. The pope was smiling. They were sort of talking. Nothing seemed unusual to me or out of the ordinary.”

As is often the case with high-profile Trump photo-ops, his online critics will pounce on an image that makes him look aloof, disinterested, uninformed and everything in between. In other cases, images have been shared widely because the shutter clicked at the moment when someone Trump is meeting, say, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, appeared to show hesitation—like during an Oval Office handshake. This is a longterm issue for Trump, with Francis as the latest example.

Choosing to share an image can be incredibly subjective, with a number of factors in play from composition and tonality to political bias and intent. A great image will tell the truth. Many other images from the same scene can often do the opposite.

It is true that a photo editor on Wednesday would have experienced slight difficulty while searching for an image of both Trump and Francis appearing to be delighted in one another’s company. But those images do exist, like this one of Francis smiling as he and Trump exchange gifts.

Pope Francis exchanges gifts with President Trump and First Lady Melania Trump at the Vatican on May 24, 2017.Alessandra Tarantino—Pool/AP

This is just one image, from one click of the shutter, during a moment when hundreds of pictures were made. For Vucci, a veteran political photojournalist, his work is all about honesty. “I’m trying to be as fair as possible, that’s my job,” he says. “And where people take it, it’s up to them.”

And it’s worth noting that when looking back to Obama’s Vatican visit, there is a larger group shot very similar to Wednesday’s.

Top: President Obama and delegation meet Pope Francis in March 2014. Bottom: Trump and his delegation in May 2017.Saul Loeb—AFP/Getty Images; Vatican Pool/Getty Images

Francis isn’t smiling in either shot. You just might not see that image appear in your feed.

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