This picture was taken during the early part of Joe Biden’s inauguration in January 2021, when the invitees were arriving. I work for Agence France-Presse, one of the bigger wire services in the world. There’s basically three left these days and we’re all competing. We hardwire our cameras to the internet so we can transmit images directly. When I saw Senator Sanders come in, I took a couple of pictures and decided which to send.
This is a very typical Bernie Sanders moment: sitting down and minding his own business. Officially an independent, he talks to who he needs to talk to, but he doesn’t run around schmoozing. His outfit was either perfectly planned, or it wasn’t planned at all. It was cold, it’s not super stylish, but it does the job. A pair of these mittens actually found their way to me after the image went viral – and they’re damn good mittens, made by Jen Ellis, a second-grade teacher in Vermont.
Just like a sentence can be structured properly, a photo can be put together properly so that every element in it contributes something in a way that can be kind of poetic. This is not an example of a clean photo: the composition’s not perfect; there are people in the way, and chair legs. But with any picture, content is king and the content here is Bernie Sanders being Bernie Sanders.
I think every picture a photojournalist takes should be efficient, in that somebody can look at it quickly and understand what’s going on, but then it should offer more. One challenge you have covering politics is that stuff can be really dry; it’s not always visually interesting and lots of events are stage managed. So we do our best to mitigate their trying to control the image and the narrative.
I’ve been covering Capitol Hill for 20 years and have had a few pictures go viral before. I’m not super engaged with social media, and it was a busy day with cold hands, but when I started to see several hundred, and then 1,000 mentions on my social media accounts, not long after I had sent the picture to AFP, I know something was going on.
I want my work to be taken seriously. Making this image into a meme is technically a misuse of journalism – but it’s been fun to watch. And it’s interesting to see some of the creativity that went into the memes – some of the stuff I saw was really good.
I like Edward Hopper very much, and the people who put the Bernie image into his famous Nighthawks painting, along with works by artists such as Georges Seurat, Edvard Munch and Vincent van Gogh, weren’t just cutting and pasting, they were actually mimicking the brushstrokes and the style.
In my job, you walk the same hallways as the senators, you eat in the same cafeterias, but I haven’t spoken to Bernie. Not long after the inauguration I heard other people pointing me out to him which meant it was time for me to disappear – you definitely don’t want to be chatting about something that went viral in front of your colleagues and competitors.
AFP recently auctioned the Bernie photo as an NFT with LaCollection – one of its first three ever, which collectively sold for €15,000 (£13,000). AFP has handled it very well, in the sense that they’ve done their best to protect the integrity of the picture. It’s not going to be used commercially. It’s still going to be as intended, a work of journalism. I’m very excited to see what happens.
Brendan Smialowski’s CV
Born: US 1980.
Trained: “No formal training. I studied ancient history.”
Influences “I like street photographers such as Garry Winogrand and Vivian Maier.”
High point / Low point: “I try to keep an even keel. I certainly have good days and bad days.”
Top tip: “I tend to be an instinctual photographer. It can lead to messy photos but when you feel like taking a photo, you should.”
• See more at smialowski.org