The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Russians used a photo of his father as pro-Trump propaganda. He saw it in the Mueller report.

Coal miner Lee Hipshire in 1976. (Earl Dotter)

The photo on the front of the pro-Trump leaflet could have championed the miner’s cause: a solemn, soot-covered face emerging from the mouth of an Appalachian mine, symbolizing the grit and peril of working in coal mines.

The flier, targeting coal miners and advertising a 2016 rally in Pittsburgh, read, “How many PA workers lost their jobs due to Obama’s destructive policies? Help Mr. Trump fix it!”

The problem was that neither the photographer, Earl Dotter, nor the subject of the photo, Lee Hipshire, would support the “Miners for Trump” message.

As first reported by NPR, the photograph had been used without permission by the Internet Research Agency, an organization that, according to special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s report, led Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election. The report, released to the public on Thursday, concluded that the IRA “conducted social media operations,” including using social platforms to organize and promote political rallies, often drawing hundreds of participants.

Among the events promoted were pro-Trump rallies in October 2016 targeting Pennsylvania coal miners.

Dotter, a labor photojournalist, learned from his daughter that his 1976 photograph appeared on Page 31 of the Mueller report; her American history teacher had recognized the image while reviewing the report, which is more than 400 pages long.

“I was pretty outraged,” he said, noting that he was not affiliated with President Trump’s “message, campaign or values.”

“It was not my support of Trump or Pence that led to its use,” Dotter added.

The photojournalist did not believe that Trump seriously planned to confront the problems that coal miners were experiencing.

“I thought it was a fake message to garner support, and, two years into Trump’s presidency, I think it’s pretty obvious there hasn’t been thoughtful ways to make coal miners whole,” Dotter said.

In 2016, Trump zeroed in on blue-collar voters in America’s Rust Belt, vowing to support “clean coal,” reopen steel mills, increase the number of manufacturing jobs and revive the coal industry. The campaign succeeded in wooing coal miners in Pennsylvania, one of three historically blue states that swung the election.

Hipshire died of black lung complications in 1987, at 57. Dotter told Hipshire’s son, Ronnie, about the photo’s misuse. He was similarly incensed.

According to Ronnie Hipshire, his father was “a staunch Democrat” who believed that “the Democrat was for the working man and the Republican was for the companies.” His father, Ronnie said, “wouldn’t like that [the photo] was used by Russian trolls to better the Republican Party and the Trump agenda.”

Ronnie, 62, grew up in Rum Creek, a coal mining community in Logan County, W.Va. “My goal was to be a coal miner, like my dad,” he said. He spent more than three decades in the mines as a welder before retiring.

“The photo is a national treasure, and it’s a treasure to us,” Ronnie told The Washington Post; the image graced a Time magazine cover in the 1970s and permanently hangs in the Smithsonian Institution’s National Portrait Gallery.

Dotter called the photo’s use by Russian trolls “a gross violation of my 50 years as a photographer.”

“I felt that what I had created was a tribute to hard-working people, like Lee Hipshire. His memory and the values of his family has been besmirched by the use of his image in such a way.”

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