The change was made so late in the process — just five days before the exhibit opened — that the photographer who captured the original image, Kevin Carroll, is credited in the exhibit’s brochure and the photographer of the replacement image is not.
The library’s decision is the second-known instance of a federal government institution acting to prevent images it determined to be critical of Trump from being shown to the public. The National Archives said two weeks ago it made a mistake when it blurred out anti-Trump signs from a large photograph, also of the 2017 Women’s March but by a different photographer, that it displayed at the entrance of its exhibit on the history of women’s suffrage in the United States. The Archives has since removed the altered image and replaced it with the original.
Representatives of women’s rights groups have expressed anger that these actions were aimed at images of the Women’s March, which was held the day after Trump’s inauguration and widely regarded as a protest of his election.
In an emailed response to questions about why the change was made in the Library of Congress exhibit, spokeswoman April Slayton said that when the enlarged print of Carroll’s photograph was produced, it became clear “that the vulgar language and political content was not appropriate for the Library’s exhibit.” She said profane language was visible on one of the signs and would have been at eye level for children.
According to Slayton, the library’s exhibition team decided instead to use an image from the Women’s March in Houston that “represents the contemporary women’s movement without the vulgar language included in the original image.” The largest visible sign in the replacement photo says, “Fight Like A Girl.”
Carroll said he was never told about concerns regarding vulgarity and his photograph. In a May 29 email to him, the library’s senior exhibition director, Betsy Nahum-Miller, wrote that while the full-size mural of the photograph “looks amazing and has great clarity,” it “has some other features that we know will be a problem politically and therefore need to be replaced. There were a couple of anti-Trump messages that appear very clearly in the image.”
Nahum-Miller asked whether Carroll had other images that didn’t show Trump signs. “I know they were prevalent at the march and it may be difficult,” she added.
Carroll, a professional photographer from Annapolis, Md., who attended the march with his wife, said in an interview that he scrambled to try to find another photo.
Nahum-Miller first contacted him in January 2019 to ask permission to use the photo, which she found on the photographer’s Flickr account. In her original email to Carroll, Nahum-Miller explained why the library wanted to have his photo in the exhibit.
“While the vast majority of the exhibition will focus on the years leading up to attaining the vote, the exhibit will also give visitors a sense of the ongoing struggle for women in the political, economic and social realms,” she wrote. “For that reason, we wanted to include an image from the 2017 March on Washington and came across your photograph. We believe it captures the essence and energy of the march and serves as a contemporary representation of women using the power of protest and exercising their right to engage in American democracy.”
Nahum-Miller wrote that the library could not pay for use of the photo but that it “would be in a prominent location.” Carroll gave permission, he said, because “I wanted to get the picture shown and support the march and the cause.”
After months of anticipation, Carroll said he was looking forward to attending the opening of the exhibit and seeing his photograph displayed. When Nahum-Miller emailed May 29 saying the image couldn’t be used, he was stunned.
Carroll sent additional images from the march, but Nahum-Miller wrote back the next day saying the library had chosen an image from another photographer because there wasn’t enough time to scour the photos Carroll sent for “unbeknownst controversial images.”
“I am so sorry that this happened and I’m very disappointed we can’t use your spectacular photo,” she wrote.
The library declined a Post request to interview Nahum-Miller.
For Carroll, 36, the decision stung.
“I was a little embarrassed, a little hurt,” he said. “I really wanted to be a part of it.”
And he’s still baffled by the reasoning.
“I’ve looked again at the photo, and I don’t see anything over the top,” he said.
Slayton said the decision to remove the photograph was made by leadership of the library’s Center for Exhibits and Interpretation. “No outside entities reviewed this exhibition’s content before it opened or opined on its content,” the spokeswoman wrote.
Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden was informed of the decision soon after and supported it, Slayton said. Hayden, who is in the fourth year of her 10-year term, was appointed by President Barack Obama in 2016 and confirmed by the Senate.
Asked which signs in the photograph the library considered anti-Trump, Slayton responded, “The Library of Congress strives to present historical exhibitions that are balanced and engaging for all visitors with diverse points of view and generally seeks to avoid content that would unnecessarily alienate visitors based on political views.”
Public institutions, including museums and libraries, have always faced choices about what to present and how best to do that. That’s especially true in Washington, where powerful political stakeholders watch those decisions closely. Knowing where and when to draw the line can be a balancing act.
“Everybody who leads these institutions has to ask themselves, ‘In taking a principled stand, am I endangering the institution that I consider to be useful and essential to public culture?’ ” said James Grossman, executive director of the American Historical Association. “That’s a tough question. But there are also times when a line must be drawn, when something is simply not acceptable.”
For women’s rights advocates and historians, the news that another Washington government institution had altered or removed a historic photo of the 2017 Women’s March was troubling.
“People at these institutions were clearly scrambling to present a revisionist view of the Women’s March that wouldn’t get them in trouble with the current administration,” Rinku Sen, co-president of the Women’s March board of directors, said in an email. “But, let us be clear: removing the anti-Trump references from images or choosing an image without such a reference obscures the fact that the Women’s March was a pointed oppositional action, not just a sweet expression of women’s empowerment. Public institutions have a responsibility to present us accurately.”
Kimberly A. Hamlin, a Miami University history professor who has researched and written about the women’s rights movement in the United States, said in an email it was disappointing that the “otherwise excellent centennial exhibits” at the archives and the library minimized the links between the suffrage movement and current women’s rights activism.
Hamlin also questioned the library’s decision to substitute the Washington photograph of tens of thousands of marchers with one from the much smaller Houston march.
It “misconstrues the links between the 2017 marches and the suffrage movement — both of which ultimately focused on change in Washington,” she said. “Before 2017, the largest women’s march in U.S. history was planned by suffragists in March 1913 to coincide with the first inauguration of President Woodrow Wilson. Over the objections of countless officials, suffragists gained permission to march down Pennsylvania Avenue because showing that women should have an equal voice in Washington was the whole point. So it is important to document that women are still marching in front of the Capitol.”