Correction: An earlier version of this article and a headline mischaracterized the intent of the New York Times photographer. This story has been updated.
MANILA — The fight over access between reporters and any White House can sometimes seem more like an exercise in First Amendment theory than practical reality: Is it really that important for the news media to get a glimpse of, say, a carefully choreographed photo op at an international summit before being led back out in a matter of minutes?
Actually, yes, it is, as New York Times photographer Doug Mills illustrated over three days on President Trump's trip to Asia.
On Friday, Mills was part of the small group of traveling “press pool” members shadowing Trump in Danang, Vietnam, when he tweeted a “photo” of a black box to protest the White House's decision to shut out the pool from any coverage of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum meetings.
“This is what our coverage ... looks like today,” he wrote in the tweet. “Blank. No coverage.”
On Monday, Mills was covering the Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit with Trump in Manila. Admitted with the pool for a few minutes to observe the annual ritual of the ASEAN leaders' “family photo,” Mills snapped a quick frame that spread quickly through social media after he posted it online.
Political pundits quickly made hay of the photo and poked fun at Trump and the whole tradition of the family photo.
Critics of the media, perhaps including Trump himself, might point to Mills's photo as evidence that the “mainstream media” is out to undermine the president in an unfair and biased manner. Surely there were many other frames Mills could have chosen that made Trump look more distinguished. Yet Mills and other pool photographers published the awkward ones.
In fact, what Mills's photo does is make a strong case in answer of how this post began — the question of why the access of the independent press matters even on staged photo-ops or seemingly trivial events. In ways both subtle and stark, Trump's awkward grimace reveals the messy reality of high-stakes geopolitics that an airbrushed official portrait of the ASEAN “family” would gloss over.
Just take a look down the line of leaders and their expressions. That's Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev confidently refusing to play along with the rest of the global order; and that's Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte in the traditional white Barong Tagalog and a sly grin. Maybe we're reading too much into all of it, but photos like these can help remind us that there are different motivations and different levels of comfort on the world stage at play behind the scenes.
And also, aside from all that, these kinds of handshakes are never graceful to pull off.