SPECIAL ISSUE | Crowd (Mis)Representation: Aerial Photography at Donald Trump’s Inauguration and the 2017 Women’s March
Author: Riley Nisbet Wayne State University
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In a press conference given on the day following Donald Trump’s inauguration, the administration’s first press secretary, Sean Spicer, circulated the lie that the crowd at his presidential inauguration was the largest ever. This was an early instance of the administration’s use of “alternative facts,” an alarming concept endorsed by its spokespeople to counter claims that the administration was untruthful. Contrary to this, however, pictures of Trump’s inauguration, accessible through a simple online search, reveal considerable gaps between pockets of people. Comparatively, images of the crowd at President Barack Obama’s 2009 inauguration, taken from the same perspective as Trump’s ceremony, depict a crowd both more expansive and denser. As a president whose political aspirations seemed rooted in the rejection of Obama, proving himself a better president than his predecessor was one of Trump’s most consistent priorities. At periods when Trump was potentially perceived as the lesser favored president, the manipulation of truth and evidence became a necessary tool for his administration to distinguish itself from Obama’s. Thus, the size of the inauguration crowd was regularly at the center of the president’s rhetoric built around his self-perceived sense of popularity. In September of 2018, British newspaper The Guardian reported that the event photographer responsible for covering Trump’s inauguration admitted to editing the crowd photo at the request of the president’s administration (Swaine 2018). The administration’s call to have this photo edited fits into a long history of how authoritarian figures tend to manipulate images for propagandistic purposes. This study focuses on how the aerial crowd photograph employed as political tool can either support or threaten the power. The use of editing can be not only a way to present a more focused frame, but a means of rewriting the facts, thus setting a dangerous precedent that would normalize the rhetoric on “alternative facts”. The aerial crowd photograph expands the potential space that can be included into the photograph’s frame, a perspective not easily accessible without a drone, a plane, or, in the case of this example, a tower. Thus, the aerial crowd photograph documents the geographic expanse of a movement’s support. Because of the crowd’s capacity to bring the individual into the collective, I contend that the aerial crowd photograph emphasizes the success or shortcoming in the support for the given cause or movement. Furthermore, the attempts to edit these kinds of images suggest an awareness on the potential threat that they might suppose to figures of power.
Elias Canetti argues in his work Crowds and Power (1978) that crowds represent the creation of a larger self-capable to erase the individual by bringing it into the collective. An individual, afraid of being outed for his or her beliefs, finds protection in the crowd, especially in the dense crowd because
all are equal there; no distinctions count, not even that of sex. The man pressed against him is the same as himself. He feels him as he feels himself. Suddenly it is as though everything were happening in one and the same body. (1978, 15-16)
For Canetti, the crowd’s effectiveness comes in density. Although Canetti does not offer a direct definition of density, it is clear that it relates to the compression or compactness of the crowd within the space that it fills. The individual does not need to know the number of other individuals that constitute the crowd alongside him—or herself. Quite the opposite. S/he needs to feel compressed within the space where the crowd gathers so that s/he is able to gain the sense that the crowd is not made of individual bodies but “felt to be one” (1978, 34).
The importance of the collective over the individual is a view shared by Georg Simmel. He argues in his essay “Fundamental Problems of Society (Individual and Society)” (1950) that in the crowd “the individual feels himself carried by the ‘mood’ of the mass, as if by an external force” (1950, 35). Simmel’s concern with mood provides a way to think about how the aerial crowd photograph extends the function of the crowd beyond the here-and-now of its gathering. Because the aerial crowd photograph can be spread to the viewer at home or even viewed later by those who were in the crowd, it offers an extension of that mood to those at home, or it allows a new perspective to those that were in the collective. When seen in the form of a photograph, failures to compress the crowd into one mass prevents it from appearing as a collective unified in its cause. Differently, the successful crowd would appear as a collective that, when presented to the outside observer, transmits either a sense of belonging and solidarity (one recognizes an extension of the self) or of rejection and aggravation (one recognizes an exclusion of the self).
The argument for density adds a spatial element to the effectiveness of the crowd, not only regarding how widespread it is but how much it fills the space in which it gathers. However, the crowd’s successful filling of the space is not the sole element in determining its success. The two crowds concerned in this essay have a structural distinction, befit to each of two the kinds of crowds: the closed and the open ones. Of the closed crowd, Canetti says
has a boundary. It establishes itself by accepting its limitation. It creates a space for itself which it will fill. This space can be compared to a vessel into which liquid is being poured and whose capacity is known. The entrances to this space are limited in number, and only these entrances can be used; the boundary is respected whether it consists of stone, of solid wall, or of some special act of acceptance, or entrance fee. Once the space is completely filled, no one else is allowed in. Even if there is an overflow, the important thing is always the dense crowd in the closed room; those standing outside do not really belong. (1978, 17)
The boundary’s ostracizing structure stands in contrast to the open crowd, which always wants to
consist of more people: the urge to grow is the first and supreme attribute of the crowd. It wants to seize everyone within reach; anything shaped like a human being can join it. The natural crowd is the open crowd; there are no limits whatever to its growth […] “Open” is to be understood here in the fullest sense of the word; it means open everywhere and in any direction. The open crowd exists so long as it grows. (1978, 16)
Both of these structures confirm the spatial argument for determining a crowd’s effectiveness. For the closed crowd, effectiveness comes from dense togetherness in a given area—the National Mall in the case of presidential inauguration crowds. For the open crowd, effectiveness comes in breadth of expanse. For the Women’s March, this could be the streets of Washington DC, or even the globe, as so-called “sister marches” arose in countries all around the world. Yet density is still important for the open crowd. As Canetti argues, openness and growth can lead to disintegration and thus be detrimental to the effectiveness of the protest carried out by the gathering. Density, then, even in expanse, maintains the sense of oneness and solidarity that the crowd effects.
Beyond Canetti’s criteria, which are strictly external, a crowd’s actions also relate to this reassurance or threat to power figures. According to John R. Searle’s essay “Collective Intentions and Actions” (1990), intentionality offers a deeper understanding of how crowds function internally. The crowd’s intentions, alongside its structure, can also be indicative of its ability to affirm authority or pose a threat to those in power. Speaking of the idea of collective intentionality, Searle argues that the action, or intended action, of the crowd is another way by which individual becomes part of the collective, although in a reversed direction. The intention of the individual—at the level of language (his or her “I intend” statement)—is “derivative from the ‘we intend’” (1990, 403) of the crowd as a whole. Searle makes the distinction that the intention of the collective, and the collective’s subsequent action based on that intent, is not, however, the “summation of individual behavior” (1990, 402). Instead, he argues that the collective intent actually manifests within the individual’s view of the collective. The individual “takes it in [his or her] head that [his or her] intentionality is in fact shared,” s/he assumes s/he is “not simply acting alone,” even if that assumption is wrong (1990, 407). If the representation of the crowd is a means to present the breadth of its support for a cause or movement, the effectiveness of the “we intend” statement the individual projects onto the collective hinges on the success of that crowd. For a movement to grow—for more members to identify with and join the collective or for current members to stay—the representation of its collective as successful is important.
As such, there may be more of a reciprocal relationship at play, for the function of the crowd determines the individual’s contribution in joining or identifying with the collective. For this matter Alexander Berlonghi’s classification associates the type of crowd with its intended action. He identifies, among other types, a spectator crowd and a demonstrator one, which would work to classify Trump’s inauguration crowd and the 2017 Women’s March in Washington DC, respectively. According to Berlonghi, the “spectator crowd is a crowd watching the activities of an event…[i]ts primary character is the fact that people are interested in watching something specific they come to see” (1995, 241). Trump’s inauguration crowd would adjust to this definition as it acts as an audience: it is a collective gathered on the National Mall to witness the president’s swearing in ceremony. On the contrary, the 2017 Women’s March acts as a demonstrator crowd in that it has been “organized to some degree by some established leadership and whose actions may include picketing, marching, chanting, or demonstrating… for a specific purpose” (1995, 242). Due to the political context behind the two crowds, it is critical to understand them both as expressive crowds as well. Berlonghi defines these last ones as crowds that undergo a collective emotional release or engage in “revellous” behavior (1995, 241). Both the crowd’s expressiveness and its function can be traced through the aerial photograph to assess how they pose a threat to power figures, although in different manners.
THE THREAT OF THE FAILED CROWD
The actions of the two crowds concerned here and their emotional expression also function in posing their threats to the administration when combined with their structural representations, a threat which is evidently felt by the government due to its decision to edit both images as a response. Although both crowds are political, their position differs considerably: they respectively support or criticize Donald Trump’s administration.
The spectator crowd of the audience at Trump’s inauguration falls to the political right because of the president’s affiliation with the Republican Party. Differently, as a movement to some extent in protest against the president’s history of misogynistic behaviors, the crowd at the 2017 Women’s March falls to the political left. Although generalizing the nuances of individuals that compose the crowds seems trepid ground, Canetti, Searle, and Simmel believe that the individual becomes lost within the mass. Simmel reminds his reader that the individual in the mass is pulled “away from his individuality and down to a level with all” (1950, 33). For Simmel, the ideology of the mass is not a sum of its individuals’ various fragments, “but only the fragments in which he coincides with all others” (1950, 33). The mass, then, is defined through the root of its cause, its motivation and function, and in the instances pertinent here, its political leaning. Functioning, then, as a spectator crowd in support of the administration, the representation of the closed crowd’s failure to fill its designated space on the National Mall seemingly threatens the administration through a perceived lack of support that puts at risk Trump’s ability to reproduce his voter base. Meanwhile, the threat of the Women’s March comes in its success as an open crowd to continuously expand, both in its participants and, consequently, in its demonstrative expression of protest against Trump and other civil and human rights policies disputed by him, as outlined on the movement’s official website.
The Trump administration’s request for an edited version of the inauguration crowd’s photo removing the empty space at the bottom of the frame acknowledges the recognition of the audience’s failure to constitute itself as a crowd. This failure, to refer back to Canetti’s criteria, is due to its lack of density, which instead of bringing the individual into the collective leaves him or her exposed (1978, 15-16). As previously mentioned, the white tarps used to protect the grass on the National Mall reveal gaps between pockets of people and a complete absence of them at the back of the National Mall (figure 1). The white tarp provides us with a clear image of the space allotted to this “closed crowd” by the National Parks Service—i.e., the space into which the crowd is given to expand. When the crowd fails to fill this space, it loses its density and its sense of unity and the individual now stands out. This is especially evident near the perimeters of the crowd and the rear.
For a figure as divisive as Trump—and considering that he lost the popular vote in the 2016 general election—a visibly small crowd poses a threat to the credibility of his power. If the support on which his election relied disintegrates, his re-election bid and the ability to retain his position as president in the following election cycle is compromised. To maintain his power, he needs to reproduce the means that produced it—that is, his voter base. The aerial view of the crowd tests those means in the way that it acts as an eye for both those inside and outside it. For those watching at home, or seeing the photograph spread across the internet the following day, the crowd’s density failure could be taken as a sign that Trump’s movement is not as large as it has been made out to be. The picture in fact reinforces the numbers of the 2016 general election’s popular vote, which Trump lost despite his denial. As such, Trump’s motivation to have the photograph cropped (figure 2) to remove the white tarp at the bottom of the original photo’s frame succeeds in suggesting “that there had been more of a crowd” (Swaine 2018). This reinforces Canetti’s point around the importance of crowd density: density not only protects against disbandment but lends itself to the reproduction of the voter base, that is, Trump’s means of power.
THE WOMEN’S MARCH ERASURE
Because of the opposing political leaning of the Women’s March, the threat presented to the Trump administration by the crowd is, of course, more obvious. However, this threat is felt not only because of its explicit progressive messaging, but as well because of the March’s success in establishing itself as a crowd. Independent photographer Kevin Carroll’s photograph of the 2017 Women’s March (figure 3) is taken looking down Washington D.C.’s Pennsylvania Avenue toward the United States Capitol Building. Taken from above, Carroll’s photograph depicts the crowd as a sea of protestors filling not just the street—so crowded that it is only recognized as a street because of the red-lit traffic lights towered above the crowd—but the entire frame of the photograph. The protesters’ pink pussyhats and multi-colored signs are visible beneath the trees at the frame’s edges and they vanish past the horizon toward the Capitol Building at the photograph’s background. The crowd is dense, but it is also clearly an open crowd. Observing the way in which it spills into the streets and against what appear to be residential buildings, it suggests that there is no pre-established spatial designation—the road is no longer a space for cars and mobility but a space to be occupied. Likewise, as is characteristic of a successful open crown, the crowd wants to expand itself. As reported in The Atlantic, at one point protesters formed a circle and grasped hands:
They invited others in. ‘Join our circle,’ one woman shouted to a small group of passersby. They obliged. The expanse—a small spot of emptiness in a spot otherwise teeming with people—got steadily larger until it spanned nearly 100 feet across. (Garber 2017)
Even where spaces of emptiness do exist the crowd grows and expands, preventing risk of disintegration.
The threat that the 2017 Women’s March crowd posed to the Trump administration is evidenced by the controversy that arose around Carroll’s photograph almost three years after it was taken. In January of 2020 The Washington Post reported that the Library of Congress had abandoned plans to showcase Carroll’s 2017 photograph as a 14-by-10-foot mural for the Library’s “Shall Not Be Denied: Women Fight for the Vote” exhibit in celebration of the centennial of women’s voting rights (Garber 2017). The photograph’s censorship in the Library of Congress evidences its threat to the administration. Because of its ideological opposition to the figure in power, the photographic representation of the Women’s March poses a threat because it captured its success in establishing itself as a crowd.
The Library’s public reasoning for removing Carroll’s photograph from its suffragette exhibit denied having political motives: The Washington Post reported that the library’s spokesperson justified the removal of Carroll’s photograph from the exhibit because the usage of vulgar language in signs was visible within the photograph’s frame and this was deemed unsuitable for the family atmosphere the exhibit wished to maintain (Heim 2020). These vulgar signs evidence the anti-Trump sentiment that underlaid the more structured calls for policy change outlined on the march’s website that the crowd also acted to demonstrate. However, the same Washington Post article also reports that an email sent to Carroll by the exhibit’s director alerting him of the plans to suspend the use of his photograph claimed the reason was that it had “some other functions 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 images” (Heim 2020). As the article notes, Carroll’s photograph was instead replaced with a picture taken at a sister’s march in Houston (figure 4) which, while not including any vulgarity, shows only eight people (Heim 2020). Although it is not evident that the Trump administration had any role in omitting Carroll’s photograph from the exhibit, the federal-level interference on the grounds of anti-Trump representation shows a level of political intervention. The decision to represent the Women’s March by means of a photograph only showing eight individuals instead of employing an image reproducing the density and expansiveness of a crowd of tens of thousands reads itself as a form of cropping. While the crowd at the inauguration was made to appear denser through the cropping out of empty space, the 2017 Women’s March was reframed altogether as a smaller collection of people, hardly a crowd.
CONCLUSION: AN INSURRECTION THAT TOOK THE REIGNS
This article’s argument for the effectiveness of representations of crowds in either supporting or threatening figures of power relates to a long history of writing on the relationship between crowds and power, especially through the political lens. Ernesto Laclau’s On Populist Reason (2005) expands the definition of “crowd” by considering it a body with agency in effecting political change and an important component of the democratic process. More relatedly, Jeffrey Thompson’s Schnapp’s Revolutionary Tides: The Art of the Political Poster, 1914-1989 (2005) examines how twentieth century political posters were designed to effectively communicate a figure’s political ideology in busy, crowded spaces. Beyond the power figure’s relationship to the crowd, its relationship to images is also not without precedence. Dictators have a history of manipulative relationships with reality, often re-depicting it in ways that align with their own perceptions. This history is well documented in books such as David King’s The Commissar Vanishes: The Falsification of Photographs and Art in Stalin’s Russia (1997) and Ian Kershaw’s The “Hitler Myth”: Image and Reality in the Third Reich (1980).
To continue examining these relationships in the twenty-first century United States is an effective means not only for understanding the authoritarian threat that Trump presented, but for assessing the means that crowds have to effect (or not) social change in the contemporary United States. Despite the threat that an overtly undersized inauguration crowd apparently posed to his administration, and while it is true that Trump failed to recreate the means of his election (that is, he failed to garner enough votes for re-election), the former president did earn over 70 million votes in the 2020 general election, which suggests that he still managed to grow his base. As well, the insurrection of the US Capitol Building by Trump supporters on January 6th 2021 also suggests that Trump’s relationship with crowds and his followers is not one of underwhelming failure, but one that allowed for an effective shift in crowd types: away from the passive audience and into the active mob (Greenberg 2010). Similarly, the existing pay gap, the civil rights injustices, the threat to Roe v. Wade following the appointment of Amy Coney Barret, and Trump’s regular repeal of LGBTQIA rights among others suggest that a crowd alone, no matter how successful in structure, or expressive or demonstrative in action, might not be enough to succeed in mission. Aerial photography will continue to provide images of crowds, be they political or not. However, this vantage point only offers an external perspective of the crowd, and the means for harnessing the collective to bring about effective change certainly lies beyond this representation—a topic no doubt worthy of its own investigation. Still, attempts to edit this representational perspective should nonetheless be interpreted as dangerously authoritarian: a means of skewing perceptions of fact.
 The statement can be seen in this video from CNN: https://www.cnn.com/videos/politics/2017/01/21/sean-spicer-entire-defends-inauguration-crowd-size-sot.cnn.
 See: https://womensmarch.com/mission-and-principles.
 A pink, sewn hat, created by members of the March that played on the hat’s cat eared appearance, but also sought to reclaim the term from Trump following the leak of tape in which the now-inaugurated president claimed his fame allowed him to freely grab women “by the pussy.”
Berlonghi, Alexander. 1995. “Understanding and planning for different spectator crowds.” Safety Science, no. 18: 239-247.
Canetti, Elias. 1978. Crowds and Power. Translated by Victor Gollancz. New York, NY: Seabury Press.
Garber, Megan. 2017. “The Women’s March: A Counter-Inauguration.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 24 Jan. 2017, www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2017/01/the-inauguration-and-the-counter-inauguration/514055/.
Greenberg, Martin S. 2010. “Mob Psychology.” In The Corsini Encyclopedia of Psychology, edited by Irving B. Weiner and W. Edward Craighead. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.
Heim, Joe. 2020. “It Wasn’t Just the National Archives. The Library of Congress Also Balked at a Women’s March Photo.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 31 Jan. 2020, www.washingtonpost.com/local/it-wasnt-just-the-national-archives-the-library-of-congress-also-balked-at-a-womens-march-photo/2020/01/31/491f4f3e-42b3-11ea-b5fc-eefa848cde99_story.html.
Simmel, Georg. 1950. The Sociology of Georg Simmel: Georg Simmel. Translated by Kurt H. Wolff, New York, NY: The Free Press.
Searle, John R. 1990. “Collective Intentions and Actions” in Intentions in Communication, eds. Philip R. Cohen, Jerry Morgan, Martha E. Pollack, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Swaine, Jon. 2018. “Trump Inauguration Crowd Photos Were Edited after He Intervened.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 6 Sept. 2018, www.theguardian.com/world/2018/sep/06/donald-trump-inauguration-crowd-size-photos-edited#img-1.
SUGGESTED CITATION: Nisbet, Riley. 2021. “Crowd (Mis)Representation: Aerial Photography at Donald Trump’s Inauguration and the 2017 Women’s March” PopMeC Research Blog. Published March 2.
Riley Nisbet, born and raised in rural Michigan, is a PhD student of Literature and Cultural Studies at Wayne University State in Detroit. His research focuses on the effect mobility has in the experience/production of space, mobility’s representation in still art forms, and the affects and aesthetics of belonging and togetherness. firstname.lastname@example.org