One of the most enduring and endearing photos of Joe Biden’s inauguration doesn’t show the president at all. Rather, a picture of independent Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders made waves on the internet and sparked thousands of memos on social media.
In the picture, Sanders is wearing oversized mittens and a practical brown coat, sitting socially distant on a folding chair with crossed legs and arms. It is this photo of the former Democratic presidential candidate that has been transposed in time and place, and translated into historical moments, movie scenes, famous paintings and more.
Brendan Smialowski, a Washington-based photojournalist who covers politics for the news agency Agence France-Presse, captured the picture of Sanders.
“The picture is really not that great,” Smialowski told CNBC. “It’s not the most beautiful composition in the world.”
He kept an eye on celebrity guests at Thursday’s inauguration ceremony, particularly Republicans Sens. Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley, who were criticized for their efforts to scrap the presidential election results.
“I saw Sen. Sanders playing around with his gloves out of my other eye. It was just a nice moment when he crossed his legs and arms,” said Smialowski. “I threw the camera to him.”
The rest is history. The photo got there quickly on the internet, paired with fun captions, and was then cut out and pasted in different iterations.
Ashley Smalls, Ph.D. Penn State student shared the photo on Twitter and wrote, “This could have been an email.” As of Saturday morning, your tweet has more than 1.1 million likes and 139,700 retweets.
“When I saw Bernie’s photo, he was just reminding me of myself in the background of a meeting and waiting for it to be over,” Smalls told CNBC. “Most of the comments were from people saying ‘that’s me’ or ‘mood’ and I’m glad we’re all referring to that.”
Smialowski didn’t immediately notice the buzz around his photo, he said, but he got a few emails from his superiors saying that people were enjoying the picture. Later, when his email and social media notifications exploded, he knew his picture was going viral.
“I don’t think a photojournalist is crazy about his work becoming a meme,” said Smialowski. “But it’s nice to see that people are creative with something.”
The photojournalist said he enjoyed seeing versions of the meme in which Sanders was placed in paintings, especially when it appears that the creator made extra efforts in Photoshop to incorporate the Senator into the art.
During an interview on Thursday’s Late Night with Seth Meyers, Sanders said he had no idea the photo of him had become an internet sensation.
“I just sat there and tried to keep warm and pay attention to what was going on,” he said to Meyers.
Sanders credited Jen Ellis, a Vermont schoolteacher, with making the mittens he wore. According to Ellis, the mittens are made from reused wool sweaters and lined with fleece from recycled plastic bottles.
The Senator’s campaign store released a sweatshirt featuring the meme, with 100% of the proceeds going to Meals on Wheels Vermont. The round neckline is now sold out.
When asked why he thinks the Sanders photo is so popular with people, Smialowski said, “Sen. Sanders has a very well-defined brand and image. He is who he is and he feels comfortable in it and it’s very much part of his politics. “”
“It was a nice piece of life,” said Smialowski. “It’s just Bernie to be Bernie.”