What do you see in the now-famous photograph of Angela Merkel and Donald Trump at the G7 Summit? Perhaps you see a woman leader, in a room full of men, scolding a petty man refusing to cooperate. You might see a bold U.S. president patriotically defying those who would stand in the way of what’s best for the United States. You might see one more indicator of the West’s decline as a unified political force.
Most importantly, what you saw, whatever it was, is part of a larger trend: Geopolitical contention is frequently expressed through the language of online visual media. Merkel’s team, which posted the photo to Instagram, offered a generally staid description—“spontaneous meeting between two working sessions”—but the image jumped out for its composition, soft ambient lighting, and what seemed like an incredible moment of contention.
The relative absence of context—there's no telling from the photo what Merkel was saying, for example—is part of what made it so ready to become memetic. The image easily serves as a sort of Rorschach test for our political moment, open to interpretation by anyone, including many with competing agendas and narratives. A number of folks online observed that Trump looked like a defiant child, and Merkel stood in a dominant position. Not everyone saw it that way, of course. National-Security Adviser John Bolton posted the exact image, noting that “other countries expect America will always be their bank.”