(AFP / Brendan Smialowski)

The mittens

It’s the cult photo that broke the internet and launched a thousand memes. The picture of Bernie Sanders sitting cross-legged, arms folded and wearing mittens at Joe Biden’s inauguration became the most viral image of the day – a global phenomenon in a social media universe often affectionate towards the independent Senator from Vermont.   

In the days since, the photo has been spliced a million ways - reimagined on the Moon with Neil Armstrong, Bernie at the Yalta Conference with Churchill, Stalin and FDR, dangling with construction workers atop a New York skyscraper and sitting next to Forrest Gump. 

But the original was taken by AFP photographer Brendan Smialowski. Based in Washington and working for AFP since 2012, Brendan had no idea the impact it would have. “How would you know?” he says. “Obviously I took the photo because I thought it was worth taking, but after that?”   

The 79-year-old Sanders is the self-styled Democratic Socialist in a country where socialism is a dirty word. He twice tried and failed to win the Democratic nomination for president. His cumudgeonly demeanor, to his fans, is part of his charm.  It might have the 46th president's big day, but #Feelthebern outclassed #Biden.    

The inauguration is the biggest political set-piece of 2021. Brendan’s day began at 4am, rising early to navigate the draconian security arrangements in downtown DC. His assignment was general coverage of the event. 

He had a fixed position, where VIP arrivals help pass the time and offer some good moments, even if they tend to be pretty inside the beltway.  Keeping his eyes peeled to the bleachers, he was looking out for politicians such as Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley, who tried two weeks earlier to subvert Biden’s win. 

(AFP / Olivier Douliery)

By the time he spotted Sanders, it was late morning.  As this picture by Olivier Douliery shows,  Sanders was fiddling and moving about, but otherwise sat alone in the socially distanced setting. 

“It’s actually a very nice slice of life moment. Bernie’s Bernie, he’s very comfortable in his own skin and it’s easy to know who he is, when you look at him. The way he’s dressed, the mittens, the brown coat, he’s not there for a fashion show… He just went to work. He came out and did what was on his schedule for that day and then probably did the next thing.”   He snapped the frame and sent it to his editors. That, Brendan thought, was that.   

(AFP / Brendan Smialowski)

“It’s actually a fairly simple image,” he says. “In that you can find some beauty in the simplicity.”  Within hours it became one of the best-loved images from a day. His sensible brown parka and oversized home-made mittens eclipsed the image of Lady Gaga singing the Star Spangled Banner, even America’s first woman vice president taking the oath of office.   

To Sanders' fans the mittens were already a thing. They already had their several twitter accounts.  A gift from a Vermont teacher, the gloves are home-made from repurposed wool and recycled plastic bottles. "They’ve been memed before. I’m definitely trading on some foundation here.”    

(AFP / Saul Loeb)

But for Brendan it was a bread-and-butter photograph on a busy day when there was no time to set up images the way he would like.   

His speciality is visual storytelling, layering an image, making sure that it’s thoughtful and that it makes people think.  But at an inauguration, there’s no time.  “You just try to make sure there are good, strong photos that are going out that get people who aren’t there a view of what’s going on”. 

This is Brendan's third image from the Trump story to go viral. Soon after Trump took office, he snapped a picture of adviser Kellyanne Conway on the Oval Office couch, shoes kicked off glued to her phone. Then there was cyclist turned local politician Juli Briskman flicking the bird at the Trump motorcade. 

(AFP / Brendan Smialowski)
(AFP / Brendan Smialowski)

 “The nice thing about the Bernie meme is people are being fairly lighthearted. In the first two cases people were pretty nasty,” he says. Briskman lost her job but then got elected to public office later.  So what does he think of the memes?  “While I do wish works of photojournalism stay that way it is fun to see people’s creativity.” 

Brendan Smialowski
Jennie Matthew