Photographer of Bernie Sanders' inauguration meme said it's not that 'great' of a picture - but he liked the senator's mittens

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Photographer of Bernie Sanders' inauguration meme said it's not that 'great' of a picture - but he liked the senator's mittens
The photo of Bernie Sanders sitting alone with mittens on sparked a flurry of memes.BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images
  • Brendan Smialowski is the photographer behind Sen. Bernie Sanders' now-famous Inauguration Day moment.
  • Smialowski told Rolling Stone that he happened to spot Sanders sitting alone and took two pictures.
  • He said he usually avoids taking similar photos but feels the senator's picture captured the moment.

At President Joe Biden's Inauguration Day ceremony, Agence France-Presse photographer Brendan Smialowski snapped two pictures of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders taking a seat distanced from other people.

Despite the hype of Sanders' inauguration moment, Smialowski told Rolling Stone's Reed Dunlea in an interview that at first, he didn't think his snap of the senator was anything special.

"The picture itself is not that nice. It's not a great composition. I'm not going to be putting this in a portfolio," Smialowski told Rolling Stone.

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But one of his photos that shows Sanders sitting outside the US Capitol with his arms and legs crossed, wearing mittens made by a Vermont teacher, Jen Ellis, has taken on a life of its own.

For days, people have cropped the photo of Sanders sitting into stills from iconic movies, works of art, and city scenes. It's safe to say that "grumpy Bernie Sanders" has become the biggest meme of the inauguration.

Photographer of Bernie Sanders' inauguration meme said it's not that 'great' of a picture - but he liked the senator's mittens
Bernie Sanders' cross-armed meme has taken him all over the world.Achim Thomae/Getty Images, BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images

Smialowski said he spotted Sanders' now-famous moment while trying to photograph Republican senators at Biden's inauguration

Smialowski said in the interview that he was hoping to photograph Republican Senators Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley when he happened to catch the moment of Sanders appearing to sit by himself. But despite the popularity of his photo, Smialowski said he usually tries to avoid taking similar kinds of images.

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"This actually gets into a type of photo that I'm not a big fan of, which is freezing a very specific moment in time, that gives kind of a misconception," he said. "I do not like this type of photo and I do not try to take it. I think it's fair to say that the next second, he was a different photo. But I think the feeling of it is accurate and fair."

The photographer added that despite Sanders' supposedly "grumpy" appearance, the senator was talking with people at the ceremony and wasn't sitting alone the entire time as the single image suggests. But he said he thinks the photo captured Sanders' apparent sense of independence.

"You can say that Senator Sanders is politically independent and I think he's probably personally independent, too. I think he's probably perfectly comfortable coming out there, sitting alone, holding his papers and then going back in to do the rest of his day," Smialowski said.

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As for Sanders' reaction to the photo - he told NBC's Seth Meyers that he was "just sitting there trying to keep warm, trying to pay attention to what was going on."

The senator also turned the picture into a charitable opportunity. He put the picture on a now sold-out $45 crewneck sweatshirt with 100% of the proceeds benefitting Meals on Wheels Vermont.

Smialowski told Rolling Stone (prior to the sweatshirts selling out) that he didn't plan on buying one of them - but that he "might have been a little jealous" of Sanders' mittens, which have also sparked interest since the senator wore them on Wednesday.

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"The irony of photography is, it's always a split second. But the amount of time that you invest to record that split second is a lot; and a lot of the time, especially for a photojournalist, is done out in the cold," Smialowski said. "It's important for your fingers to work and for your hands to be warm. They looked like good mittens."

Read the full story on Rolling Stone here.

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