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The Art of the Washington Photobomb

On Capitol Hill, the web meme is a daily fact of life

About a year and a half ago, one of Elise Foley’s colleagues at The Huffington Post’s Washington bureau went searching for a photo of Louie Gohmert, the Republican congressman from Texas. Gohmert is not a member of Congressional leadership or the head of a major committee—some on the Hill might consider him a back-bencher—but his frequently outlandish comments have made him a favorite punching bag of the progressive media. Most photos were standard Washington scenes—Gohmert at a presser or walking through the halls of Congress—but one stood out, in particular: Gohmert in the press scrum, and Foley just over his shoulder, a bit out of focus but staring directly into the camera, looking, as she describes it, “bored, miserable, and too lazy to even hold up my recorder without propping it up on my other arm.”

Reporter Elise Foley (left): “bored, miserable, and too lazy to even hold up my recorder without propping it up on my other arm.”

Michael Kinsley once named the practice of scanning someone else’s book index for your own name the “Washington read.” Today’s Hill cohort has a visual analog: the Washington photobomb, a catch-all term for the act of appearing in a photo intended to capture someone likely much more important than you. Foley’s coworker started using the picture just to mess with her. Then, just over a month ago, Gohmert made news for getting into a verbal confrontation with a police officer over a parking ticket. Politico made it their top story, and for the first half of the day, visitors to the website were greeted by a giant version of the image. Friends and colleagues were emailing, tweeting, texting and chatting her about it. A reader photoshopped her face getting bigger and bigger and ending on the word “SOON,” a homage to the Internet meme that depicts animals lurking in the background of photos as devious and plotting. Finally, she posted the photo on her Facebook page. “Yes, I’ve seen it,” she wrote.

Your typical “photobomb” is a photograph that has been spoiled by an unexpected intruder: an exhibitionist, for instance, or Michael Cera, or a stingray. In Washington, the photobomb is shaped by two axioms of the city’s political culture: 1) We are the heart of an obsessive, up-to-the-nanosecond news culture; and 2) that culture is dominated mostly by a generation of iPhone addicted narcissists, accustomed to self-documenting and publishing every photo and banal thought to the Internet. It’s easy to understand why the Washington photobomb is both a source of pride and embarrassment. On the Hill, where photos are likely to be taken in the midst of a frenzy of reporters and staff chasing a fleeing lawmaker, there is a very high likeliness that you will be caught looking like an asshole.

Because your media-consuming friends and family will almost certainly find the photo, you don’t want to be caught with your mouth hanging open or your tongue sticking out, like Politico reporter Jake Sherman here, beside House Majority Leader Eric Cantor. Even a relatively innocuous appearance in a photograph will be photo-shopped into absurdity, like this one of Yahoo! News reporter Chris Moody—a “Where’s Waldo?” type in political scrum shots because of his ubiquity and his height—being pepper sprayed, like the Occupy UC Davis protesters, by former presidential candidate Newt Gingrich. (The photo was made by Moody’s friend from college.) They might even come to haunt your personal life: Roll Call reporter Emma Dumain recalled a potential suitor on the online dating site OKCupid sending her a link to a photo of herself in the corner of a photo of Senators Joe Lieberman and Susan Collins, “looking totally oblivious and absolutely hideous. Like, so hideous it distracts from the people who are supposed to be the focus of the shot. I'm making an awful face and it looks like I have a comb-over,” she said. “It made me want to apologize to Lieberman and Collins.” Dumain was too mortified to reply, but she did give the guy credit for pursuing her despite the photo.

ABC News
Bill Clinton unintentionally photobombs Kelly Clarkson during the inauguration.

The Washington elite are usually the subjects of these photos, but they can sometimes be photobombers, too—like this picture of Missouri Senator Claire McCaskill photobombing Tennessee Republican Bob Corker (a rare foreground photobomb, a la the famous photobombing seal). Or this picture of former president Bill Clinton rubbernecking to check out Kelly Clarkson at the inauguration this year, or this one of House Speaker John Boehner miraculously photobombing himself. Once a year, at the White House Correspondents Dinner, Hollywood and Washington elites tangle with such intensity that it's impossible to tell who's photobombing whom (see, for example, the photograph actress Elizabeth Banks tweeted this weekend of herself and Cantor).

This being Washington, the photobomb isn’t always just a joke; it can also be a status marker, especially among aides and advisors. In the White House, where everyone is subtly angling to be photographed in the proximity of the president, the photobomb is the goal. Because the POTUS is trailed by a photographer wherever he goes, “and the photo office hangs the latest and greatest shots on the walls, there's a heightened awareness that today might be your day to look heroic and/or important as a supernumerary,” says Reid Cherlin, a former White House spokesman who is definitely not embarrassed by this photo of him clapping behind the president as the administration’s health care reform was passed into law. “I think that, as a general principle, most people in politics—whether on the staff side or the media side—harbor doubts about their proximity to actual power. Having a photograph of you and the newsmaker is proof, as much for yourself as for anyone else, that for a moment, at least, you were in the center of things,” he says, “even if really you were just coming out of the bathroom at the wrong time.”

Marvin Joseph / The Washington Post
MSNBC's S.E. Cupp, with a background admirer (right)

The best Washington photobombs are, I think, the ones that capture the mundane, easy to miss details of what life is really like for the people who live and work in politics. This photobomb of writer S.E. Cupp (by writer Matthew Boyle), for example, seems to say everything you need to know about what it means to be a conservative woman pundit in politics—especially a beautiful one. The multiple subjects in this shot of Joe Biden, including Democratic leadership, probably tells you more about the celebratory atmosphere he carries with him to his old stomping grounds, the Senate, than the most beautifully written profile ever could. Most often, they involve reporters looking tired, sweaty, disheveled, bored, even rancorous—in other words, incredibly literal portraits of what it feels like to cover the legislative sausage-making. During the last fiscal cliff standoff, when the newspaper Roll Call posted regular slide show showing the drama unfolding on the Hill, “you could watch the overall condition of reporters slowly declining,” says Politico reporter Kelsey Snell who caught an image of herself looking “like a disheveled stalker behind Max Baucus.”

Maybe the pleasure taken in sharing Washington photobombs with friends and colleagues is another symptom of a painfully myopic and self-obsessed culture.  Or maybe it is something different: One of the rare moments when, for once, Washington doesn’t take itself too seriously. “I think the Gohmert [photo] is maybe the ugliest picture of me ever,” Foley says, “but it's so funny how prominent I am in the photo, and the face I'm making, that I don't really care.”

Marin Cogan is a contributing writer at GQ magazine.

Correction: The article originaly misstated the location of a photograph of a police officer pepper-spraying Occupy protestors. It was UC Davis, not UC Berkeley.