Donald Trump Viral Baby Photo: The Photographer Speaks

Trump Jesus Sign - S 2015
Mark Wallheiser/Getty Images

The shot of an Alabama rally where a wild-eyed mom thrust her infant into the candidate's hands has gone viral: "A perfect storm."

By now you've likely gazed upon "the photo" – a moment captured last weekend at a Donald Trump presidential campaign rally held in Mobile, Ala. In it, a wild-eyed mom in a pink tank top thrusts her baby into the candidate's hands. Nearby, amid a crush of smartphone-wielding supporters, a bespectacled woman holds aloft a hand-painted sign that reads, "Thank you Lord Jesus for President Trump."

The shot went instantly viral online (where it has been alternately described as "creepy," "hilarious" and "terrifying"), and predictably birthed countless memes. Donnie Darko director Richard Kelly even tweeted of it, "Whoever took this photo should win a Pulitzer, a Peabody, an Emmy and a free trip to my heart." That person is none other than Mark Wallheiser (below), a 61-year-old freelance photojournalist from Tallahassee, Fla.

The Hollywood Reporter spoke to Wallheiser on Tuesday about the overwhelming response to his Trump photo.

What were the circumstances around you covering that particular Donald Trump rally?

I was covering it for Getty Images. They wanted to know if I wanted to cover an event at a college football stadium over in Mobile, Alabama, about four hours away. Tomorrow I’m traveling to Pensacola to cover a Jeb Bush thing for Associated Press.

What was the scene like when you got there?

Check-in started at 1 p.m. for the media but the event didn’t open to the public until 7 p.m. That’s a lot of downtime, so I passed it shooting photos of them putting pom-poms and signs out, just getting ready for Trump’s arrival. The crowd started lining up around the block outside, and 45 minutes after they opened the doors at 6 p.m., they were still lined up around the block. They had a good draw – maybe 25,000 people.

What was the energy like in the room?

His supporters are, um, animated as you can tell.

Where were you standing when you got the actual shot?

They allow the larger national media outlets to come down front to what they call “the buffer” between the fans and the stage when Trump first came in. Then we went back to the risers and shot with our telephotos pictures of his speech and crowd shots and whatnot. At the end, they allowed us back in the buffer because he was going to go down the line and shake supporters hands. As thrilled as this crowd seemed, I thought to myself, “That would be good.” So as he’s going down the line, we’re up on the stage tracking him. The media is hopscotching each other trying to get out in front. It all goes real fast, but we can shoot wide-angle. It’s much more personal-type shots than what the telephoto can give you.

So that’s what gives the photo the kind of fisheye look that it has?

Yeah – you’re right in there in with him, so to speak. I’ve been a professional photojournalist for 40 years now, and that’s more my cup of tea. Working in close with wide angles.

How did this campaign stop compare to others you may have shot in the past?

These guys seemed a little more excited to have a candidate that they feel good about, I would say. Whatever reasons there are, they like Trump. And I make no judgment on that. I’m media and I’m neutral. I tell a story with my pictures just as I see it, just like a reporter does with a pen.

What do you know of the woman holding the baby?

She is apparently a school teacher there in Mobile.

Do you remember her saying anything at that moment?

No. And I didn’t talk to her. Ninety percent of the people I photographed throughout the night I have their names, because a picture means more if you know who’s in it. But by the time we finished shooting him and he’d left the stadium, those folks had all cleared out. It was very difficult to find names. [The mother has been identified as Sydnie Shuford.]

People say the baby looks terrified. Was the baby crying?

No. The baby just looked like it was maybe a little confused by the commotion going on, but in the frames leading up to it and the frames leading away, the baby didn’t start crying. It was probably a bit overstimulated. The picture turned out more like a perfect storm, where all the components in the picture seemed to work and of course with all the attention on the Internet, then each person who comments on that picture spins it to their opinion.

Like a Rorschach Test.

Exactly. I’ve been delighting in it. Like I said, I’ve been in the business a long time. Things "going viral" is a relatively new thing for me. So I’ve been enjoying it. I’ve been laughing big time over the memes. People take the photo and create their own stuff.

Were there any memes that you particularly liked?

There’s one that’s probably my favorite where he took the mother’s face and put it on every other face in the crowd. The next favorite, somebody put an alien’s head on the momma. I liked those because they weren’t being ugly. Some get downright ugly and that’s wrong. But I have no control over those folks.

One of the reasons the photo is so successful is that it successfully captures the current mania for Trump that he's constantly boasting about – but can be just a little hard to swallow. Would you agree?

I can identify with that. They are passionate. I won’t theorize as to why. I’m not a political analysis person. They’re just passionate about their candidate, and it’s refreshing to see that, so long as they’re not being ugly about it.

I’ve seen multiple people say this is an award-worthy photo. What do you think about that?

You know, I guess it would be cool. That’s not why I’m in the business. I was nominated for an individual Pulitzer Prize back in 1988 for an eight-month project I did on crack cocaine when it first came to Tallahassee. That nomination was very rewarding because I spent a lot of difficult time living with crack addicts. But that was a much different kind of thing. This was just a daily news photo just covering the news like I’ve done every day for 40 years. I’ve shot a thousand photos that are better than this photo, but it just wasn’t the right time. Is it worthy of a Pulitzer? I have no idea. Who knows.