Andrew Hetherington can’t remember if he’d ever worn a suit to work before – but he will never forget the one day he did. It was summer 2015, and the NYC-based photographer had an appointment in Midtown Manhattan. Specifically, at Trump Tower – just after the guy whose name hangs outside had announced his candidacy for the US presidency (and, in practically the same breath, called Mexicans “rapists”).
Hetherington had been commissioned to shoot Donald Trump for The Hollywood Reporter, and he was determined not to mess up. A few years earlier, he had photographed ex-president Bill Clinton, and the experience left a bitter taste in his mouth. “I remember hearing a remark from somewhere in the room that I wasn’t wearing a jacket,” remembers the 49-year-old Irish émigré. “I had a shirt and tie, I thought I looked cool – but in hindsight… I probably should have had a jacket on.”
Leaving nothing to chance, this time Hetherington donned his best suit and instructed his assistants to scrub up. “‘Wow, you guys are the best dressed photo crew we’ve had yet’,” greeted Trump’s assistant on the way in. So far, so good. “I’m just trying to do anything I can to buy us a few extra seconds,” continues Hetherington. “This guy is going to be a loose cannon – we know that – we’re supposed to have him for 15 minutes; he could be gone in 30 seconds.”
Then Hetherington plays Trump his own trump card, eating up valuable seconds to tell a long story about how on his first day in the city, newly arrived from Ireland, Hetherington had ended up record shopping at the foot of Trump Tower – and here he was 24 years later, shooting the man who built it, The American Dream writ large.
“For me, that’s the story – it’s kind of incredible,” remembers Hetherington. “There are about 30 people behind us, so he says in his own way, very loud: ‘This guy – the first thing he does when he comes to America, is visit Trump Tower’, and that was it. And that kind of sums up our dear leader, I think, he took from that conversation exactly what he wanted.”
Later, I check for the record, Hetherington has shot two presidents? “One ex-president – and one hopefully soon to be ex-president,” he retorts.
This was not the last headache the American president would cause Hetherington. Soon after his visit to Trump Tower, veteran actor Alec Baldwin began a career-defining role parodying the would-be leader of the free world on late night sketch show Saturday Night Live. Later when The Atlantic called Hetherington to profile Baldwin for a cover story, marking Trump’s first 100 days in office, the photographer had cause to think twice: A few years earlier he had shot Baldwin for The Hollywood Reporter, a frustrating three-minute exchange during which the actor looked at the camera for exactly two frames. “He likes to be in control, I can work off that,” states Hetherington, “but give me something to work off.”
This conversation began when I asked Hetherington to name any particularly challenging subject; he didn’t flinch before launching into a 15-minute monologue, relating the below. (By contrast, he listed late night hosts Stephen Colbert and John Oliver, above, among his happiest, hassle-free encounters).
His second meeting began with Baldwin demanding he be photographed on top of a traffic light. “I’m like ‘dude, there’s no way that’s going to happen – we don’t have the permits, I don’t have a step ladder, I don’t even know if one of these things would hold you’,” remembers Hetherington. “You cannot fathom it.” Eventually they improvise a quick shoot in a costume shop. “Basically, when Alec gets bored he’s going to stop the shoot and move on.”
After considerable negotiations the magazine arranged a follow-up encounter backstage at SNL – only the third time an outside photographer has been permitted on set – but the subject remained inscrutable. “He was just being difficult, it was as if we’d never met before,” remembers Hetherington. “Which was a little disappointing: I was very excited that day, like ‘today I could make an iconic image’.”
Despite being granted less than five minutes with his grumpy subject, it turns out Hetherington succeeded. His widely celebrated image – which captured a downbeat Baldwin being made-up in face paint, clutching his Trump wig, a sad clown preparing to go and fake it one more time – went on to win not just the magazine cover, but coveted year-end awards from both PDN Photo Annual 2018 and American Photograph 34. The headline – “Can satire save the republic?” – continues to resonate to this day.
“Although he was a challenging subject, he’s been photographed so many times, he’s going to give you something – you just have to realise when you are getting that something,” adds Hetherington, “and make sure you don’t miss it.”