‘It’s just Bernie being Bernie’ — How a photo of Sanders wearing mittens at Inauguration Day went viral

One of the most enduring and endearing photos from Joe Biden’s inauguration does not feature the president at all. Rather, an image of independent Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders has made waves across the internet, sparking thousands of photoshopped memes on social media.

In the picture, Sanders dons oversized mittens and a practical brown coat, sitting socially distanced on a folding chair with crossed legs and arms. It is this photo of the former Democratic presidential candidate that has been transposed across time and place, dropped into historical moments, movie scenes, famous paintings and more.

Brendan Smialowski, a Washington-based photojournalist who covers politics for wire service Agence France-Presse, shot the image of Sanders.

“That picture is really not that great,” Smialowski told CNBC. “It’s not the nicest composition in the world.”

He had been keeping an eye on prominent guests at the inauguration ceremony Thursday, particularly Republican Sens. Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley who have faced criticism for their efforts to overturn the presidential election results.

“I saw Sen. Sanders out of my other eye kind of fiddling with his gloves. It was just a nice moment when he crossed his legs and crossed his arms,” Smialowski said. “I threw the camera over to him.”

The rest is history. The photo quickly made its way across the internet paired with funny captions, then cut and paste into different iterations.

Ashley Smalls, a Ph.D. student at Penn State, shared the photo on Twitter, writing, “This could’ve been an email.” Her tweet has more than 1.1 million likes and 139,700 retweets as of Saturday morning.

“When I saw Bernie’s photo, he just reminded me of myself in the back of a meeting, waiting for it to be over,” Smalls told CNBC. “Most of the comments were people saying ‘this is me’ or ‘mood,’ and I’m happy we all relate.”

Smialowski didn’t noticed the buzz around his photo right away, he said, but he started getting a few emails from his bosses saying people were having fun with the image. Later, when his email and social media notifications blew up, he knew his picture went viral.

“I don’t think any photojournalist is crazy about their work turning into a meme,” Smialowski said. “But it’s nice to see people being creative with something.”

The photojournalist said he enjoyed seeing versions of the meme placing Sanders into paintings, particularly when it appears the creator used some extra effort on Photoshop to integrate the senator into the art.

During an interview on “Late Night with Seth Meyers” Thursday, Sanders said he had no idea the photo of him had become an internet sensation.

“I was just sitting there trying to keep warm, trying to pay attention to what was going on,” he told Meyers.

Sanders credited Jen Ellis, a Vermont schoolteacher, for making the mittens he wore. According to Ellis, the mittens are created from repurposed wool sweaters and lined with fleece made from recycled plastic bottles.

The senator’s campaign store released a sweatshirt featuring the meme, with 100% of proceeds going toward Meals on Wheels Vermont. The crewneck has since sold out.

When asked why he thinks the photo of Sanders resonated so strongly with people, Smialowski said, “Sen. Sanders has a very well defined brand and image. He is who he is and he’s comfortable in that and it’s very much part of his politics.”

“It was a nice slice of life,” Smialowski said. “It’s just Bernie being Bernie.”

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