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Pete Souza is one of the best-known names in photography. An experienced photojournalist, he has the distinction of having served as White House photographer for two presidents: Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama. Since leaving the White House in 2017, Pete has stepped out from behind the camera, and most recently he has been putting his images to work using Instagram to pointedly highlight the differences in style – and policy – between the last president and the current occupant of the White House.
‘The Way I See It‘, a new documentary film based on Pete’s books ‘Obama: An Intimate Portrait’ and ‘Shade: A Tale of Two Presidents’ , opens soon. Ahead of its premier on September 18th, I had the chance to speak to Pete about his work in the White House, what makes a good presidential photographer and why he’s no longer content to let the pictures do the talking.
The following interview has been edited lightly for clarity and flow.
What kind of people make good White House photographers?
It’s helpful to have a background in photojournalism. And I think it’s also helpful to have the ability to disappear, if you will, in terms of going about the job with a small footprint. That’s things like not carrying loud cameras, not using motor-drive, remembering that you’re an observer, not a participant. Learning how to move about in those circumstances.
I think depending on the president, the [desired] qualities may vary a little bit, but that’s my approach anyway. It worked for me.
Do you think that photographs of an administration can help shape the way that history sees it?
For sure. To quote Michelle Obama, someone I respect a lot, she says that the presidency doesn’t change who you are, it reveals who you are. I think the same is true of the photographs. The behind the scenes photographs of a president reveal the character of that person. I think that’s pretty clear, and has been basically since we’ve had that position of White House photographer, since the Kennedy administration. We’ve had a pretty good idea of what presidents are like, and their true character, based on the behind the scenes photographs.
President Barack Obama walks along the West Colonnade of the White House with Chief White House Photographer Pete Souza Feb. 18, 2016. (Official White House Photo by Lawrence Jackson)
Photo by Lawrence Jackson / The White House
You mention LBJ’s photographer Yoichi Okamoto in the film – are there any other photographers who have been a major influence on your work?
Oh probably three or four dozen, from Bill Allard and David Allen Harvey at National Geographic, to Henri Cartier-Bresson, W. Eugene Smith, the old Life Magazine photographers, and tons of the newer-generation photographers, too. I still look at photography every day, and that’s one of the great things about Instagram for me.
I still look at photography every day, and that’s one of the great things about instagram for me
In terms of the White House photographers, David Hume Kennerly under President Ford, and Eric Draper with George W Bush. They both did a great job. One of my great memories of election night in 2008, in Grant Park, was of David Kennerly, in fact. The ultimate professional, he was in tears because he was able to witness that moment. I’ll never forget that.
Were there times in the White House where you put your camera down and opted not to take a photograph?
My job was to document what happened. But especially in family situations you certainly have to learn when you need to give the president some space. You’re trying to capture these family moments, but if he’s having a one-on-one talk with one of his daughters, you might take a few photographs and then back away. It’s just an intuitive sense of when the man needs a little space. And [with Obama] it usually involved his family.
You say in the film that the job took a lot out of you, mentally. Can you explain how?
Look at it this way – on day one you’re issued with a Blackberry. I kept my Blackberry all eight years. It was either attached to my belt or on my nightstand, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, for eight years. That was the way I communicated with people in my office, it was how I communicated with people in the administration, and it was the way that those people communicated with me.
To have that device with you, at all times, is really mentally draining. Just the kind of ‘all-in’ reality of the job, after doing it for eight years it really does take a lot out of you.
Presumably you were also witness to some things that you had to keep confidential?
That’s the nature of the job. And some of that involves national security. There are some things I can never reveal unless they were to be declassified. But one of the things about classified information is that most of it is written down. It’s documents. And I wasn’t privy to those documents, I didn’t get copies of that material. But I was in the room when classified information was being talked about.
A good example would be when we opened relations with Cuba. I probably knew about that a year in advance, because the two main negotiators would report to the president every month or two, and I would be in those meetings. Those are the kinds of things you keep in confidence – negotiations which are going on which aren’t yet public.
From your perspective as someone who has worked under two administrations as White House photographer, who were you serving? Who were you doing it for?
The people of the United States. I made almost two million photographs in the eight years of the Obama administration. And I don’t know if people realize this but every single photograph ends up at the National Archive. There will be time when everything will be made public – every single frame. On the day of the Bin Laden raid I think I made more than a thousand pictures and eventually people will be able to see every single one of them, if they want to.
Right now in fact, because a certain number of years has passed, you can see every single picture I made during the Reagan administration. You can see the proof sheets, they’re all online.
Ultimately, the job is to document the presidency for history. And I took that really seriously. We were talking about Okamoto earlier, and I remember I used to tell people that in fifty years time people will be able to go through all of my photographs and have a good idea of what the presidency was like, and what president Obama was like. And then I saw an old presentation by Okamoto, and he made the exact same point. Except he didn’t say fifty years he said “five hundred years”.
That really threw me, and made me realize how truly important this job is. It really is for history. Can you imagine the pictures that I made during the Obama administration, if we had a set of pictures like that taken during the Lincoln administration?
With America perhaps more divided now than ever before, what gives you hope?
The country is divided, but there have always been two sides. It’s young people that give me hope. It’s the younger generation, primarily, have been the ones out there protesting peacefully. And not just the Black Lives Matter [movement]. The fact that a bunch of high-school kids in Florida really brought the issue of gun safety to a nationwide audience – these are 16, 17-year-old kids – and one of the largest rallies ever – they did it. Young kids. That generation gives me hope. Being out there, speaking out and letting their views be known.
And even some of the congressmen and women who were elected in 2018. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez gets a lot of attention, but I’m also thinking of people like Katie Porter (D-Calif) who has used her time in Congress in such an effective way.
|President Barack Obama holds a meeting in the Oval Office to prep for a Quad Secure Video Teleconference (SVTC) in the Situation Room of the White House, Feb. 23, 2016. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
Photo by Pete Souza / The White House
This may be viewed as quite a political film – how would you respond to people who say they wish you’d focused on the photography and kept the politics out of it?
I don’t think I’m bringing politics into it at all. I am not currently photographing the president of the United States. And I haven’t, other than on inauguration day [in 2017]. I’m just comparing and contrasting the two presidents that I have photographed from the inside, how they upheld the dignity of the office and comparing that to what we have today.
I have the right to speak out when I see wrong. And I see wrong, so I’m speaking out
It’s not a political thing. I wouldn’t be doing this if Jeb Bush, or John Kasich, or John McCain or Mitt Romney was president. I may still disagree with their policies, but they understand what it means to be empathetic and compassionate, and what it means to do the best job you can on behalf of all people – including the ones who didn’t vote for them.
It’s as simple as that. I’m an American citizen, and I have the right to speak out when I see wrong. And I see wrong, so I’m speaking out. I think Trump is damaging the country and its people, and to those who say I shouldn’t be speaking out, well, I think they’re wrong. I’m going to be on the right side of history and I believe in the institution of the presidency, and that the person in that office needs to uphold the dignity of the institution, and that [Trump] isn’t doing it.