For eight years, Pete Souza was a full-time professional shadow, tucking himself into corners, twisting his body at odd angles and generally doing whatever was necessary to shoot 1.9 million of just the right photographs at just the right time.
And what does he have to show for all his hard work?
- 1.6 million followers on Instagram, where his posts are a mix of new and exquisitely timed older photos culled from his years as chief official White House photographer for President Barack Obama’s two full terms.
- A national book tour where tickets for stops in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and at least seven other cities had sold out weeks before the Nov. 7 publication date of “Obama: An Intimate Portrait.” Souza will be in Atlanta on Saturday to speak at the Atlanta Photojournalism Seminar, with a book signing to follow. Both events are open to the public, but require tickets.
- Not to mention a forged-in-the-trenches closeness with Obama that led the former leader of the free world to describe Souza, 62, in the book’s foreword as “a friend, a confidant and a brother” and even to shoot a photo of Souza that appears on one of the final pages.
“I kept telling people, ‘Maybe President Obama wants to make a change, maybe he wants someone else to do this, I’m going to wait to have the conversation with him,’” Souza, in a recent interview, recalled about the period around the time of Obama’s re-election in 2012. “But we never did have it. I think he felt really comfortable with me being in the room.”
That much is evident from “Obama: An Intimate Portrait,” whose 300-some photos show the president caught by an unseen Souza’s lens everywhere from the Oval Office and a White House elevator to sipping out of a coconut on a Laotian street and working, alone and grief-stricken, in an elementary school classroom before a memorial service for 26 shooting victims in Newtown, Conn.
Some of the photos became instant classics: Obama and others huddled around a conference room table on May 1, 2011, watching the daring raid that killed Osama bin Laden play out onscreen; the president bending down in the Oval Office in 2009 so that a 5-year-old African-American boy could touch his hair to see if it felt like his; Obama shaking hands with the bathrobe-clad future king of England, then-2-year-old Prince George, in 2016.
But many of the photos are less well known, and some — like one of first dog Bo climbing the red carpeted stairs to Air Force One, or another of the White House lit in rainbow colors to celebrate the Supreme Court’s 2015 decision to uphold same-sex marriage — don’t even show The Man himself. That’s by design, said Souza, who saw his role then and now as akin to being a documentarian.
“Most of my favorite photos are in the book, but some aren’t,” said Souza, who took only three one-week vacations over the eight years. “If you go through the book, there’s a lot of ‘That’s a cool photo’ that may not tell you anything about him, but it tells you about the presidency as a whole.”
It’s a special insight he began developing during his first go-round as a White House photographer. In 1983, during President Ronald Reagan’s first term, Souza was hired as one of the staff photographers who handled the myriad number of assignments that the chief or presidential photographer didn’t. After Reagan’s re-election, his chief photographer left, and for the next four years, Souza and his colleagues rotated the presidential gig among themselves.
Flash-forward to January 2009 and the start of the Obama presidency. Souza says the mission of the chief official White House photographer hadn’t really changed from the Reagan years — it was “to document the presidency for history” — but much else had. Everything was digital now, altering the work flow process and making photo sharing a truly small “d” democratic process on Twitter, Flickr, Instagram and the like.
“Just as the Kennedy administration took advantage of TV for the first time, the Obama administration took advantage of the explosion of social media,” Souza said.
The other major difference was the comfort level that existed between perpetual subject and shadow. Souza was the Washington-based photographer for the Chicago Tribune when Obama arrived in January 2005 as a newly elected Illinois senator; he shot Obama for a series of articles during his first year in the Senate and later covered the beginning of his presidential campaign. It all gave him a huge leg up when both men arrived in the White House.
“I was determined to create the best photographic archive of a presidency in a way I couldn’t have done with President Reagan, because of the difference in our relationship,” said Souza.
That the relationship became even more than that is clear from the foreword, where Obama recalls the stories and laughs and “fiercely competitive card games” the two men shared — and the fact that when Souza married his wife, Patti, in 2013, “we held their wedding in the Rose Garden.” Obama even insisted on snapping a picture of Souza during a trip to Jordan, and that unofficial author photo is duly credited to him (“He’s as good as any other parent,” Souza said wryly about the former president’s photography skills).
Other people also felt close to Obama, something Souza thinks is reflected in his sold-out book tour dates and huge social media following.
“I’ve become the link between the photos of him and these people who may never get a chance to meet President Obama,” suggested Souza, who finds it “a little unsettling” being so well known. “Through me, they can relive the experience of the last eight years.”
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