Uhen barack and michelle obama returned at the White House this month to unveil their official portraits, it was a reunion of sorts for the 44th president’s alumni. Cabinet secretaries and senior executives mingled in the East Room. The estate’s permanent professional staff reconnected with some of their favorite political interlopers. Staffers who have organized such events for years once had to take their seats and simply enjoy the theatrical elements of the White House.
And sure enough, lurking in the doorways at just the right angle was a familiar silhouette: Pete Souza, who chronicled the rise of a Chicagoan from backbencher to commander-in-chief, first for The Chicago Tribune and later as the Government’s official in-house photographer. Souza was the official White House photographer for all eight of Obama’s years, after serving in a similar role for most of Ronald Reagan’s tenure. With this unique resume, few people have spent more time in the Oval Office than Souza.
Some of the most iconic images from the Obama era are thanks to Souza’s eye, honed over decades as a news photographer (This intense image of Obama and his advisers in the Situation Room during the raid that finally brought Osama bin Laden to justice was one of Souza’s.)
After Obama left office, Souza became something of an accidental celebrity. His first collection of photographs from that era became a must-have book for coffee tables around town, and a children’s version followed. Through social media, he has become a prominent voice in The Resistance during the age of Trump. His Instagram account reacts in real time to the events that unfold with Trump in power. Souza often offered a clumsy line and revealed how many norms Trump is breaking. This commentary eventually became a second book called Shadow, which humorously juxtaposed photos of Obama with his successor. It has also become a must-have item on DC shelves.
Below is a conversation with Souza about his role in documenting the story, lessons learned and his upcoming book, The West Wing and Beyond: What I Saw in the Presidency.
Elliott: Congratulations. The book is, of course, stunning. Am I wrong in reading this as a more personal work than your first two major books?
Souza: For sure. The first book was my look at the president, both as the president of the United States and as a human being. And that was really about my experience within the presidency. I tried to highlight some of the people who make the presidency work. There are no pictures of Obama in the book on purpose, although it is sort of Where’s Waldo? in a few of them where you can see it in the background.
Elliott: I like that you give them credit for making the presidency work in a basic way. And it looks like you’ve become really, really family. Was this unique to the Obama team or did it happen in the Reagan administration as well?
Souza: I don’t know if it’s entirely unique to the Obama administration. When President George W. Bush came to the White House for his portrait unveiling, President Obama had a photo line in the Blue Room, and it felt like a family reunion then, too. I don’t know how else to describe it.
I was one of the few people who was there for all eight years. For me, there’s a connection with everybody, whether they’ve been there two years, three years, four years, whatever. And I forget when they were there. When I saw people a few weeks ago at the White House, I hadn’t seen most of them since January 20, 2017, but some of them even longer because they left the administration in, you know, 2014. I couldn’t remember who served how many years , but I still knew them.
Elliott: I liked the flashbacks to when you were photographing President Reagan. There are some constants at work in this bubble, right? Things that just don’t change no matter who’s president, right?
Souza: Oh, for sure. The inner workings of the White House remained relatively the same. Staff always entered through the outer oval to enter the oval. You know, the route to the Situation Room, the Cabinet Room, they’re the same. There are 20 years between the two presidencies for me, the end of Reagan, the beginning of Obama. And it’s like if you go home to visit your hometown only once every 10 years or so, you remember all the roads to get where you need to go. And that’s the way it was for me during the Obama administration; everything was familiar, not just the logistics, but how things work. Just knowing that was priceless.
Elliott: Not that many of you have had that job. There were more chiefs of staff than chief photographers.
Souza: Much, much more chiefs of staff than photographers.
Eliot: How did you last eight years? Just selfish, how did you get over it?
Souza: During the transition, I went to see Eric Draper, who was George W. Bush’s photographer, who had served all eight years. I remember telling him Eric, I don’t know how the hell you did it. Said, I will serve four years. You know, I think what happens is that it’s so invested in documenting the presidency that why not do all eight years? After I started doing itit looked like ok i can’t leave.
It was physically and mentally exhausting. I basically gave up my personal life for eight years. I don’t want people to feel sorry for me because I knew what I was getting myself into. I wanted to get involved in the work of documenting the presidency. You just never know when the story will happen. You don’t get notice when things are going to happen in the world that affect the president. That’s why I always wanted to be there.
Elliott: Correct me if I’m wrong, but you had a really close relationship with the president, and he trusted you to be in the room when things were happening.
Souza: I think part of it was because I had known him for four years. When he became a US senator, I was working for The Chicago Tribune and Jeff Zeleny and I did this project documenting his first few years in the Senate. Because of that, I got access that other people didn’t, which meant I was in his close space a lot. He needed to see how I work. We had what I would call a very professional relationship, but you get to know someone pretty well either way when you’re shooting them up close and personal. I was also what I consider a seasoned photojournalist coming to work. I knew how this work should be done. And I was determined to do it in the best possible way. And I had the confidence to tell him, I need to have access to everything. And he got it. He understood the importance of having the visual archive of his presidency. Without that access, you wouldn’t be talking to me today.
Elliott: Not that many of you have done that, though. What is the relationship with other presidential photographers who really created, in the post-World War II era, the immediate version of history?
Souza: It depends on the particular photographer and the president. Eric Draper had a very close relationship with President Bush. I think David Kennerley had a very close personal relationship with Gerald Ford. The jury is still out on Sheala Craighead and Donald Trump. I really don’t know how much access she had. It doesn’t look like she had much access. There are no pictures, for example, of Trump watching the uprising on television in his private dining room, even though we knew he was there for hours. It doesn’t speak well for the story that there are no pictures of it.
Even with Reagan, even though I wasn’t the chief photographer, in some of Reagan’s worst moments, I have pictures of him during the Iran-Contra crisis that I think are historically important. That’s the job of the White House photographer, to be there when things happen, whether negative or positive.
Elliott: How has the way we approach work changed? I mean, I have to imagine that Kennedy-era photographers had a lot more respect for sensitive moments than you or Eric have for your presidents.
Souza: Kennedy had two military photographers assigned to the White House. He didn’t know they were coming in, so that’s a red flag. Kennedy’s two photographers would be called when Kennedy requested something documented. There aren’t many pictures of the Cuban Missile Crisis, for example, and that’s too bad, really, historically. It really wasn’t until Yoichi Okamotowho was LBJ’s photographer who really documented history.
Elliott: Gotta love the brag that you’ve spent more time in the Oval Office than probably anyone other than two-term presidents. What leadership lessons did you learn from this?
Souza: One of the things I learned from President Obama is his ability to listen to different points of view. For example, he took office during a near economic disaster, a recession. And they had to find a way out of this economic hole. He had economic advisers around him who disagreed with each other, so he could hear different points of view. Ultimately, he has to make the decisions, but I think the thing I’ve learned about leadership is that you can’t just have yes people around. You have to have people who will come and tell you the hard, cold truth. I saw this in both the Oval Office and the Situation Room on almost every issue.
Eliot: What are we doing wrong when we think about the White House?
Souza: You cover politics as a game. President Obama used to joke that he was in the barrel, which meant the barrel was going round and round. As soon as cable TV picks up something like Obama has no economic aides or something, then it becomes like the story for two weeks. I remember the second term when a bunch of cabinet secretaries left and new ones came in. And of course, the first person he appointed was someone to replace Hillary Clinton. And that was John Kerry. This started the whole gender issue again. Or God, this tan suit now. You laugh because you remember it. I saw reporters make it kind of like a baseball game.
During the Reagan administration and the Obama administration, I know they both tried to do what was best for the American people. You can simply disagree with their decisions. But I think too often Washington reporters get stuck in this inside baseball game.
Eliot: Your second big book coming out of the Obama era was quite a troll. Your Instagram was truly one of the loved ones vehicles of the Resistance. Are there any regrets?
Souza: None. I received a lot of criticism from my former fellow photographers for having an opinion and speaking up. I no longer cover the White House. I don’t do politics. I am not doing assignments for your magazine or the New York Times. First and foremost, I am a citizen and one who has a unique perspective on the presidency, having served both a Republican and a Democratic president. And I think people mistakenly thought I was trolling Trump because he was a Republican. This is not the case at all. I trolled Trump because I thought he disrespected the office of the president. He thought the presidency was for him, what was best for him. And this is not the best for us. I felt obligated to express an opinion and not everyone agreed with what I was doing, but I absolutely feel I did the right thing.
Elliott: Should we expect more of that by 2024?
Souza: God, I hope not. I hope he doesn’t run away. But if he escapes, I will speak for sure.
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