“I’m a funny guy, don’t you think?” Pete Souza asked the crowd. He wasn’t wrong. The Chief White House Photographer for President Obama and author of two books gave a talk to a large crowd at Washington University in St. Louis on February 19th. I had heard of Souza before, I had seen some of his photographs, so to Souza’s talk I went.
Since President Trump took office, Souza has gained a following on social media for his subtle yet witty responses to the current administration. His Instagram account eventually turned into a book titled “Shade: A Tale of Two Presidents,” which juxtaposes tweets from President Trump with photographs from Obama’s time in the White House. Much of Souza’s talk, however, focused on the subject of his first book, “Obama: An Intimate Portrait.”
Souza began with a photo of President Obama looking back at the White House through the window of Air Force One on the day of Trump’s inauguration. From there, he worked his way backwards through the highs and lows of his time in the White House. The photographs also revealed some of the underpinnings of the administration- one photograph showed Obama's hands holding edits for a speech written by Chief Speechwriter Jon Favreau. Souza spoke of President Obama’s work ethic, his devotion to his family, and his relationship with staffers. Over the span of Obama’s two terms, Souza shot over a million photographs in an effort to thoroughly document as much of the administration as possible.
Despite the jokes, the talk was incredibly emotional. Souza shared his experiences and photographs from the most trying moments of Obama’s presidency. It was Souza who took the photo in the Situation Room during the bin Laden raid; he was there the whole time. Souza was there to document Obama meeting soldiers being shipped overseas and those who were coming home. He watched the President’s daughters, Malia and Sasha, grow up, photographing state dinners and snowball fights. And Souza shared with his audience the highlights of his journey and the enduring respect he holds for his former boss.
Key in Souza’s ability to capture these moments? Access. Souza emphasized the importance of unrestricted access. He had worked as a White House photographer before under Reagan, and had known Obama for four years before getting the job in the White House. By the time he became the Chief White House Photographer, he “knew how the job should be done… I wasn’t going to take s**t from anyone.”
I went to the event expecting to hear about the experience of being a photographer. What I got was a firsthand account of what it is like to be present as history is being made.