An Interview with Former White House Photographer Pete Souza
Pete Souza has over two million followers on Instagram, but there’s one label he consciously rejects.
“I don’t consider myself a celebrity, but you know, I’m getting more well-known, and that’s a little uncomfortable to me.”
The photographer can recount a few instances of fame-induced inconvenience, including being unable to attend a meeting with his condo association and his neighbors asking his wife about the cause of his newfound popularity. “The new neighbors said to my wife, ‘I hear your husband is famous!’ And she said, ‘Well, he's not famous when he's home.’” Despite serving as the Chief Official White House Photographer for two former Presidents, Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama, he attributes his growing renown to the way he chooses to use the picture sharing app more than anything else.
“[Social media accounts] are things that just did not exist during the Reagan Administration. So I think people are more familiar with me in my work for President Obama because of social media as opposed to President Reagan.“
And since 2016, Souza has also increased use of his personal account. At first glance, the neat rows and columns of photographs seem to simply reflect what the public might expect from a former White House Photographer. And, of course, peppered in-between are close-ups of Souza’s pet turtle, Charlotte.
But Souza isn’t just posting for a fun throwback opportunity. His posts are often calculated, a kind of political commentary on the current administration. A shot of former Vice President Joe Biden affectionately jostling Obama in the White House posted last September, for example, is captioned, “The good thing about having someone you trust as your VP: a lie detector test isn’t necessary. #throwshadethenvote.” The caption and accompanying face emoji in sunglasses are an apparent jab at current Vice President Mike Pence. Souza posted the photo a day after Pence made headlines for declaring he would take a lie detector test to prove he didn’t write the infamous New York Times anonymous op-ed on a potential resistance movement within the current administration.
“I felt I had a voice that could speak to the way someone should behave in the Oval Office and the presidency…and I felt that I needed to let people know that [the Trump Administration] is not normal. And it's coming from, not a totally partisan sentiment, but from someone who's worked for both a Republican and a Democratic president.”
But before Souza’s work on both sides of the political aisle lent him the kind of credence it takes to sign book deals and tour the country, he had aspirations of becoming a sports writer. After taking an entry-level photography course at Boston University, however, he decided to pursue the visual aspects of journalism instead.
Souza retained that passion for sports in his early career, with his first job being a long-term project on a boxer. He bounced around a couple of papers in Kansas, where he had received his master’s degree, before landing a photography gig with the Chicago Sun-Times. He was hired by the White House a few years later to photograph Ronald Reagan.
By the time Souza was hired to take pictures of incoming Senator Barack Obama in 2004, he had amassed an impressive portfolio. Beyond his years in the Reagan Administration, Souza worked as a photographer at the Chicago Tribune and was based in Washington, D.C. His freelance work with National Geographic even led him to the Piedmont Region of North Carolina. All of these experiences, it seemed, were preparing him for what would be a career-defining project in photographing the 44th President.
“When Barack Obama was elected to the Senate, it was natural that I would document his time in the Senate, for his local paper essentially. And that's how I got to know him.”
Souza had no inkling at first that capturing Obama’s senate years would lead him down a path back to the White House. In fact, he thought the Hawaii native strongly disliked that the travel requirements of elected office took him away from his family. He figured Obama would forgo a presidential run, which would encompass a strict and rigorous schedule, in favor of spending more time with his kids.
In the back of his mind, though, Souza believed Obama’s engaging personality and level-headedness might result in a campaign for Commander-in-Chief.
“As I was photographing him as Senator, I was doing pictures not just for the newspaper stories, but really as a body of work for history. If he ever did become President, I would have all these like really cool pictures of him, you know, coming to power.”
And so when Barack Obama was elected President of the United States in 2008, Souza found himself in a familiar position in a familiar place. Returning to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue almost three decades later prompted both a sense of déjà vu as well as some new challenges.
The physical rooms looked the same. The Cabinet Room, the Oval Office, the Roosevelt Room. Despite some decor upgrades, these spaces were still recognizable to Souza.
The biggest change? Perhaps unsurprisingly, the expansion of the media landscape.
CNN was founded in 1980, a year before Reagan assumed office. Only a handful of other broadcast companies existed at the time, including CBS, NBC, and ABC. Under Obama, though, Souza found he had to navigate cable news and a litany of outlets. The rise of social media use in the early 2000s also blossomed during Obama’s first term, leading Souza to create an official White House Instagram page in 2013.
And, of course, Pete himself had changed since his first stint as White House photographer. He had been in his twenties while working for President Reagan, who was 43 years his senior. This time around, he was a couple of years older than his subject, President Obama, and armed with decades more experience.
Souza is the first to admit that a pivotal aspect of his career trajectory has encapsulated being in the right place at the right time.
“There's no, you know, step A, B and C. I was lucky. I admit it.”
The same logic seems to apply to his mindset as a photographer. As the person mandated to visually record what was taking place in the Administration, often behind closed doors, Souza received a level of access civilians could only yearn for. He did not take this responsibility lightly, opting to take hundreds of pictures every day in case he happened to capture a historic moment.
Some photographs have inevitably become more well-known than others. Obama’s reaction to the Sandy Hook shooting, for example, or a shot of Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton surrounded by national security advisers as they learned of Osama Bin Laden’s killing, are almost synonymous with Souza’s name.
Souza remembers the Situation Room on the day Osama Bin Laden was disposed of as tense. Usually, meetings in the room encompass conversation and more animated dialogue. That fateful day, though, the group was in the room receiving updates on the raid for around 40 minutes, unmoving and mostly silent. People revolved in and out of the room throughout the day, but the atmosphere stayed the same. Souza recalls taking around 100 shots of the Situation Room, painting almost the exact same scene each time.
Capturing the moment of then-Homeland Security Adviser John Brennan informing Obama about the Sandy Hook shooting was more of a decisive moment for Souza.
“You know, that's his immediate reaction on hearing that 21 first graders were killed, and his girls are young at the time — he's taking in what must be the horror of what those parents must be going through. So I think he was reacting more as a parent than as a president.”
Souza was there for it all, from Obama’s Senate win to his campaign run to his inauguration, and for eight years beyond that. Through his camera lens, the American public caught a glimpse of Obama as a president, as a father and husband, and as a human being.
The shots portraying everyday life, though, the ones less likely to make their rounds on Facebook feeds and morning newsletters, are the ones Souza is fondest of. Photographing Obama fist-bumping a custodian or quieting a baby at a confessional picnic allowed him to show the world what the President was like more so than through photographing watershed, historic moments.
“It's sort of these little moments that you can only capture if you're there all the time...it's these everyday moments that tell you more about what he's like as a person, how he relates to other people.”
And perhaps because Souza was, in fact, at the White House constantly under two different sitting presidents, he’s found it difficult to disengage as a private citizen living under the current administration. It’s one thing to disagree with someone’s policies, Souza argues, but it’s another to watch someone carry themselves the way President Trump does in the highest office in the land. Souza said he wouldn’t be so vocal on Instagram had another contender won instead of Donald Trump and rattled off a few on the laundry list of Republican presidential candidates in 2016: Mitt Romney, Jeb Bush, John McCain, and John Kasich.
“All of those guys — even if I disagreed with their policies — they would not have disrespected the presidency the way that Trump does.”
Souza said he originally hoped he’d be finished with the political sphere after completing his first book on Obama’s time in office, but those plans are now long gone.
“I wouldn't say it started accidentally, but I didn't even know I had a voice. Like I didn't know people would even pay attention to what I would post on Instagram. I sort of feel that it's something that I have to do or I just couldn't live with myself.”
Souza says he offers an alternative outlet of expression to the President’s own use of social media. The photographer is hesitant, though, to label his posts — often simultaneously snarky yet tame juxtapositions of Obama and Trump’s approaches to the presidency — as political activism. He simply calls it, “telling it the truth.”
For now, Souza is comfortable taking a break from politics. But if you ask him, he refuses to swear it off entirely. His experiences photographing Obama, someone he admired, provided him opportunities of a lifetime, and he says he might return to the post if a candidate he had a similarly high level of respect for asked him to do so. In fact, Souza worries about a Biden run in 2020, despite thinking he would make a great president, because the former VP might ask him to be White House Photographer yet again.
“I would give him some suggestions of other people, because I just think I'm too old to do that job.”