Obama photographer lets photos speak for themselves

12:00 a.m. Wednesday, Jan. 31, 2018 Austin360
Pete Souza
In the White House Situation Room at 4:06 p.m. May 1, 2011: President Barack Obama and the national security team receive live updates on a raid that led to the killing of Osama bin Laden. Contributed by PETE SOUZA

Pete Souza spent eight years as Barack Obama’s official White House photographer, pointing his camera lens at the president during moments intense, quirky and intimate.

Through Souza’s eye, we got to see Obama sneaking a kiss with the first lady at a basketball game, letting a little boy touch his hair in the Oval Office and goofing off with his staff. We also saw him meeting with world leaders, hunched nervously in the situation room during the raid to kill Osama bin Laden and comforting victims of disaster.

Souza, 63, traveled around the globe with the president, snapping nearly 2 million photographs. In that time, he says with a little relief, he never once missed a motorcade.

American-Statesman Staff
Jacob Philadelphia, 5, touches President Barack Obama’s hair to see if it feels like his own hair. Contributed by PETE SOUZA

The photographer first got to know the future president when Obama was elected to the U.S. Senate in 2004. Souza was working for the Washington bureau of the Chicago Tribune and was assigned to follow the senator during his first year in office. When Obama became president, Souza was tapped to document that tenure for history.

“Obama: An Intimate Portrait,” featuring 315 photographs from Obama’s two terms, came out in November and has already sold out. We spoke with Souza ahead of his Feb. 3 appearance at the Paramount Theatre, where he will talk about his career and show photographs.

American-Statesman Staff
A tantrum by 2-year-old Claudia Chaudhary in the Oval Office, captured by White House photographer Pete Souza. Contributed by PETE SOUZA

American-Statesman: You worked in the White House Photo Office during the Ronald Reagan administration, too. How did that differ from working in the Obama White House? 

Pete Souza: Those were two different times in my life. I was young, but it was a great experience and I’m still proud of some of the pictures I took during the Reagan administration. The circumstances were so different. I didn’t have an established relationship with Reagan like I did with Obama. I was a much more seasoned guy coming in the second time. It’s almost like two different lifetimes. My most memorable photo? It’s the same for Obama. There’s no single picture. For me, it’s trying to compile a good body of work.

American-Statesman Staff
President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden ride in the motorcade on the way to the signing of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act. Contributed by PETE SOUZA

How quickly did the daily routine transition from “This is crazy” to “OK, just another day at the office”?

It’s not a normal job, but it is a job. There are still days that go by that are like watching paint dry and not much is going on. There are some days more exciting than others.

Two of your most recognizable photos are the one of a little boy touching the president’s hair and the scene in the situation room during the Osama bin Laden raid. Can you share a bit of the back story on them?

Those two get a lot of attention. The interesting thing to me about the difference between the two is that one is a historic event and the other is a totally nonhistoric, nothing-big-going-on time, and yet it really resonates with people. I think (the one showing the boy, Jacob Philadelphia) resonates because you’ve got a 5-year-old African-American kid touching the head of the president of the United States who looks like him. The other one shows (Obama and other leaders) watching the raid on the bin Laden compound. It’s a big historic day in that after 10 years on the loose, we’d finally gotten the guy that had caused the biggest terrorist attack in the country. People gravitate to that picture because it’s a historic moment.

American-Statesman Staff
Jorge Ramos, anchor of the Spanish-language network Univision, interviews President Barack Obama at the White House on Sept. 18, 2009. Contributed by PETE SOUZA

What was it like to be in that room as the raid unfolded?

I was able to pay attention to what was going on as it was happening, but I’ll say there wasn’t a lot of conversation taking place. It was mostly observation. This is not in the regular situation room — there’s a small conference room across the hall, which is where we were. Everybody just piled into this room, so I had to choose which side to go on. I couldn’t move hardly at all because it was so full. People were rubbing against my shoulders the entire time. It was very tight in that room.

Was anything off limits to you as a photographer?

There’s nothing off limits per se, but with the girls (daughters Malia and Sasha), only if they were with one of their parents would we photograph them. For private family functions, that would be up to the Obamas. They’d let me know if they wanted me there. It was anything that happened — Christmas morning, the girls’ birthdays, Thanksgiving, Fourth of July — all those family events I was usually there.

American-Statesman Staff
President Barack Obama and Bo, his Portuguese water dog, run with a football on the South Lawn of the White House in May 2009. Contributed by PETE SOUZA

You had to make both personal and professional sacrifices for eight years. What was the hardest part professionally and what was the hardest part personally?

There weren’t any sacrifices professionally. The sacrifices were all personal, and it affected my family more than it affected me. They’re the ones who sacrificed. You end up missing a lot of personal moments with your family. I have two step-kids. The kids were grown up, so that helped. But this past year we celebrated our first Christmas together as a family in five years.

You post photos on Instagram (follow @petesouza), and some have said you are trolling the current administration through that feed. How do you choose which pictures to post? 

There’s not a great deal of research or thought put to it. Usually I think of a picture that will work on any given day and then sometimes I just Google it — these are all public domain photos. I think it’s better to let the photo speak for itself. Certainly I think I’m being more subtle and respectful on Instagram than some people are being on Twitter.

American-Statesman Staff
Pete Souza captured moments serious and lighthearted as official White House photographer for Obama. Contributed by PETE SOUZA

Over eight years, you spent a lot of time with Barack Obama. How would you describe him as a person?

I would describe him as being even dispositioned, disciplined, competitive and a doting father. Just the way he interacted with other people from all walks of life, whether it was a head of state, one of his daughters or the custodian in the White House … how he interacted with everyday people made him special.

What did you learn from Obama during your time photographing him?

I learned a lot of things, mostly that there are a lot of people who get into public service for the right reason, and he’s one of them. The people who work for him I think the same of. They were there to try to do good work, and I was just proud to be part of that.

American-Statesman Staff
President Barack Obama, Prince William, Duke of Cambridge and first lady Michelle Obama talk with Prince George at Kensington Palace on April 22, 2016, in London. Contributed by PETE SOUZA

What’s next for Pete Souza?

I’m trying to figure out the next chapter. I’ve done a few photography assignments in the last year, but not a lot. Once I clear the deck of my book responsibilities, I’m hoping to do some new photography projects this year. I do have some photographs coming out with (musician) Brandi Carlile.

What can we expect at your Austin appearance?

People can expect to laugh and to cry and to come away with a good sense of not only what President Obama was like as a president, but as a human being. That’s what I try to show.

American-Statesman Staff
Pete Souza, official White House photographer of the Obama administration, will speak Feb. 3 at the Paramount Theater. Contributed


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