As the chief official White House photographer under President Barack Obama, Pete Souza produced some of the more iconic images of a historic presidency. Souza, a former photojournalist, shot nearly 2 million images of America’s first black president during his eight years in office, capturing the mundane and monumental events of the Obama era.
On April 24, he’ll share the stories behind some of those photos — including a sampling of the 300 featured in his new book, “Obama: An Intimate Portrait” — during a free talk at the Lied Center, 1600 Stewart Drive. The event is presented by the University of Kansas William Allen White School of Journalism and Mass Communications.
In advance of his Lawrence visit, the former photojournalist and one-time Kansas resident chatted with the Journal-World about life as a White House photographer, presidential personalities and documenting Obama’s rise to national prominence. Read on for a condensed and edited version of that conversation.
You started your career as a photojournalist at the Hutchinson News and the Chanute Tribune after getting your master’s at Kansas State. How did the lessons learned from your days at small-town Kansas newspapers translate to your job as a White House photographer? Or did they at all?
I became a photojournalist in Kansas at those two newspapers, so I learned what photojournalism’s all about. The one great thing I liked about newspapers was you get a variety of assignments; you never knew what the day was going to bring. When I was out in Chanute, I was there for a year, and we didn’t have a wire service photo machine. Every single picture that was in the newspaper was one that I took. There was no other photographer — they had somebody part-time — but that puts a lot of pressure on you to make multiple pictures every day that are publishable. And to translate that to the White House, there were often days in the White House that were not what you’d call historic or exciting, and yet you would be covering routine meetings and trying to make an interesting picture despite maybe not anything exciting going on. And it was certainly that (way) at the Chanute Tribune. A friend of mine used to joke that, “If a dog crosses the street at 10 o’clock in the morning, it might end up on page one.”
You were also a White House photographer during the Reagan administration. How has the relationship between the presidency and the public changed since then, and how did your role change in that time?
First, during the Reagan administration, we shot all film. And during the Obama administration, we shot all digital. So technologically, that was an enormous difference. We didn’t have to deal with a photo lab during the Reagan administration. We would ship our film in a van to a naval base across the river from D.C. where there was a secure photography lab. Obviously with digital, everything is done in-house, so the logistics of the job were easier because of digital and not film. So, that’s one. Two, social media did not exist during the Reagan administration, and in the Obama administration it sort of exploded. Instagram did not exist when President Obama was sworn into office. He just happened to be the president, (and) I just happened to be his photographer, when this explosion of social media took place. So, the White House was grappling with how to utilize social media much in the same way that Eisenhower and Kennedy were grappling with how to use television to get their message out.
The mission of what I did didn’t change between Reagan and Obama. The primary mission was still to visually document the presidency for history. I think the difference is, during the Obama administration, the White House made the decision to make a lot of the behind-the-scenes pictures available sooner than we did during the Reagan administration. That meant for my office that there were more responsibilities for doing edits every week, whether it be for the White House website or Instagram or Facebook or some of the other social media tools.
How did the two presidents compare as far as their comfort and ease in front of the camera? I would imagine Reagan would be fairly comfortable, given his background as a movie star, but Obama also seemed like a fairly accessible, easygoing sort of guy, as far as presidents go.
Let me start off by saying both of them had one similarity, and that was they were both fairly even-tempered people — which I think is a good characteristic to have as president, you know, if you compare to today. It would take a lot to get each of them riled up about something. Otherwise, they both had a fairly even-keeled disposition, which, as I said, I think is important to have in that position.
Coming into the White House, I didn’t know Reagan at all. I mean, I was hired by his chief photographer, Michael Evans, and by the time I got there in June of ’83, Reagan was already used to a White House photographer being around him, taking pictures all the time. So, it’s hard to know what he was like in the beginning, because I wasn’t there. But with President Obama, I think it took him a few months to get used to my being around every day, all day taking pictures. Although I will say that even when I photographed him for the Chicago Tribune before he became president, I found that the presence of a camera really didn’t bother him. Of course, I wasn’t in his space like I was in the White House all day, every day, but I was still in some fairly intimate situations with him when he was a senator and I was working for the Chicago Tribune. And I found that the presence of a camera didn’t bother him at all.
If you go
What: "Pete Souza presents his 'Intimate Portrait' of Obama"
Where: Lied Center, 1600 Stewart Drive.
When: April 24 at 7 p.m.
How much: The event is free, and no registration is required. Copies of Souza's newest book, "Obama: An Intimate Portrait," will be available for purchase at the venue.
Did you have an inkling at that time, back when Obama was still a senator, that he could be president someday?
Well, I think there was already a conjecture when he was elected to Senate that someday he may be a national politician and run for president. I started to watch how he was connecting with people, and I thought that was the case. In the back of my mind when I was photographing him the first two years as senator, I was thinking, “OK, I’m going to make pictures in such a way that if this guy did become president, there would be this body of work of his rise to power.” One of the pictures I’ll show when I come to KU is a picture of him as a senator in 2005 in Red Square, in Moscow, and nobody recognizes him. I was trying to make a picture like that because I knew if he ever did become president, that that scene would never be repeated.
There are some iconic photographs from your stint in the White House. Photos of the Situation Room during the raid where Osama Bin Laden was killed is a big one. The photo of Obama going over his remarks for the Sandy Hook memorial service is another. What are some of the quieter moments from his presidency, perhaps, that stick out in your memory?
It’s hard to pick favorites. I sort of shy away from doing that. I mean, one picture that comes to mind was taken at the end of 2009, I think the day after Christmas. Every vacation he took, I would go along, because even if he was on vacation, he’s still the president of the United States. So, there’s a picture of him kind of hugging Malia, and he’s in his polo shirt inside his rental house he’s renting in Hawaii for Christmas vacation. And on the right side of the frame is Dennis McDonough, who then worked for the National Security office. He’s on the phone, and he’s getting ready to hand the phone to President Obama so that he can convene a meeting with his national security team back in D.C. about the Christmas Day bomber. If you remember, there was a guy trying to bomb a plane, I think, coming back from Amsterdam. And to me, that picture is the collision of these two worlds, where you’ve got a family moment happening on the left side of the frame, and on the right side of the frame, you have the weight of the presidency and that he’s about to talk to his national security folks. So, that’s one of the moments that comes to mind.
I probably gravitate toward the ones with his kids more than anything. I mean, there’s another one — we had a big snowstorm in D.C., and he and the girls are walking around the south grounds of the White House in the middle of this snowstorm. You see the White House in the background, and in that picture, he’s just being a dad for an hour or two.
I think a lot of people enjoy the pictures of Obama with his kids — or simply him interacting with kids, period. There’s this sort of iconic photo in particular where he’s bending down to let a little boy, an African-American boy, touch his hair. Could you talk about that moment and what went through your mind as you tried to capture it?
Not much went through my mind, because it happened so fast. That was just a family who had come in to the Oval Office for a family picture with the president in front of the desk. Jacob’s dad was a non-political appointee and was moving on to a different foreign-service post. So, the president had invited the family in for a photo, and then young Jacob, after the photo, asked if the president … Well, he said his friends had told him that his haircut was just like the president’s, and that’s when President Obama bent down and Jacob touched his head.
I guess for me and for others, the reason it resonates is for a couple reasons. One, you’ve got a young African-American boy touching the head of the president of the United States, who looks like him. But it also tells us something about Barack Obama — that at the behest of a four- or five-year-old kid, he would go ahead and bend over and let this kid rub his head. You know, even though he was president, he still didn’t take himself that seriously.
I wanted to go back to what you were saying earlier about the temperament of the current president and how it marks a departure from the more even-keeled demeanor of Obama and Reagan. I think it’s safe to say that in a lot of ways, the current presidency — the way the White House operates, the way the president presents himself — is a departure from all the other presidencies we’ve seen. What do you think White House photos from Trump’s presidency tell us about him in the way that your photos gave us insight into Obama’s personality, his psyche, his approach to the job? Does that question make sense?
Well, it makes sense, but I have to say that I have not seen a single photograph that really gives me any clue as to what he’s like as a person. What I’m learning about him is not from photographs — it’s from stories that I read in the New York Times and Washington Post more than it is the photographs that are coming out of the White House. I haven’t learned anything about him from photographs.
Do you think that’s because of discomfort Trump might have about allowing photographs during the more intimate moments?
I’m not privy to know whether there are photographs like that that exist. I’m just now a member of the public like you. I see and read probably the same things you do. And certainly, most of the time that we see him on TV or photos of him, it’s from these (press) pool photo ops before or after a bill signing or meeting or something like that.
I don’t think we’ve seen nearly as many photos released during Trump’s presidency as we did within Obama’s first year in the White House. Have you been able to talk to your successor, Shealah Craighead, and offer her any advice? If not, what kind of advice would you give her?
She was hired very late in the game (in late January 2017). I did talk to her before Inauguration Day, mostly about logistics stuff. But I have not talked to her since Inauguration Day.
Do you still keep in touch with the Obamas at all?
I see him occasionally. I think the last time I saw him was at the portrait unveiling of the painting that was done for him for the (National) Portrait Gallery. I went to a holiday party at his office in December. So, I’ve probably seen him half a dozen times. I occasionally text or email him, but not that often.
After serving as White House photographer under two presidents, what’s next for you? Would you ever consider returning to the White House?
I don’t see any circumstance where I go back to the White House. In both cases, there was a lot of luck involved. For Obama, I just happened to be the Chicago Tribune’s Washington photographer when he was elected. That’s sort of how I got to know him. So, there was certainly a lot of luck involved, and I don’t know if that luck would happen a third time (laughs).
I do plan to continue doing news photography once I finish up my promotion for this book. I’ve got a few projects that are coming to the surface, and hopefully at least one of them will come to fruition. Well, I say this, but you never know — there’s no plan for me to photograph U.S. politics anymore. I think I’ve done what I can in that regard. But you never know what circumstances may arise.