When Barack and Michelle Obama returned to 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 top hands mingled in the East Room. The permanent professional staff of the mansion reconnected with some of their favorite political interlopers. The staffers who for years had stage-managed such events for once got to take their seats and just enjoy the theatrical elements of the White House.
And, of course, lurking in doorways at just the right angle was a familiar silhouette: Pete Souza, who chronicled the rise of a Chicago pol 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 of Obama’s eight years, after having served in a similar role for almost all of Ronald Reagan’s tenure. With that unique resume, few people alive 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, one honed over decades as a news photographer (That tense image of Obama and his advisers inside 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 coffee table book around town, and a children’s version followed. Via social media, he became a prominent voice in The Resistance during the Age of Trump. His Instagram account reacted in real time to the events unfolding with Trump in power. Souza often offered a trolly rejoinder and laid bare just how many norms Trump was breaking. That commentary eventually morphed into a second book, called Shade, that humorously juxtaposed photos of Obama with his successor. It, too, became a must-have item on D.C. shelves.
Below is a conversation with Souza about his role in documenting history, lessons learned, and his upcoming book, The West Wing and Beyond: What I Saw Inside 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 this one really was about my experience inside the presidency. I tried to highlight some of the people who make the presidency work. There’s purposely no pictures of Obama in the book, although it’s kind of like a Where’s Waldo? in a couple of them where you can kind of see him in the background.
Elliott: I love that you give them their due in making the presidency work in a major way. And it seems like you guys became really, truly a family. Was that unique to the Obama team, or did that happen in the Reagan administration too?
Souza: I don’t know if it’s totally 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 were there all eight years. There’s a connection, for me, with everybody, whether they were there two years, three years, four years, whatever. And I forget when they were there. When I saw people a couple weeks ago at the White House, I hadn’t seen most of them since Jan. 20, 2017, but some of them even longer because they left the administration in, you know, 2014. I couldn’t remember who served what years, but I still knew them.
Elliott: I loved the throwbacks to your time photographing President Reagan. There are some constants of working in that bubble, aren’t there? Things that just don’t change no matter who the President is, right?
Souza: Oh, for sure. The inner workings of the White House stayed relatively the same. The staff would always enter through the Outer Oval to go into the Oval. You know, the route to the Situation Room, the Cabinet Room, they’re the same. There’s 20 years between the two presidencies for me, the end of Reagan, beginning of Obama. And it’s like if you only go home to visit your hometown 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 only the logistics, but also how things worked. Just knowing that was invaluable.
Elliott: There aren’t that many of you who have had this job. There have been more chiefs of staff than chief photographers.
Souza: Way more, way more chiefs of staff than photographers.
Elliott: How did you make it eight years? Just selfishly, how did you get through that?
Souza: During the transition, I went in to see Eric Draper, who was George W. Bush’s photographer who had served all eight years. I remember saying to him, Eric, I don’t know how the hell you did it. I said, I’m going to do four years. You know, I think what happens is it’s so invested in documenting the presidency that why would you not do all eight years? After I started doing it, it seemed like, well, I can’t leave.
It was physically and mentally exhausting. I essentially 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 be committed to the job of documenting the presidency. You just never know when history is going to take place. You don’t get advanced 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’ve had a really close relationship with the President and he trusted you to be in the room when things happened.
Souza: I think part of that was because I had known him for four years. When he became a U.S. Senator, I was working for The Chicago Tribune and Jeff Zeleny and I did this project documenting his first couple of 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 got to see how I worked. We had what I would call a very professional relationship, but you get to know somebody pretty well, both ways when you’re photographing them up close and personal. I was also what I consider a seasoned photojournalist coming into the job. I knew how this job should be done. And I was determined to do it the best way possible. And I had the confidence to say to him, I need to have access to everything. And he got it. He got the importance of having the visual archive of his presidency. Without that access, you wouldn’t be talking to me today.
Elliott: There aren’t that many of you who’ve done this though. What is the relationship like with other presidential photographers who have really created, in the post World War II era, the immediate version of history?
Souza: It depends on the particular photographer and President. Eric Draper had a very close relationship with President Bush. I think David Kennerly had a very close personal relationship with Gerald Ford. The jury is still out on Shealah 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 instance, of Trump watching the insurrection on TV in his private dining room, even though we knew he was there for hours. That does not bode well for history that there are no photographs of that.
Even with Reagan, although 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 important historically. That’s the job of the White House photographer, to be there when things are happening, whether they are negative or positive.
Elliott: How has the way we approach the job changed? I mean, I have to imagine the Kennedy era photographers had much more deference to sensitive moments than you or Eric had with your presidents.
Souza: Kennedy had two military photographers assigned to the White House. He didn’t know them coming in, so that’s a red flag right there. The two Kennedy photographers would be called in when Kennedy wanted something documented. There are not many pictures from the Cuban missile crisis, for instance, and that’s too bad, really, historically. It really wasn’t until Yoichi Okamoto, who was LBJ’s photographer, who really was truly documenting for history.
Elliott: I have to love the brag that you’ve spent more time in the Oval Office than probably anyone but the two-term presidents. What lessons in leadership did you gain from that?
Souza: One of the things I learned from President Obama is his ability to listen to different viewpoints. For instance, he took office during a time of an economic almost catastrophe, a recession. And they had to find a way out of this economic hole. He had economic advisors around him who disagreed with each other, so that he could hear varying viewpoints. Ultimately, he has to make the decisions, but I think the thing that I learned about leadership is you can’t just have “yes” people around. You’ve got to have people that’ll come in and tell you the hard, cold truth. I saw that both in the Oval Office and in the Situation Room on almost every issue.
Elliott: What do we get wrong when we think about the White House?
Souza: You cover politics like it’s a game. President Obama used to joke about being in the barrel, meaning that barrel goes round and round. As soon as cable TV picks up something, like Obama doesn’t have any female economic aides or something like that, then that 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 one he appointed was someone to replace Hillary Clinton. And it was John Kerry. That started the whole gender issue, again. Or My God, this tan suit now. You laugh because you remember it. I saw reporters making it sort of like a baseball game.
During the Reagan administration and the Obama administration, I know they were both trying to do the best thing for the American people. You could just totally disagree with their decisions. But I think too often, Washington reporters get stuck on this inside baseball game.
Elliott: Your second major book coming out of the Obama era was pretty trolly. Your Instagram was really one of the favorite vehicles of The Resistance. Any regrets there?
Souza: None. I got a lot of criticism from my former photo colleagues for having an opinion and speaking out. I don’t cover the White House anymore. I don’t cover politics. I don’t do assignments for your magazine or for the New York Times. I am first and foremost, a citizen and someone who has a unique insight into the presidency, having served both a Republican and a Democratic President. And I think people were mistakenly thinking that I was trolling Trump because he was a Republican. That is not it at all. I was trolling Trump because I thought he was disrespecting the office of the presidency. He thought the presidency was about him, what’s best for him. And that’s not what’s best for us. I felt a duty 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 heading into 2024?
Souza: God, I hope not. I hope he doesn’t run. But if he runs, I’m gonna speak out for sure.
Write to Philip Elliott at [email protected]