For a total of 14 years, Pete Souza worked tirelessly as the official White House photographer through two very different administrations. He began under the Reagan administration from 1983-1989 then moved onto the Chicago Tribune until Barack Obama’s presidency brought him back to the role. For the last eight years, he gained more intimate access than many of his predecessors. “It’s all about trust and access,” Souza said at a recent presentation of his behind the scenes photos at the Met. “He trusted me, thus he gave me the access.” Souza noted his prior interactions with Obama when he was a senator in Chicago as a major contribution to their rapport and friendship—two integral elements in his photographic process. “I don’t think I’m the best photographer in the work. I think I’m a competent photographer, but I think I was the right person to photograph Barack Obama.”
Souza left the position with the change in administration in January and has since been very active on Instagram and is currently working on a book entitled, Obama: An Intimate Portrait, to be released this November. He spent the evening discussing his relationship to the presidential family, tearing up at times when he talked about Sasha and Malia growing up or the loss of Beau Biden.
The evening was filled with human moments of this nature. Rather than a contract photographer sitting on the stage speaking of his job, Souza embodied an old family friend recounting tender memories. He cited Yoichi Okamoto as his biggest influence for his vision of the position. Okamoto was Lyndon Johnson’s photographer and the first official White House photographer. He is widely heralded as a pioneer of the field who changed the way administrations were photographed from distanced and traditional to intimate and artful. Souza referenced his own widely varied experiences from the Raegan administration to the Obama administration, including a transition from film to digital, age discrepancies—Raegan was almost 50 years older than him at the time with no kids in the White House—and a more formal era as reasons for the more intimate portraits he was able to capture over the last eight years with Obama. But he stressed his unwavering mission in both positions: “I was documenting for history at the end of the day.”
While the conversation often centered on technological changes in social media and digital photography, the highlights of the evening lay in Souza’s private anecdotes. They were often humorous, like the time when, after the second inauguration, he asked the POTUS if he could ride in the limo with him and Michelle, to which Obama responded with a straight face, “Michelle and I were planning to make out”; or, one afternoon when Obama stepped in to coach his daughters’ basketball game and, “he thinks it’s like the NBA finals,” Souza recalls of Obama’s competitive nature. Yet also poignant moments, such as the day of the Sandy Hook shootings. “He was thinking about it as a parent more than anything,” Souza said, recalling when Malia came into the office that day after school and Obama gave her a long hug and wouldn’t let her go. Above all, Souza’s reflections weaved a story of a presidency without pretensions. The normal, human lives of one family leading a country full of other families, just like them.