Photographer Pete Souza had the opportunity of a lifetime when he was hired to document Ronald Reagan’s White House. But then he proved that lightning can indeed strike twice in one’s career when he found his way back to 1600 Pennsylvania years later and discovered his ultimate subject: Barack Obama.
PHOTOGRAPHY / BARACK OBAMA / JOURNALISM / DONALD TRUMP / RONALD REAGAN / CHICAGO TRIBUNE / BOSTON UNIVERSITY / KANSAS STATE UNIVERSITY / CHICAGO SUN-TIMES / RUSSIA
He was just a tourist.
And like so many others that day in Moscow in 2005, Barack Obama visited Red Square. Clad in khakis and a dark short-sleeve polo shirt, he slung his jacket over his shoulder as the iconic St. Basil’s Cathedral loomed behind him. Throngs of people strolled by, chatting, smiling, laughing, their eyes perhaps falling over the young senator as they passed, but only for a lost moment. For the last time in Russia, and soon the world at large, not a gaze lingered—Obama was completely and wholly anonymous.
Photographer Pete Souza raised his camera, and clicked the shutter.
Viewed today, the photograph fits in nicely with some of the others from that era—such as, say, the one of Obama working away, alone in his windowless basement Senate office.
“I was thinking, OK, if this guy ever becomes the president of the United States, it would be really nice to have a set of pictures that shows him as this freshman senator,” Souza told GQ. “So when we were in Russia, [I realized] that if he ever became president, this would never happen again ever. No matter where he went in the world, he would always be recognized.”
Like Obama, Souza was destined for the White House. And yet Souza grew up without the perpetual presence of a camera, the tool that would get him there. Rather, also like Obama, Souza’s childhood was characterized by an obsession with sports. The son of a nurse and a boat mechanic in South Dartmouth, MA, Souza played one sport or another every single day after school. Meanwhile, at home, he was always presciently drawn to the photographs within his books, sometimes finding greater weight in the stories they told than the text itself.
While Obama fantasized about a future in pro basketball, Souza envisioned himself in the sports realm as a writer. While attending Boston University and studying public communication, he figured he’d give a photography elective a go his junior year. And in that classroom, something amazing happened: For the first time in his life, he had come across a discipline that truly interested him in an electric way—he describes it as being like magic to him—and moreover, he wanted to keep studying it. To get better at it.
After graduating summa cum laude, he eventually left for the Midwest to pursue his master’s in journalism and mass communications at Kansas State University, and then found himself shooting for some small newspapers before landing at the Chicago Sun-Times. There, the opportunity of a lifetime arose: A friend of Souza’s was working in Ronald Reagan’s White House as a photo editor—and he wanted to know if Souza was interested in becoming a photographer there. Though Souza’s politics weren’t exactly in alignment with Reagan’s, he said yes. Soon he was in Washington, DC, where he remained, photographing and documenting Reagan’s presidency, from 1983–1989. His work from that era includes several now-iconic images, such as the black-and-white overhead shot of Reagan at work in the Oval Office; the president hosting Michael Jackson; John Travolta and Princess Diana dancing alongside the Reagans; Reagan working alongside his Soviet counterparts in a historic bid to end the Cold War.
Upon leaving the White House, Souza remained in DC and became a freelance photographer for the likes of National Geographic and Life, and also shot for the Chicago Tribune—which was about to give him an extraordinary assignment that would shape the rest of his life. The gig was simple enough on the surface: They wanted him to document the first year of their state’s new U.S. senator, who had emerged from the Illinois Senate. Souza met Barack Obama at his swearing-in in 2005. Struck by the man he was photographing and getting to know, Souza figured Obama would probably remain a senator for six years or so, then would run for Governor of Illinois, and then, eventually, president. He had no idea how fast his rise would actually be.
In 2009, after Obama had been elected president, Souza was about to start a new semester teaching photojournalism at Ohio University. His phone rang. Obama’s spokesman was on the line—they wanted Souza to be the new Chief White House Photographer. Souza pondered Lyndon Baines Johnson’s photographer, Yoichi Okamoto, who he considers the master of the form; Souza believes he was the first to truly document a president for the historical record. And he did so brilliantly, producing excellent images and commanding excellent access … which Souza did not fully enjoy in the Reagan administration. Souza told the Obama camp he would accept the position—on the condition that his primary job would be to document Obama for the sake of history.
They agreed. And soon enough, Souza found himself back in the Oval Office, waiting for Obama to walk in and begin his first official day on the job. On every subsequent day, Souza arrived at the White House at 8, and began documenting Obama when he came down from the residence around 9, accompany him everywhere he went until the president ascended the stairs to bed at night.
The images that exist as a result are indeed historic, and a testament to Souza’s mission, craft, trust with his subject and total devotion to his role: There’s the intense photo of Obama and his crew watching the Bin Laden raid unfold. There’s the photo of a black White House staffer’s son asking if he could feel Obama’s hair to see if it felt the same as his own. The image of Obama and Michelle, forehead to forehead in an elevator, following his inaugural ball. Obama playing basketball. Fist-bumping a soldier in Iraq. Running in the East Wing with his dog, Bo. Moving an Oval Office couch back into place himself after a photo shoot. Marching across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in commemoration of Bloody Sunday.
From the massive appearances to quiet backyard family play, Souza was there. (He has said he didn’t take a single vacation during the president’s first term because he was afraid he’d miss something.) Obama has said that aside from his family, the person he spent the most time with during his administration was Souza. Obama was also key in getting Souza to propose to his longtime partner, Patti Lease … and, naturally, he helped pick the ring out, and was present at Souza’s marriage in the White House Rose Garden.
After Obama left office, Souza released Obama: An Intimate Portrait, and it became one of the bestselling photo books of all time. President Trump’s tenure began, and has remained, as stark a contrast to Obama’s as it could possibly be. For many in the country, it was a brutal whiplash. It was written about. It was discussed at length on TV. But nobody really brought it to visual life with as much simplicity, poignancy and often hilarity as Pete Souza did on his Instagram account. The formula is simple: Trump does something in his Trumpian way and it makes news; Souza presents an image from his historical archive of the Obama era that illustrates the contrast. For instance: When Trump denied Russian election meddling and was photographed cozying up to Vladimir Putin, Souza posted an image of Obama confronting Putin on the international stage. When Trump trashed relations with Angela Merkel, Souza posted a photo of Obama embracing the key U.S. ally. When Trump enacted his travel ban, Souza shared an image of Obama visiting the Islamic Society of Baltimore mosque.
Over and over Souza was described as “throwing shade” … a phrase he had to research to decipher what everyone was talking about. And yes, he was indeed throwing shade—and he embraced it for his new book of presidential juxtapositions, Shade: A Tale of Two Presidents.
But it’s not just about the momentary laugh, the brief escape. (Yes, there is that.) Souza, who has lived and breathed two historic administrations day in and day out, is uniquely situated to spot the stark differences in the political theater of today—and present them back to us with simple images that speak volumes beyond words. By doing so, he offers visual affirmation that a better system existed only a couple short years ago that didn’t thrive on vitriol, dischord and division. He reminds us that what might increasingly seem, by way of exhausting repetition day in and day out, normal, is anything but.
In conjunction with his books, Souza partakes in the promotional events that all authors must, and they admittedly do not come easily to the lensman, who is much more comfortable behind the scenes with his camera. But at these gatherings, an interesting phenomena has cropped up. Rather than people simply listening to a dry lecture or reading and then quietly trudging along in line to get their tomes signed, the events are filled with emotion. With participation. With power. The New Yorker described them as a “group therapy session,” and Souza has been characterized as “a beacon of light” for his work.
In other words, of the parallels between Souza and Obama, perhaps the president himself has imbued Souza with the most important one: the ability to give hope.
—Zachary Petit, Design Matters Media Editor-in-Chief
By Pete Souza:
Shade: A Tale of Two Presidents
Obama: An Intimate Portrait
Dream Big Dreams: Photographs from Barack Obama's Inspiring and Historic Presidency
The Rise of Barack Obama
Unguarded Moments: Behind-The-Scenes Photographs of President Ronald Reagan
And remember, we can talk about making a difference, we can make a difference, or we can do both. — Debbie Millman