For the past eight years, former Chief White House photographer, Pete Souza, has provided the world with an inside glimpse into life as the President of the United States. Through his lens, Souza has taken us into closed-door meetings in the Situation Room and around the world on Air Force One. He has also shown us former President Barack Obama’s more tender side doing ordinary things as a father, husband, and friend as Souza visually captured history.
Souza’s photography career began many years before working at newspapers in the Midwest, then as a freelance photographer for magazines before becoming President Reagan’s White House photographer. His last position before becoming President Obama’s Chief White House photographer was assistant professor of photojournalism at Ohio University. With a tireless work ethic, intuitive spirit, talent, and a dash of luck, Souza has recently completed the photography assignment of a lifetime. His dedication to the job can be seen by how much time he spent on it. In eight years, Souza only took three, one-week vacations.
Here, Souza discusses how he landed the coveted position as Chief White House photographer for President Obama, the skills and sacrifice required to be a White House photographer, and how the job has evolved in the age of social media.
How did you get your big break as White House photographer for Barack Obama? What was your approach?
My connection to Barack Obama began in November 2004 when he had just been elected to the United States Senate. I was working as the national/international photographer for the Chicago Tribune based out of Washington, D.C., and a reporter and I pitched a story idea to do an extensive series looking at Obama’s first year. The Chicago Tribune was on board, so I immediately reached out to Obama’s staff to see if we could have access to accomplish this. Most politicians are initially cautious when a photographer wants to follow them around, so I was lucky that Obama was open to the project. By this point, I was already an established photographer, and had been the White House photographer for President Reagan, but I don’t think Obama knew this. It was very important for me to establish his trust.
From the beginning, I made sure to take pictures without being intrusive and didn’t use flash. Over time, we got to know each other a bit. He saw how I worked, and came to realize that my primary goal was to document his journey. When the series ran in the Tribune, it was well received, but it’s only a matter of time before coverage becomes overkill. So, independently, I continued photographing Obama, and accompanied his family on a trip to Africa in August 2006. During this trip, I got to know Obama and his family better, and when I returned, the Tribune published images from this trip. It didn’t take long for me to realize how great of a photo subject Obama was—you could tell he was going to be a force on a national stage based on how people reacted to him.
Early 2007, it became clear that Obama was going to announce his presidential run, so the Tribune re-assigned me to cover him. However, as I saw newspapers across the country begin to fold, I accepted a position at Ohio University’s School of Visual Communication as an assistant professor of photojournalism. Things seemingly came to an abrupt stop, but throughout 2008, I would meet up with Obama if he was in the area, or I would fly to cover him on the campaign trail as a freelancer. When it became evident that Obama was going to be a presidential nominee, I asked the Tribune for copyright permission to publish a photo book with images I’d captured over the years. They graciously agreed, and just before the 2008 Democratic National Convention, I published The Rise of Barack Obama. I gifted Obama a copy of the book, and this gave him further insight into my work and how I captured him as a person.
Then, early January 2009, I received a call from press secretary Robert Gibbs saying, “Hey, we want you to be President Obama’s Chief White House photographer.” My response was that in order to do this job right, I’d need access to everything. When Gibbs assured me that President Obama understood what I was doing, I accepted the job on the spot.
How do you get people to see President Obama as presidential and as a human being?
Even though I photographed him extensively over the years, it’s completely different photographing him as president. It takes time getting used to the fact that every presidential meeting and social encounter will be captured. However, President Obama is comfortable in his own skin, and I give myself credit for easing into the process. I tried to anticipate when he needed space, and after about three to six months, we figured out our dance.
The primary role of a White House photographer is to document a president’s history. Therefore, it was important for me to capture the private and public sides of President Obama, which often weave into each other. For example, I’d capture him interacting with his daughters when they stopped by the Oval Office or fist bumping the janitor as he walked to a meeting in the Old Executive Building. He’s still the President of the United States in these moments, but you see him more as a regular person when he does these things.
How do you come to a point where you develop a friendship with President Obama and family, and it becomes natural for a camera to always be present?
You don’t have to be best friends with the president you photograph, but you must have a strong, personal rapport. How could you not become friends in some capacity when you spend so much time together? For President Obama, our relationship dates back to 2005, which has given him and his family time to know me and how I work. In fact, it got to a point where they all expected me to be there on Christmas morning as they opened gifts. For the public, it further helped them see him in a different light while adding to the presidential visual archive. On average, I shot anywhere from 500 to 2,000 pictures a day depending on what was happening.
You photographed President Reagan before President Obama—what was the biggest difference in the job between Reagan, in the pre-Internet, selfie, smartphone era—and Obama’s era? Did you need to learn any new skills?
The core aspect of what I did for both administrations was the same—visually document the president’s history. However, social media, and Instagram in particular, became a way for me to display pictures with the public immediately. Instagram didn’t exist until 2011, and this dramatically changed the role of a White House photographer in so many ways. I’d argue that it changed things for the better because it benefits the public to get an inside look at a presidency right now. Some of the pictures that I took during the Reagan Administration weren’t shared with the public for 10 to 30 years!
One day, our White House digital team came to me and said, “We want you to start sharing your photos on Instagram.” While I had opened an account in 2012, I was still trying to understand how it worked before posting. My friend and sports photographer Brad Mangin was very active on Instagram and seeing how he used it convinced me to begin sharing my White House work. My first posts were from my iPhone, and were “just the facts” captions. Then, I started adding a first person perspective, and the response was eye-opening. Anytime there was a special back-story that needed to be told, I’d include it. Occasionally, I’d post pictures from my DSLR camera, and photographers would inquire about technical aspects, like what my shutter speed was or what kind of lens was I using. It was nice to respond to photographers’ questions, and in other instances, my Instagram followers have corrected me when I make a typo or error. It’s been interesting to see how Instagram is evolving, and I continue to learn from watching as well as interacting with my followers.
Overall, people appreciated seeing real, un-staged shots of what former President Obama was like in real-time versus waiting until the future to look back on how he was.
You see amazing stuff in the course of a day. How do you drive home in the evening, turn off, and connect with your family and friends?
Honestly, this was the hardest part of the job, because you are literally on call 365 days a year. Your family and personal life are adversely affected, but I knew what I signed up for when I accepted the position. Someone once said, “Working in the White House is like trying to take a sip of water from a fire hose that never shuts off.” On occasion, I’d make it to the gym before work, and my drive home was always a time for reflection.
How do you maintain the stamina to get shots when you’re navigating time zones, high-pressure conversations, security issues, large crowds, and lights?
It’s really difficult, both physically and mentally. When we had overseas trips, we usually left a few hours before bedtime, so it was hard to sleep because of your natural body clock, but also because it’s uncomfortable sleeping on a plane. As soon as we’d arrive in a country, we’d jump right into a 15-hour day. And, foreign countries tend to have more restrictions because if it’s the G-20 Summit and you’re dealing with 19 other heads of state, security is higher.
My approach was to sneak into rooms I wasn’t supposed to be in and act like I belonged. I wasn’t successful every time, but it became a game to me. Funny enough, in the last few years, I had an easier time getting into rooms because the gatekeepers followed my Instagram handle, and understood the importance of what I was doing!
Can you describe capturing the final farewell photo of Obama leaving on his helicopter?
When I’ve looked at previous pictures of a president leaving on helicopter, you usually see the U.S. Capitol outside, so that’s the shot I had in my mind. I also figured we’d be so high up in the air that we wouldn’t be able to see the White House. However, we didn’t end up circling the Capitol, so the picture I took has the White House in the background. I don’t think I’ve ever seen this shot before, so it was really special.
From a technical aspect, the light value inside the helicopter contrasted greatly with the light value outside, so I used Adobe Camera Raw to adjust the color density. It was helpful to be able to make color corrections on my raw file before opening up the image in Photoshop.
What advice would you have for aspiring photographers who want to be a White House photographer?
While you must have talent, there’s a lot of luck involved, too. Politics is about who you know. You can be the best photographer in the world, but if an up-and-coming senator is already connected to a competent photographer they like, chances are they’ll chose them if they decide to run for president.
My path began through newspapers, but everyone needs to find their own path to attain a certain end result. There is no one path in photography or photojournalism. And, your final goal should never be to only be a White House photographer because the odds are slim. There are dozens of photographers in the country who are more skilled than me, but I believe I was the right person for the job because of the way I worked with President Obama, my previous White House experience, and I knew how the job should be done.