Interview: Former Official White House photographer Pete Souza talks about working with US President Barack Obama
The internet’s most viewed and shared pictures from the Barack Obama presidency was largely captured by the celebrated former White House photographer Pete Souza. Remember a five-year-old boy touching the former US President Barack Obama’s head at Oval House, or Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin together on the 70th anniversary of the Normandy landings or the tense Situation Room during the mission against Osama Bin Laden.
Over the course of eight years as the Chief Official White House Photographer, Pete took about two million pictures (now at the National Archives), most of which were online sensations in a few hours. Not many are aware, however, that this was Pete’s second stint at the White House. He had earlier worked with the 40th US President, Ronald Reagan. One notable difference in both times was certainly the internet and social media — giving the world a glimpse of the inner workings of the Oval House. “Honestly, I didn’t look at the job any differently because of social media. A lot of the pictures were largely shared on the internet though. But you don’t click thinking it’ll go viral. It really depends on the situation,” says the 64-year-old, who was in Hyderabad recently for a masterclass, as a part of PEP Summit (photography meet) 2019.
The second time around, Pete was also shooting in digital format, which he mentions didn’t change the approach, but only made it reach a larger audience. “The primary function for me was to create a body of work that people can look back at and remember Obama’s presidency for years to come — irrespective of the format. The challenge has always been to make unique photographs. So many people use smartphones to capture moments today. One could take a bad picture either way. The tool doesn’t matter as much,” he explains.
History in the making
Born and raised in Massachusetts, Pete worked with a number of news media organisations and magazines, before becoming the official photographer of the White House. The transition he says was challenging, in terms of the subject being photographed. “When I worked with a newspaper, I had different things to click, which were also planned. But at the White House, your subject is the President and that was the challenge,” he points out. Pete further adds that he never knew when history was going to happen. “Sometimes, while driving to the White House, I would wonder why there was no schedule and nothing was exciting. But you still need to be ready knowing that any particular day could become historic.”
Post his tenure with the White House, Pete has published two books — Obama: An Intimate Portrait and Shade: A Tale of Two Presidents — featuring photographs of Obama and the latter saw pictures of Obama with tweets from Donald Trump. He also continues to share pictures on his personal Instagram account, mostly of the Obamas. His posts are often directed towards making a point. One can also say that it is a political commentary on the current administration. “My photographs portray how people in the White House during Obama’s time took things seriously and looked at the evidence. There were intelligent discussions before taking the right decisions for the people. The current administration disregards these things,” he explains, as he signs off, saying that he would rather just let his pictures do the talking.