Pete Souza on His Long-Term Photographic Partnership With President Barack Obama

October 22, 2013

By David Walker

© Pete Souza/Official White House Photo

President Barack Obama throws a football on the field at Soldier Field following the NATO working dinner in Chicago, Illinois, May 20, 2012. Click on the Photo Gallery link below to see more images.

Pete Souza, who has served as chief White House photographer since the start of Barack Obama’s first term as President in early 2009, first met Obama in 2005 when the President had just been sworn in as a newly elected U.S. Senator from Illinois. At the time, Souza was a Washington, DC-based photographer for the Chicago Tribune with an assignment to document Obama’s first year as a senator. The assignment stretched into a second year, and Souza eventually published a book called The Rise of Barack Obama (Triumph Books). Souza left the Tribune in 2007 and taught at Ohio University before joining the White House staff. With approval from the White House press office, he spoke to PDN by telephone last August. Joanna Rosholm, a regional communications director for the White House, monitored the conversation.
PDN: You first met the President on his first day as senator in 2005. What was he like as a subject at that time?
Pete Souza: He had just been through a campaign in Illinois, and oftentimes had photographers tagging along with him. So I think he was used to a photographer being with him, maybe not to the extent that I wanted to try to work with him, which was to do a lot of things behind the scenes, but I think he appreciated the way I worked: leaving a small footprint, not interrupting what he was doing, and things like that.
PDN: Were there ground rules [for documenting Obama as a Senator]? And how have those rules evolved?
PS: His communications director—when he was senator—agreed to give me behind-the-scenes access as long as I didn’t report on things that were being said, that I overheard, which is actually pretty similar to how it is now.
PDN: As he became more recognized and admired as a political figure, and he was being photographed so [much], did his attitude about being photographed change? Did it get more on his nerves?
PS: For me it’s not an issue, because like I said I try to work with a small footprint—[I’m] using quiet cameras, I’m not blasting the motor drive, I’m not using a flash—so it’s not interrupting his normal mode of operation. He can still conduct his meeting and probably half the time forgets that I’m even there.
PDN: How has your relationship with him changed? Was there a point that it became a more personal relationship that continued when the camera was off?
PS: This is somebody that I’m with every day. You obviously develop more of a personal relationship. It has become a professional friendship, I call it, which helps me in terms of access to document his presidency for history. Every presidential photographer needs to have that kind of relationship with the president they’re working for in order to make the important photographs behind the scenes.
PDN: Can you talk about what you think about—and what you want to say about—the President when you photograph him, and how that has changed since you started as the chief White House photographer?
PS: I used to tell people that I’m trying to make photographs so that 50 years from now, people will have a sense of what Barack Obama was like as a president and as a person. [Then] I saw, somebody had archived a presentation about the work of Yoichi Okamoto, who was LBJ’s photographer, and he essentially said the same thing, except he didn’t say 50 years—he said 500 years. And that just sort of shook me a little bit in the sense of how important it was for me to do a good job documenting visually this administration, because the reality is that: It’s 500 years from now. People could be going through these photographs to try to get an idea [of this administration]. So that’s sort of the way I think about things.
PDN: I understand there’s a rule that bars you from deleting any images you shoot. Is that the case? Everything you take has to go into the archives?
PS: Well, we’re under the auspices of the Presidential Records Act. So we archive every photo.
PDN: How does that affect how you photograph him? Do you find yourself thinking carefully about how not to photograph him?
PS: I don’t know what you mean. It has no effect at all.
PDN: What images come to mind that stand out to you because of what you know about his manner or mannerisms?
PS: I think how he interacts with his girls, for instance. I’m sensitive to giving him the necessary privacy with his girls, but at the same time, they know who I am. I know the great relationship that he has with his girls, so I think I’m able to make some photographs that show him as a father that a stranger coming in would never be able to make … That’s one example.
Like with any photographic subject, you could sort of anticipate things what he may do. Maybe there’s somebody at an event in the crowd, and he’s shaking hands on the rope line, and you know he’s going to interact with this person. So things like that. That’s true of most photographers, and how they capture moments. I think anticipation is sort of a sixth sense of people who do what I do.
PDN: I want to go back to [what] you said about [Yoichi Okamoto] taking pictures that will stand 500 years from now. What tangible effect [did that have] on how you approached the job, or things you started to look for?
PS: It probably put more pressure on me on every day to make sure I was doing a good job. This is a difficult job. You’re here every day documenting this president, and it can wear on you at times. And listening to Okamoto talk about his pictures being important 500 years from now made me realize I need to do a good job every day if I’m going to be true to history.
PDN: How does the job wear on you? Is it the hours? Is it the same subject every day?
PS: I don’t want people to take [what I said] the wrong way. This job is such a privilege. I’m lucky to be here. But it’s hard work. It’s nonstop, so that’s what I’m talking about.
PDN: You’re with the President of the United States, and a lot of exciting things happen, but it is the same subject day after day. So is that an issue: to keep things fresh and not get on automatic pilot?
PS: I try to keep things fresh when I can. I just started an Instagram account, so in addition to my normal duties, I’m also trying to do iPhone photos sort of away from main action and post those. That keeps me looking for things away from the action that I might not be photographing with my regular camera. So yeah, it’s a challenge, but I think I am trying to make pictures I didn’t make last week or last year.
PDN: As you look back through the photos you’ve taken of President Obama since you started [photographing him], what does the journey evoke for you? What have you learned about yourself and the way you photograph?
PS: That’s a difficult question to answer right now. I think in three-and-a-half years [when President Obama’s second term ends] I’ll be able to reflect on that a little bit more. But right now I’m focused on today, and probably tomorrow, and I’m not sort of like looking back.

PDN: What about the [selections you pulled for the] LightBox [blog] for TIME? Obviously you had to go through a bunch of pictures you have done to date. What stood out for you?
PS: That was the one time. We had done a retrospective of the first term that they had asked me to put together. I think the thing that struck me more than anything was the challenge: Originally they had asked me to put together 20 photos. I said it’s impossible, in 20 photos, to give an accurate portrayal of what Barack Obama is like as a president and a person. You can’t do it in 20 photos. And I forget what we ended up with but it might have been more than 100 [photos]. And even that was a challenge because … in order to present an accurate portrayal of him, you need a lot of different situations to show that. So that was a good exercise for me, in trying to narrow the tens of thousands of pictures I’ve taken to just a handful. That may have been one of the bigger challenges that I’ve had thus far.
PDN: Politics is image-driven, and politicians have to play to the cameras, and the president does too. How do you balance the tension between obliging the immediate political interests of your subjects and the interests of your viewers—and I’m talking about the historical record? You have to give a complete view of the president, but you also have to put him in a fairly good light. How do you balance that tension?
PS: I don’t think there’s any tension. I do my job the same way whether the White House press office is making a decision to release a photo or not. So that doesn’t change how I do my job. The press office may come to me and say, “There’s this meeting the president’s having, we want to release a photo.” My office chooses the photo, and then, you know, the photo gets released. So I think the word “tension” is the wrong word because I don’t think that really exists. And then we do a monthly Flickr upload of behind-the-scenes photos, and that’s driven by me and my office. It’s not driven by the press office.
PDN: Any final thoughts about this job or the challenges of it?
PS: Joanna, do you have any suggestions?
Joanna Rosholm: I can’t think of anything. I think we’ve covered a lot.
PDN: And anything about your relationship with the President you want to comment on? Does he comment on your photos, for example? Has he said anything to you or anything publicly [about your work]?
PS: Yeah, we hang photos on the walls of the West Wing. He’s usually struck by the photos that he’s not in, or photos that he’s in with his family, or photos that he’s in with little kids. I think those are the three categories of photographs that he enjoys the most.
PDN: But otherwise he doesn’t say much to you about what he likes or doesn’t like, or wants or doesn’t want?
PS: He doesn’t really.
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