Behind the Lens: Obama Photographer Pete Souza

A conversation about his life with the president and new best-selling book

When Pete Souza first reported for work at his job as President Barack Obama’s chief official White House photographer, he was 54. By his final day, he had just turned 62, likely making him the oldest person ever to hold that position. It was an eight-year marathon with virtually no breaks. There were grueling, extraordinarily long days. Sometimes he slept in his office to get the early morning shots of the president at the White House. But, for Souza, what days they were — witnessing the sweep of history through the lenses of his cameras, taking nearly two million photographs along the way, from January 2009 to January 2017.

Souza was, by his own account, “the man in the room,” essentially joined at the hip to the leader of the free world, traveling 1.5 million miles and circling the globe 58 times on Air Force One. In fact, Obama says in the foreword of Souza’s new coffee table book, Obama: An Intimate Portrait: “Over the course of eight years in the White House, I probably spent more time with Pete Souza than with anybody other than my family.”

A Unique Best-Seller

For the past eight weeks, Souza’s $50 book, with no sensational revelations or page-turning drama, has been flying off the shelves, securing its place on The New York Times best-sellers’ list. And for two weeks before Christmas, Obama: An Intimate Portrait — featuring more than 300 photographs chronicling the Obama presidency — actually topped the hardcover nonfiction list, a feat the staff at The New York Times Book Review couldn’t remember being performed by a coffee table photo book.

“I am not at all surprised that it’s done so well,” Souza told me nearly a year after Obama left office. “It’s partly nostalgic, in that people are really missing the Obama administration, especially compared to the political climate we find ourselves in now.”

Anyone who follows Pete Souza on Instagram  knows that he playfully mocks — some say trolls — the current president by displaying photographs that he took of Obama. A recent post shows the former president deep in thought with the caption borrowed from a Trump tweet: “like, really smart….”

Credit: Official White House Photo by Pete Souza
President Barack Obama takes pictures of chief photographer Pete Souza before departing the Ancient City of Petra in Jordan, March 23, 2013

One of Many Meaningful Photos

When Souza culled eight years of images down to those that made the final cut, he put one of his favorites on the back of the dust jacket (see above). It’s a moment he’s lucky he captured; it happened so fast, Souza was only able to shoot one frame. The family of a National Security Council staffer leaving the White House was invited for the traditional family photo in the Oval Office with the president. As they were about to leave, one of the man’s sons, Jacob Philadelphia, a five-year-old African American, softly told Obama, “I want to know if my hair is just like yours.”

Obama didn’t hear him at first and asked the boy to repeat it. “Mr. President, my friends say my hair kind of looks like yours,” he said. The president replied, “Why don’t you touch it and see for yourself?” And he bent over and Jacob touched his head. “So, what do you think?” Obama asked. “Yes, it does feel the same,” Jacob said.

On his national book tour, Souza told a crowd at the Smithsonian’s African American Museum of History and Culture in Washington, D.C. that the photograph of Jacob and Obama resonated for two reasons: “You’ve got this five-year-old African American kid touching the head of the president who looks like him.  But it also tells you something about this president of the United States that, at the behest of a five-year-old kid, he would bend over and let the kid touch his head. It really tells you something about him.”

The First Father

Souza said it was Obama’s role as a father that frequently competed with his presidential persona, whether it was taking a break from a 2010 Oval Office meeting on the BP oil spill to spend a few minutes with oldest daughter, Malia (now a Harvard freshman) or on December 14, 2012, just weeks after Obama was re-elected, when news reports started filtering out of Newtown, Conn. of a shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

“If you asked President Obama what the worst day of his presidency was, he’d say Sandy Hook,” said Souza. When his then-Homeland Security adviser John Brennan briefed Obama that 26 people had been shot and killed — including 20 first-graders — Souza said it was difficult for him to push the shutter. The president’s reaction to the news was not hard to decipher. “My interpretation of the president’s body language was that he was looking at this as a parent,” said Souza.

Credit: Official White House Photo by Pete Souza
President Barack Obama talks with John Brennan, Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism, about the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., in the Oval Office, Dec. 14, 2012


“The horror of putting your six-year-old kid on the school bus, kissing them goodbye for the day, sending them to what we all consider a safety zone and then the parents never see the children again because some crazy guy shot them to death. That accounts for his reaction in the picture,” Souza said. “A couple of hours later, he had to walk down to the White House press briefing room and he was nervous, worried perhaps that he would not be able to control his emotions when he went out to make a statement. And he couldn’t.”

Keeping Up the Pace

For Souza, who had been an official photographer for President Ronald Reagan as a much younger man, the secret to keeping up with President Obama’s breakneck pace was “a good diet and consistent exercise,” because he started at 54.

“If I wasn’t able to find the time to exercise, I would ride my bike to the White House (about eight or nine miles), which during rush hour didn’t take that much longer than driving. And I asked the Air Force One flight attendants to just not even put the dessert on my tray when we were served lunch or dinner on the plane,” he said.

As an aging boomer, Souza said the overseas trips were definitely the most challenging, both physically and mentally.

“My body doesn’t react well to time-zone changes, so I was always very sleep deprived on these trips. Then there was the challenge of not having the same kind of access [while traveling] that I was used to at the White House, which affected me mentally in that I wasn’t able to always make photographs where I thought I should be able to,” Souza said.

A Final Look Back

One secret to Souza’s success: maintaining a small footprint — a quiet camera and no flash, the closest he could get to being a fly on the wall. A year after leaving the White House, Souza doesn’t churn over missed shots or an incomplete visual history of the Obama years.

“I don’t have any real regrets in how I did the job; I gave it everything I had,” he said between stops on a book tour that has him racing from city to city, as well as overseas, speaking to audiences eager to soak up the Obama nostalgia.

Even after Donald Trump’s inauguration, Souza was still at work. He boarded Marine One, the helicopter that took the Obamas to Andrews Air Force Base outside Washington for their flight to a California vacation.

“As we headed to Joint Base Andrews, the pilot did a final fly-by over the White House,” Souza said. “As we passed over the executive mansion, the president said wistfully, “We used to live there.”

Credit: Official White House Photo by Pete Souza
Former President Barack Obama looks out the window of the Executive One helicopter over the White House after the swearing-in ceremony at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., Inauguration Day, Jan. 20, 2017

Richard Harris
By Richard Harris
Richard Harris is a freelance writer, consultant to the nonprofit iCivics and former senior producer of ABC News NIGHTLINE with Ted Koppel. Follow him on Twitter @redsox54.

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