As the chief official White House photographer for President Obama, Pete Souza had top security clearance and sat in on most meetings and major events with the president.
“I was there all the time,” he says. “I wasn’t talking to [Obama] all the time, but I was always in every meeting and pretty much every situation that he had as president.”
Souza sought to minimize his presence at the White House by working with what he calls a “small footprint” — not using a noisy camera, not using flash and moving around gingerly. “I’m not sure if ‘invisible’ is the right word,” he says. “But I was certainly trying to be a piece of the woodwork.”
Over the course of Obama’s eight years in office, Souza estimates that he took approximately 1.9 million photos — sometimes more than 2,000 each day. His new book, Obama: An Intimate Portrait, is a collection of his favorites.
On being in the room for sensitive White House meetings
I had top security clearance, which enabled me to go into all these meetings, but I have to say that most of the top secret material is on paper. I was not privy to paperwork. I didn’t get memos and things like that.
When you’re a photographer in the room in these kinds of situations, you do hear conversations, but you’ve got so many things to worry about technically with the camera, and then hoping to capture the moment at just the right time, composition. You can get the sense of the conversation and the mood and the emotion, but, like, I couldn’t repeat verbatim conversations that took place, because, quite frankly, I wasn’t necessarily listening to all of the words — just trying to get the essence of what was taking place.
On photographing the Situation Room during the raid that killed Osama bin Laden
They were monitoring, in real time, the mission as it was unfolding. We were in that little conference room within the Situation Room for about 40 minutes, I think it was. And so during that entire time the mission was taking place in Pakistan and they were just monitoring it in real time.
The thing that strikes me about that photograph now is you have the most powerful people in the federal government — you’ve got the president, the vice president, the chairman of the joint chiefs, secretary of state, secretary of defense, and on and on and on — and they were essentially helpless. They had made their decision in the days and weeks before to launch this raid, but now it was up to those guys on the ground and there’s nothing they could do to affect the outcome, which I think helps depict why their faces are so anxious and tense — to just essentially watch as this happens right before their eyes.
On capturing the moment President Obama learned of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting
It’s very emotional, but I’m also worried about my composition and framing, so all these things are going through my head as this very difficult conversation is taking place.
I always tell people that in this moment he’s not reacting as the president of the United States. You see the body language. … He’s reacting as a fellow parent, just trying to imagine that you send your 6-year-old off to school — we consider those safety zones — and you’ve just learned that you’re never going to see that 6-year-old again because some crazy guy shot them to death.
On his photo of Obama rewriting his remarks for the Sandy Hook memorial service
This is two days after the shootings and they had planned this public memorial service. But before that, they had all the families gathered in different rooms and he went and spent I think it was three hours with all of these families. And then he came back into this classroom … and not only is he going over his notes, he is rewriting parts of his talk that he was going to give at this memorial service to incorporate what he had just experienced during those three hours visiting with these families.
I was struck by that classroom and the messiness of it, and that’s why I backed off to try to give people a wider sense of him alone in this room.
On his photo of a young African-America boy touching Obama’s hair
Jacob [the son of a White House staffer] in his shy voice said, “My friends tell me that my hair is just like yours.” And at that moment President Obama bent over and Jacob touched his head. The president said, “Go ahead and touch it.” And I snapped that one picture. I have one picture of this brief moment, and it kind of took on somewhat of an iconic status in years to follow. …
I guess what I see in that picture is two things: One is, here’s this African-American kid who is touching the head of the president of the United States, who looks like him. And I think a lot of young African-American kids probably could identify with that moment. But it also says something about President Obama that at the behest of this innocent question from this kid, that he was fine bending over to let this kid touch his head.
On his photo of Obama leaving the Oval Office for the last time
It’s one of the few times where I thought about the image beforehand. I knew he was going to walk out of that door, obviously. And I asked one of the [general services] workers if he had a ladder nearby that I could borrow so that I could get up high, high angle, and with a very wide angle lens try to show as much of the Oval Office as possible as he’s walking out the door.
On his Instagram account, where he often posts photos of Obama in response to news about President Trump (which some people interpret as trolling Trump)
I think for the most part what I’ve tried to do with my current Instagram feed is display public domain photos and be somewhat subtle and respectful in the words that I write. I think people can interpret them [however they want to]. … When somebody first wrote a story about “throwing shade” I actually had to look that up because I really didn’t know what it meant. … I kind of laughed, I guess.
I’ll say this: I do think that compared to what some people write on Twitter, I’m being very respectful in the way that I present my Instagram feed.
Sam Briger and Thea Chaloner produced and edited the audio of this interview. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Nicole Cohen adapted it for the Web.
Copyright 2017 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.