Almost everywhere President Barack Obama went, Pete Souza wasn’t far behind. During Obama’s eight years as president, Pete Souza served as the official White House photographer and says he took “close to two million” photographs.
Souza, who worked at the Chicago Tribune before following Obama to the White House, talked to Morning Shift host Jenn White about photographing the 44th president.
Jenn White: When did you begin photographing Barack Obama?
Pete Souza: I began with him on his first day in the Senate, so January 2005. He had just been elected as a freshman senator from Illinois. I was working for the Chicago Tribune, based in their Washington bureau, and I spent a lot of 2005 documenting his first year in the Senate.
White: Were you assigned to him specifically or was there something about him as a subject that was attractive to you?
Souza: Jeff Zeleny, who was a reporter in the Washington bureau, came to me after the election of 2004 and said, “Hey, we should do a project together on this guy Barack Obama, who everybody is projecting will be a national figure at some point in his career. Since we’re the hometown newspaper, let’s do a series of stories on his first year in the Senate.” So that’s how it came about.
White: How did you make the transition into becoming the White House photographer?
Souza: Well, that skips a lot — three years, four years — while he was senator and while he began his presidential campaign, [when] I got to know him fairly well in a professional capacity. He got to see how I worked, and so when he was elected in early January 2009, he — well, Robert Gibbs on his behalf — called me and said, “Do you want to do this?” And I said, “As long as I have total access, yes.”
White: Does “total access” really mean “total access”?
Souza: It does. Inherent with the job is that you receive a top security clearance, which I did, to enable you to be in the room — to paraphrase Hamilton — where it happens. To me, that was crucial if I was to truly document this presidency for history. I needed to be in every meeting, all the time.
White: How many photographs do you think you took during Obama’s eight years as president?
Souza: I think I came close to two million. I don’t think I quite crossed that threshold, but this past fall it was over 1.75 million, so I think I came close to two million but didn’t quite eclipse that mark.
White: Were you constantly snapping photos or were you really waiting for certain moments?
Souza: I think it’s a little of both. It depends what was going on. I mean, if he’s having back-to-back-to-back-to-back meetings, events, then I’m clicking away, looking for the right shot all day long.
If there’s a moment where he’s eating lunch by himself, that’s when I’ll go downstairs in the basement of the White House — which is where my office was — and grab lunch to go and have a minute to myself. But it was pretty much on the go from 9:30 in the morning — which is usually when he came down from the residence — until he went back upstairs sometime between 6:30 and 7:30. And then evenings were dependent on what events, if any, were going on.
White: Some of the pictures I think about in your work are these sort of spontaneous moments you captured with President Obama, especially as he was spending time with kids. Talk about those moments.
Souza: I always thought that I was photographing not just him as president, but him as a human being, what he was like as a person. And I think that you see that in some of these moments that you talk about.
White: What’s a moment you’re proud that you caught?
Souza: Well, hopefully I’m proud of a lot of moments. The picture of him watching the Bin Laden raid, which is actually — people say it’s my most famous photograph, and I think it gives a window for the public into what it was like to be in that room when that was unfolding — but yet you could contrast that with a picture of him sitting on the swings with Malia in the middle of the day, just having a conversation with his daughter. Those two pictures are so opposite, but they tell you, together, a lot about him.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity. Hear Morning Shift’s full conversation with Pete Souza on Friday at 9 a.m.
For more of Pete Souza’s photography, visit his website at www.petesouza.com.