As part of our Legends Of Photography series, this week Andy chats with Pete Souza, an award-winning photojournalist, best selling author, public speaker, social media disruptor, former Official Photographer for President Reagan and former Chief Official White House Photographer during the Obama Administration!
After eight years and nearly 2 million images documenting Obama’s presidency, Pete published two photography books that each debuted at #1 on the New York Times bestseller list. Obama: An Intimate Portrait was released in 2017 and became one of the best-selling photography books in history. He followed up in 2018 with Shade: A Tale of Two Presidents, based on the success of his behind-the-scenes shots and dry, witty Instagram captions juxtaposing the Obama and Trump presidencies. Last September, Pete released The West Wing and Beyond: What I Saw Inside the Presidency, providing a stunningly-close look into historical moments, decisive actions, traditions and daily life in the White House administration.
Pete began his career working for two small Kansas newspapers. He would go on to serve as a staff photographer with the Chicago Sun-Times before working in the Reagan White House, freelancing around the world with National Geographic and then returning to the Obama White House in 2009. He currently freelances on political campaigns for his Instagram and in human interest articles. Pete has been through and seen it all, and documents it with incredible sensitivity, creativity, and attention to detail. In 2021, Pete was inducted into the International Photography Hall of Fame.
Hear Andy & Pete discuss professional sports teams visiting the White House, Obama’s 49th birthday pickup game with the like of Kobe Bryant & LeBron James, getting to know Obama & gaining his trust, Pete’s approach while documenting some of the toughest moments in history, being in the line of fire in active war zones, Obama’s final day in office, starting his “Shade” book and Instagram campaign, Pete’s new book “The West Wing and Beyond: What I Saw Inside the Presidency,” his Rose Garden wedding, Bruce Springsteen and so much more!
Other Topics Discussed in this Episode:
5:10 White House visits by championship sports teams, including Pete’s beloved Boston Red Sox
6:49 As President Obama celebrated his 49th birthday with an NBA star-studded pick up basketball game, Kobe Bryant and Bill Russell were having their own one-on-one
“He invited a bunch of NBA players to play basketball with him before he had his barbecue at the White House. And so like Chris Paul was there, LeBron was there. Now Kobe was injured at the time so he didn’t play, but he came. And he sat in the stands. And there were only a few, less than 50 people, watching this game with all these NBA stars…President Obama, President Obama’s high school friends and former teammates. And what was interesting is Kobe sat next to Bill Russell the entire time, and those two were chatting almost the entire (game).”
10:35 How Pete is able to gain trust and access to document his subjects
“You’ve got to learn that you’re there, as an observer, you’re there to visually document. You’re not there to be a participant. And also, you’ve got to be able to know when the guy might need some space, you know, and that’s just the sixth sense… (Obama) talks about me a little bit in his memoir that I had this knack of being able to almost be invisible, in the room…Even when he was in the Situation Room during the bin Laden raid. It’s almost as if I became part of the presidency. And it’s, that’s something that I don’t know, that you can teach. It’s something that you just have to learn how to do. And I think for me, it sort of fit my personality.”
18:29 The delicate balance of when to photograph sensitive and historical moments and when to maintain privacy
27:07 The final days of Pete’s tenure in the Obama White House
30:28 How Pete decided to start “throwing shade” on Instagram
“One of the first photos I posted post-White House on my now, you know, personal account was a picture of him, President Obama, sitting on the edge of the Resolute Desk. And in front of those big huge windows with, he had these kinds of red curtains. And this is after seeing a photo of the redecorated Oval Office in gold… And I just said something like, “kind of like the old curtains better.” And obviously, it was a play on the Trump Oval Office. And I didn’t know whether people would get what I was, you know, the double meaning of what I was saying. And they did, they were like, “oh Souza’s throwing shade.”…As things progressed, over those first few months, I would do these kinds of humorous captions, that didn’t really refer to exactly what was going on. And you had to be keeping up with the news to understand it.”
38:26 Pete’s ability to get the “perfect angle” and composition in his photos
41:09 Bruce Springsteen
43:00 Pete’s wedding in the White House Rose Garden officiated by President Obama
44:20 Pete clarifies his future opportunities as a photojournalist
“I have gone way beyond the bounds of what you know, journalists do in terms of letting my views be known politically. And the realization is Time magazine or the New York Times is not going to hire me for an assignment, especially a political assignment. So, that’s what I’m talking about. Am I still doing things photo journalistically? Absolutely. I mean, I’ve spent some time with Mandela Barnes, the guy that was running for Senate here in Wisconsin, photographing him journalistically for my Instagram, you know, because I feel like I’m my own little publisher now… I did a story for Howard University, on the university president who’s also a cancer surgeon. That’s in their current alumni magazine…In terms of covering politics for a publication, I don’t think that is in my cards, if you will.”