Pete Souza doesn’t like to get political.
So it shouldn’t come as any surprise that the man who spent the past eight years as the chief White House photographer for Barack Obama has universal advice for every White House photographer who succeeds him, including Shealah Craighead, who was chosen last week to be President Trump's official photographer.
“Earn the trust of the president and push for as much access as he will allow,” Souza said. “That is what will make the best photographs and that’s what the country deserves. You have to have trust and access. If you don’t, your photographs are going to be superficial.”
Souza would know. Of the about four million official pictures taken in the White House during the Obama administration, Souza took nearly half (all categorized and captioned, he noted). And some have become iconic, such as the image from the Situation Room on the night of the Osama bin Laden raid and the picture of Obama touching the cheek of a young African American child in the Oval Office.
Souza took photographs in the White House at the dawn of mobile photography and social media. The core mission of his job didn’t change, he said. But it did allow for some experimenting, such as launching a White House account on Instagram, which eventually garnered 750,000 followers. He also took photos with his iPhone to capture more casual moments.
“Ninety-nine percent of the time, I wasn’t even photographing the president,” he said. “It would be something I would see while I was waiting for something to happen.”
Those images added depth and color to a place normally known for its straight-faced decorum. There was the Easter bunny one day standing next to a Secret Service agent. On another day, the president caught a cold and had a cup of tea. Souza shot it sitting on the Resolute Desk in the Oval Office.
Looking back, Souza can’t pinpoint the single photo that will define Obama’s legacy. After all, he witnessed the president making major policy decisions, playing basketball, hanging out with his girls, and interacting with world leaders. History will decide what photos stand out.
But capturing the president in all of the big and small moments will help people understand the president not just as a leader, but as a person, Souza says.
“Image matters. It speaks to transparency. It speaks to who he is… Imagine if we had this kind of documentation of Lincoln’s presidency. For generations to come, people who didn’t live during the Obama years will be able to learn a lot about him by looking through this archive.”
Souza understood this long before he met Obama, given that he was also a White House photographer for President Ronald Reagan. The administrations had their differences, of course. Reagan was older, more formal, and Souza at the time was younger and less experienced.
That wasn’t the case with Obama. Souza had spent the four years prior to the Obama administration covering the then-senator. That working relationship meant Souza could request extensive access. It took some adjusting—so many photos almost every minute of the day—but eventually, the pair developed a rhythm and a trust between them.
After eight years, Souza asked Obama for a spot on Marine One to document his departure from Washington, D.C., leading to the notable shot of Obama gazing at the White House from the helicopter. In past years, he might have asked senior staff for approval, but for such a historic moment, Souza asked the president directly to guarantee his access.
One of Souza’s top challenges was to photograph without being intrusive. Camera choice played a role. Though the archive will include images taken by Nikon, Leica, Sony and Fuji equipment, Canon was Souza’s go-to for one simple reason: It was the quietest.
“It had nothing to do with the quality of the files,” he said. “The Nikon was very loud, and, to me, the kind of work that I was doing required the quietest possible camera.”
Photographing the president doesn’t only include happy moments. Such work included capturing images during darker times, such as the day of the Newtown shooting, when a Connecticut gunman killed 20 elementary school students and six adults.
“You could see how emotionally drained he was in that picture,” Souza said. “You can imagine him thinking about this not just as a president, but as a parent…. People ask me, ‘How could you take a picture in that moment?’ That was my job.”
It was a great privilege to have the opportunity to make photos of these times, Souza said. And it’s one he won’t ever do again.
“It’s a grueling job, emotionally and physically, and you sacrifice time away from your family,” he said. “You sacrifice a lot of normal life experiences. And I just cannot do it again—nor should I do this again. It’s time for other people to hopefully pick up where I left off.”