Photographer Pete Souza stops in Atlanta as Obama book comes out

12:30 p.m Tuesday, Nov. 7, 2017 Go Guide
HANDOUT/White House Photo Office
Usually one of them was photographing the other. But in this photo on an official trip, Chief Official White House Photographer Pete Souza and President Barack Obama posed together with the nose of Air Force One visible in the background. CONTRIBUTED BY WHITE HOUSE PHOTO OFFICE

For eight years, Pete Souza was a full-time professional shadow, tucking himself into corners, twisting his body at odd angles and generally doing whatever was necessary to shoot 1.9 million of just the right photographs at just the right time.

And what does he have to show for all his hard work?

“I kept telling people, ‘Maybe President Obama wants to make a change, maybe he wants someone else to do this, I’m going to wait to have the conversation with him,’” Souza, in a recent interview, recalled about the period around the time of Obama’s re-election in 2012. “But we never did have it. I think he felt really comfortable with me being in the room.”

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
“Obama: An Intimate Portrait” features some 300 of the 1.9 million photos that Pete Souza took during his eight years as chief official White House photographer for President Barack Obama. Souza will be in Atlanta on Nov. 11 to give a talk at the Atlanta Photojournalism Seminar that will be followed by a book signing. CONTRIBUTED

That much is evident from “Obama: An Intimate Portrait,” whose 300-some photos show the president caught by an unseen Souza’s lens everywhere from the Oval Office and a White House elevator to sipping out of a coconut on a Laotian street and working, alone and grief-stricken, in an elementary school classroom before a memorial service for 26 shooting victims in Newtown, Conn.

Some of the photos became instant classics: Obama and others huddled around a conference room table on May 1, 2011, watching the daring raid that killed Osama bin Laden play out onscreen; the president bending down in the Oval Office in 2009 so that a 5-year-old African-American boy could touch his hair to see if it felt like his; Obama shaking hands with the bathrobe-clad future king of England, then-2-year-old Prince George, in 2016.

But many of the photos are less well known, and some — like one of first dog Bo climbing the red carpeted stairs to Air Force One, or another of the White House lit in rainbow colors to celebrate the Supreme Court’s 2015 decision to uphold same-sex marriage — don’t even show The Man himself. That’s by design, said Souza, who saw his role then and now as akin to being a documentarian.

“Most of my favorite photos are in the book, but some aren’t,” said Souza, who took only three one-week vacations over the eight years. “If you go through the book, there’s a lot of ‘That’s a cool photo’ that may not tell you anything about him, but it tells you about the presidency as a whole.”

It’s a special insight he began developing during his first go-round as a White House photographer. In 1983, during President Ronald Reagan’s first term, Souza was hired as one of the staff photographers who handled the myriad number of assignments that the chief or presidential photographer didn’t. After Reagan’s re-election, his chief photographer left, and for the next four years, Souza and his colleagues rotated the presidential gig among themselves.

Flash-forward to January 2009 and the start of the Obama presidency. Souza says the mission of the chief official White House photographer hadn’t really changed from the Reagan years — it was “to document the presidency for history” — but much else had. Everything was digital now, altering the work flow process and making photo sharing a truly small “d” democratic process on Twitter, Flickr, Instagram and the like.

“Just as the Kennedy administration took advantage of TV for the first time, the Obama administration took advantage of the explosion of social media,” Souza said.

As is tradition, President Obama left a letter for incoming President Trump. The letter contained four pieces of advice. First, create "ladders of success" for people willing to work hard. Second, continue "American leadership" worldwide. Third, protect civil liberties and democratic institutions. Fourth, make time for friends and family.

The other major difference was the comfort level that existed between perpetual subject and shadow. Souza was the Washington-based photographer for the Chicago Tribune when Obama arrived in January 2005 as a newly elected Illinois senator; he shot Obama for a series of articles during his first year in the Senate and later covered the beginning of his presidential campaign. It all gave him a huge leg up when both men arrived in the White House.

“I was determined to create the best photographic archive of a presidency in a way I couldn’t have done with President Reagan, because of the difference in our relationship,” said Souza.

That the relationship became even more than that is clear from the foreword, where Obama recalls the stories and laughs and “fiercely competitive card games” the two men shared — and the fact that when Souza married his wife, Patti, in 2013, “we held their wedding in the Rose Garden.” Obama even insisted on snapping a picture of Souza during a trip to Jordan, and that unofficial author photo is duly credited to him (“He’s as good as any other parent,” Souza said wryly about the former president’s photography skills).

Other people also felt close to Obama, something Souza thinks is reflected in his sold-out book tour dates and huge social media following.

“I’ve become the link between the photos of him and these people who may never get a chance to meet President Obama,” suggested Souza, who finds it “a little unsettling” being so well known. “Through me, they can relive the experience of the last eight years.”

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