Former Chief Official White House Photographer Pete Souza will talk about his new book, “Obama: An Intimate Portrait,” on Monday, Nov. 27, at the Moore Theatre.
Flipping through Pete Souza’s voluminous, 5-pound book of photographs, “Obama: An Intimate Portrait,” it’s impossible to get to page 200 and not stop, take in the image and feel a familiar, awful ache.
President Barack Obama is leaning against the back of the couch in the Oval Office — being supported, really — listening to Homeland Security Adviser John Brennan describe how 26 people, 20 of them children aged 6 and 7 years old, had been shot to death at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut.
Obama’s eyes are closed. And Souza is clicking away, trying not to cry.
“I think it was the one time when I didn’t hold myself together and I don’t think he did, either,” remembered Souza, the former chief official White House photographer who will talk about his book on Monday, Nov. 27, at the Moore Theatre. (The event is sold out.)
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“If you look at his body language, the energy had been drained from him,” Souza said of the photograph. “He’s the president of the United States, but he’s also a parent, and he’s imagining the horror of what it must be like to be one of those parents.”
On the next page, Souza has placed a photo of Obama hugging his daughter, Malia, in the private residence.
“He latched onto her,” Souza remembered. “That was pretty emotional to watch and I think it tells you a lot about him and how he was reacting to what had just happened.”
Souza, who had been the White House photographer for President Ronald Reagan, met and traveled with then-Sen. Barack Obama while working as a staff photographer at the Chicago Tribune. When Obama was elected, Souza went to Washington, D.C., with him.
“It was very much a professional relationship,” Souza said. “He knew how I worked. One of the things I said I needed to do this job the right way was to have access to everything. And there was no hesitation.”
But once in the Oval Office or The Situation Room, “The weight of the world was on your shoulders.”
It took a while for those who didn’t know Souza to get used to his presence, but over time, they saw that he had the trust of the president.
“They saw that I wasn’t obtrusive and that I wasn’t going to leak something, and they saw that I took what I did very seriously,” he said. “I was there for every meeting. Even the tedious ones. Because every meeting was important when you’re the president of the United States.
“I tried to move around and not interfere with what’s going on, but also capture the moment,” he said. “It’s an intuitive thing.”
In his photos, he tried to present “a narrative” of Obama’s presidency. What it was like to be there. The highs and lows. The weighty meetings. The behind-the-scenes moments when he held a staffer’s twins or fist-bumped a worker in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building.
“Those tell you a lot about him as a person,” Souza said. “Not big events or historic occasions. Just these little moments.”
He also tried to illustrate “the aura of the presidency”: Air Force One, the presidential helicopter or limousine, shot with the light, color and composition that captured what Souza called “the apparatus of the presidency and The White House.”
The book is temporarily out of stock on Amazon, and it may be because many people buy the book and page through it like a high-school yearbook, remembering what they see as better times. One writer called Souza the most unlikely vehicle “for opposition in the early Age of Trump,” beside Bernie Sanders, Paul Krugman and The New Yorker.
“I guess it’s a little bit of nostalgia,” Souza said, “and people may not like what is going on now. So it’s comforting to see pictures of the previous administration.”
It makes sense, then, that Souza has 1.5 million followers on Instagram, which he sometimes uses to make a statement — or a personal protest. On Aug. 30, for example, he posted a photo of Obama hugging a victim of Hurricane Sandy on the same day that President Donald Trump boasted about the size of a crowd in Corpus Christi, Texas, in the wake of Hurricane Harvey.
“I don’t know if they make statements,” Souza said of his Instagram choices. “My approach was to let it speak for itself. I think that I have been very subtle and respectful and sometimes playful in my posts. Especially when you compare it to what some people write on Twitter.”
He chose each of the 300 photos in the book from the nearly 2 million he took over eight years.
“There are a lot of pictures I left out of the book not because they were too intimate, but because I had to make choices, and balance the intimate moments with the more weighty meetings and big events.”
He felt it important to include a photo of the re-enactment of the March on Selma, for example.
Souza’s White House work is now in the National Archives, but it is also in the public domain. That is why some of his photos are included in New York Times chief White House correspondent Peter Baker’s “Obama: The Call of History”; and Mark Greenberg’s “Obama: The Historic Presidency of Barack Obama — 2,920 Days.”
Souza, 62, is married to a science teacher named Patti. They live in Washington, D.C., and have a daughter in college and a son in high school.
“I understood what I was getting into when I took this job, but I’m not sure my wife totally did,” Souza said. “You sacrifice a lot with the family. When I was home I was working very long days and then we’d go off on these foreign trips for five to 14 days on a fairly regular basis.”
He doesn’t miss photographing the president but does miss his former co-workers in the White House.
“That’s the hardest,” he said, “Leaving the people that you interacted with every day. Sometimes more than 100 people a day, in the mess or the Oval Office.
“And now I’m editing pictures by myself in the basement.”
Souza and Obama have gotten together five or six times and email here and there. They were slated to get together the following Monday at Obama’s Washington, D.C., office.
“I try not to bother him,” Souza said.
That just may have been the photographer’s greatest talent of all.