“It was a great privilege to document history every day,” says Pete Souza of his renowned role as chief official White House photographer for President Barack Obama. When, after closely documenting Obama’s time as a senator for the Chicago Tribune, he was tapped by the president for the White House position, he set a significant but straightforward goal for himself: “Create the best photographic archive of a president that has ever been made.”
Striving toward that objective was a massive commitment. It was a physically and mentally demanding, eight-year, 24/7, 365-day-a-year position where “You’re always either there or on call,” he says. But his hunger to capture every large and small moment of a historic presidency fueled his work. Souza, who also served as official White House photographer for the Ronald Regan presidency, continues to share his trove of White House photographs with a devoted Instragram following.
In January, to honor Souza’s long, inspiring career, PPA will present him its Lifetime Achievement Award at Imaging USA. To mark the honor, Professional Photographer asked Souza, who’s also worked as a newspaper and freelance photographer over the decades, to highlight some images from his career that have impacted his development as a photographer and have been significant to the world at large.
TELLING THE STORY
One of Souza’s first jobs out of graduate school at Kansas State University was as a staff photographer at The Hutchinson News. “It was small-town Kansas,” he explains, “not a lot of news goes on.” An assignment to document a huge building fire was significant for Souza, and he set to work capturing dramatic shots of the firefighters at work. Two noteworthy things happened during the assignment, says Souza: One, he reached out to the Associated Press because he thought his dramatic firefighter photo should be shared on the wire service. “The photo editor in Kansas City was like, ‘Well, how many people died?’ And I go, ‘Well, nobody died.’ And they go, ‘Well, then we don’t want the photo,’” he says. Two, one of the more seasoned staff photographers climbed up to the roof of a neighboring building and captured a striking overview above the fire ravaging the building. “It showed much better what had happened than my closeup picture of the firefighters,” Souza says.
Impact: He learned two lessons: When you’re documenting a story, you must account for news value. In addition, “Your job is to tell the story with visuals, and sometimes that means stepping back a ways.”
While working at The Chanute Tribune in Kansas, Souza was dispatched to photograph a factory fire. The owner of the factory, who was standing outside watching the blaze, became incensed that Souza was documenting the inferno. When Souza wouldn’t stop snapping off shots, the factory owner drew back and punched Souza in the face. “I had a wide-angle lens on,” Souza says. “You can see half of his fist in the foreground.” He later learned that the owner had allegedly set the fire himself to collect insurance money.
Impact: “Not everybody likes having their picture taken,” says Souza. “It was a lesson in how some people view the media.”
After working for small-town newspapers in Kansas, Souza landed a staff position at the Chicago Sun-Times. During his tenure, he made photos for a story on the city’s homeless people, which included a candid portrait of a 20-year-old man who’d been living on the streets. The portrait, which ran with the story, had two effects: One, the father of the young man saw his son’s photo in the paper and reached out to newspaper staff, who were able to reunite him with the child he’d lost track of. Two, the story ran at about the same time as the city’s mayoral election, and the problem of homelessness became a central issue that politicians were asked to address.
Impact: A powerful portrait can have a significant effect on individuals’ lives as well as local politics.
PERSONAL LIVES BEHIND PUBLIC FACES
Souza landed a position as official photographer for the Reagan presidency when the White House photo editor, who’d previously been the director of photography at the Kansas City Star, asked him to apply. “I had actually applied for a job to work for her [at the Star], and she didn’t hire me,” he chuckles. “But unbeknownst to me, she was keeping track of my career.”
A photo that stood out to Souza during this first White House tenure was one he made of the president and first lady after Nancy Reagan underwent surgery for breast cancer. “President Reagan one day after work took the helicopter from the White House to the Bethesda Naval Hospital to visit his wife,” Souza explains. “I have this picture of him coming into the room, and there she was in a hospital bed, and he is giving her a kiss. It’s just a pretty intimate picture of a guy visiting his wife in the hospital and having this intimate moment, and it just so happens that it’s the president and the first lady,” he says. The photo demonstrates the personal access sometimes afforded to a White House photographer.
Impact: The photo was made with a 35mm lens, so Souza was not at a distance. He was in their personal space, but not for long. “In a situation like that, you grab the moment and then they start having a conversation … and you back away,” he says. “This was a valuable lesson in being able to capture the intimate moment but also being intuitive and aware of letting them have some privacy after that.”
COMPOSING IN CAMERA
Souza was a freelance photographer for roughly nine years before he began working for the Chicago Tribune covering Barack Obama’s tenure in the Senate. During that time, he had several assignments with National Geographic that challenged him to improve his compositional skills. “This was back in the days of slide film, transparency film, and you were not allowed to crop your images” for National Geographic, something he often did in newspaper darkrooms. “That made me much more disciplined about the way I compose a picture in camera,” he says, as well as more thoughtful about light and color.
Even though it wasn’t made for National Geographic, Souza’s photo from 1995’s Million Man March—a silhouette of some participants at dusk as the rally was ending—was influenced by what he learned from the magazine. “I don’t know that I would have made that picture had I not had that experience with National Geographic,” he says, “and the way that I framed it and the way that I used the light and the color palette for that image.”
Impact: He learned to compose shots in camera, taking into consideration both light and color.
SOME COMPOSITIONS MAKE THEMSELVES
Souza made many photographs during his eight years as White House photographer for Obama, but just one hangs in his home: an image of the president standing at the window of a day care center saying hi to four toddlers. “To me it says so much about Barack Obama,” says Souza, “and it says so much about who we are as a people. And it’s actually not really a picture of him. It’s really a picture of these kids.”
The photo was made when Obama attended an event at his daughter’s school. As he was heading back to the motorcade, he spotted the children in a window that had been propped open and told Secret Service that he wanted to go say hello—“You know, that was a Barack Obama kind of thing to do,” says Souza. The children were too young, just two or three years old, to know who the president was but were curious about the commotion outside. “And it just so happens that you have an African American kid and an Asian kid and a white kid, and it shows the melting pot that our country is. The photo is taken from behind [Obama], so you just see the back of his head and you see the curiosity of these kids.” The image was made in 2011, and one of the kids recently reached out to Souza to ask if he, the other kids, and Obama could recreate the photo. “So maybe that is something we could do down the road,” says Souza. “That would be fun to do.”
Impact: Sometimes a composition comes together to say so much.
A MOMENT IN TIME
Because of his age and health conditions, Souza hasn’t been able to fully document the COVID-19 experience, he says, but he did cover a few 2020 protest rallies in his hometown of Madison, Wisconsin. One photo in particular reflects this period of time in our country, he says: It was made about a week after the 2020 presidential election when former President Donald Trump made a push to claim the election was fraudulent. In the photo, an unmasked Trump demonstrator screams directly into the face of a masked Black Lives Matter demonstrator. “To me, it just embodies everything about this time and the reckless disregard of someone during a pandemic ignoring every possible precaution and showing almost vile on her face.” The election fraud signs in the background and the racial differences between the two protestors further contextualizes the scene.
Impact: “It just embodies, I think, everything this country has been through in the last couple of years,” Souza says.
Amanda Arnold is associate editor.
Tags: documentary photography