By Christopher Borrelli
The crowd that filed into the International House at the University of Chicago already had books for signing, and their books were uniform and large. Pete Souza’s Obama: An Intimate Portrait is quite likely the most sought-after book this holiday. It’s a $50 slab of a thing. Yet this audience — students, young professionals, professors and South Side residents — carried one, two and even three copies at a time.
They sat and waited for Souza to arrive and discuss his time as chief White House photographer for President Barack Obama. They smoothed their copies across their laps, cuddled their covers. They sought Souza’s autograph.
The book, which distills the 1.9 million photographs that Souza took of Obama’s eight years in the White House down to about 300 images, is at once warm and nostalgic, worshipful and respectful, sad and wistful — in a sense, not so different from the framed JFK portraits that every day Americans hung in living rooms, right through the Nixon administration. Less than 12 months since Obama left office (indeed, the very moment he left his office is included), it also reads like a lesson in how fast things can change.
Depending where you stand, it’s a sci-fi dispatch from an alt-America, a sycophantic mash note, an unusually intimate history, an elaborate act of trolling a sitting president.
Or all of the above.
What is less debatable is that this is a portrait of a man who could be generous and inscrutable, competitive and aloof, inquisitive and playful — a politician who could show layers. So there is great admiration in the images: Obama writing a speech in an empty classroom at Sandy Hook Elementary School after the massacre in Newtown, Connecticut, Obama having a casual lunch with a struggling Minnesota woman who’d written to him, Obama speaking down to Vladimir Putin, Obama throwing a confident air-jab in his chief of staff’s office as he awaits a vote — even Obama as a junior senator from Illinois, in his tiny windowless basement office.
Souza was a national photographer for the Chicago Tribune when he first started following Obama in 2005. He was assigned to document the then-43-year-old rising political star’s first months in Congress. In 2009, he was asked to join the White House, as a combo historian/documentarian/family photographer. He had a single demand: complete access to the new president, 24/7. Which was granted. Souza knew his way around the place: He’d worked in the White House before, as a photographer for Ronald Reagan. Plus, the Obama administration would be the first White House to recognise the promise of digital accessibility — or at least, a highly selective illusion of such.
Nine years later, Souza, at 62, is something of a living reminder of the 44th presidency — in particular through his Instagram account (1.6 million followers), which since spring has delivered a regular dose of the Obama years, often pitched as not-so-veiled digs at the Trump administration. Trump signs an immigration ban; Souza posts Obama meeting a refugee. Trump has a testy phone call with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull; Souza posts an image of the former president and Turnbull sharing a joke.
For many of Souza’s admirers, watching with widening eyes as the current president dismantles the legacy of his predecessor, the account has became a daily affirmation.
A reminder of a (relatively) stable time.
At the University of Chicago — as with many of Souza’s book events — the room was predictably packed, every ticket snapped up, many having stood in line long before doors opened. David Axelrod, former Obama adviser (now director of the school’s Institute of Politics), floated past; Marian Robinson, the former first lady’s mother, arrived. A woman in the back sighed to a friend: Did she think Obama would make a surprise appearance? (He didn’t.) The next morning, Souza, a New England native, sat slumped in his hotel, flannel shirt over a Red Sox T-shirt, wrangling Wi-Fi, exhausted. The following is a condensed version of a longer chat.
You know, I heard a woman wonder out loud if Obama was going to be there and jump up on stage — almost like he’s the new Springsteen or Dylan.
No, he’s not travelling with me — and quite frankly, I hope he doesn’t show up at any event. I don’t get nervous doing this, but I would be if he were sitting in the front row.
When you started that Chicago Tribune assignment back in 2005, what were your initial thoughts about him? Did he seem promising? Someone who might stall out?
I was telling (Axelrod) last night that in 2004, as Obama made his big speech at the Democratic National Convention, I was travelling with John Kerry. I read a profile of him in The New Yorker. He seemed full of hype. But what surprised me the first day was how comfortable he was. It was as if I wasn’t there, and I was in some pretty intimate settings with him and his daughters. I remember he would do these Thursday breakfasts with Dick Durbin, and I went to every one for like six weeks. I remember, at one of them, this couple in the audience, who were there to see Obama. The woman said to her husband, “Who’s the other guy?” That was Dick Durbin. Obama was the rock star.
How different was shooting Reagan?
He was far more formal, and in his 70s, so he didn’t do as much.
Your goal then, you’ve said, when you started at the Obama White House, was to create the most comprehensive photographic archive of a president ever.
Yes, because I always felt that was what the job should be. Yoichi Okamoto, LBJ’s photographer, was the first to really document for history everything a president did. He’s the main influence on me. But he set the bar so high even photographers like David Kennerly, who did this for Ford, who many felt was one of the best — well, Ford only served 2 1/2 years, so not even Kennerly could be comprehensive. The Reagan archive? Pretty good, but access was bad, and he didn’t do a lot outside the office. Eric Draper did great with Bush (Jr.), but the Bush (Sr.) archive wasn’t that great.
Did you go into this job assuming, like other White Houses, much of what is recorded won’t be seen by anyone for many, many years — even for decades?
Yeah. I didn’t cover their campaign; I didn’t know their philosophy. I was thinking of history. There has been a tradition, since Nixon, in the lower floors of the West Wing, (photographers) hang work, but a lot is ceremonial. So I made a decision to show behind-the-scene stuff. That’s when the Obama digital team said the public needed to see these photos.
People give me credit for being social-media savvy. I was actually the holdout. I still thought I was doing this for history. It took five months to convince me to show (on Facebook, Flickr, etc.). I didn’t want them using photos for spin. Remember Obama took office January 2009, Instagram didn’t exist for another year. In 2011, the digital team wanted me to start an Instagram account in my name, not a White House account. They said people were identifying the pictures with me.
First thing I posted was the Air Force One seal. Second, the grapes on Air Force One. They had the freshest grapes. I wanted to establish this wasn’t someone in a situation room with an iPhone.
Did they ever ask you to delete anything?
You can’t. We had to live with it. According to White House attorneys, if it was online, you couldn’t touch it — it was public record.
How did you see your role? You were kind of a family photographer, kind of a documentarian, kind of a journalist, but not actually any of those things exactly.
That’s tough. My background is photojournalist. I didn’t change the way I approached a picture at the White House. But you would have an uproar from the photojournalism community if I had called myself one — which is valid. I was on the government payroll.
Actually, in 2013 the White House Correspondents’ Association filed a complaint with the White House that photographers were being excluded from covering events with the president — and the White House was just using your photos.
They do that every administration. The difference here is the Obama administration happened to fall at a time when social media exploded, and the White House took advantage of it. I happened to be the photographer. But I was (angry). I could not respond. I wanted to, I felt they made me the fall guy. Some former friends, they tried to bring me down.
I was not responsible for press access. The press office decided that, and the White House photographer will always get access the press doesn’t get. Because of social media, some images of events were posted, and they didn’t like that. Did they occasionally have valid arguments? Absolutely. There were situations they should have let the press cover, but what they were complaining about was 30-second photo ops.
Some of these photos are so intimate, I wonder how physically close you were? In those photos from the war room during the Osama bin Laden raid, for instance? Or when you’re shooting Obama in that classroom, writing a speech after a mass shooting, and you’re one of the only people there.
I used the quietest camera available, no flashes, but really when you’re doing it every day, people forget about you. And I was also selective in how many pictures I took.
A lot of people have called what you’re doing on Instagram trolling, but I wonder if you see it instead as maybe a kind of accelerated nostalgia?
I think people do. There is an argument I should have waited five, 10 years to do this book. If I am still around in 10 years, maybe there is time to do a second book, and I would bet things may look differently with the perspective of time added. I did a Reagan book four years after he left office, and if I did one now, it would be different, with pictures I would have never included the first time. Things change, contextually.
When you approached Obama about the book and what it should look like, he told you to consider the aesthetics of your shots over the narrative — why?
I think he truly liked the photography and was saying, you don’t need to show a photo from debt-ceiling fights — you don’t need to show everything. Just the best photos. I wanted a narrative. I wanted both. I wanted people to get the highs and lows. Remember, he’s writing his book too. So he’s going through the same mental process, of deciding what stories are worth telling. He also just has an opinion on everything.
Would you ever do this again?
No way. I’m worn out. I’m too old. Even if Hillary had won — well, she has a photographer she has worked with for years, but I wouldn’t have stayed to help out for even like more than a week. No, I had my shot, and it’s all consuming, it’s every Christmas, it’s every day. I don’t know (that) I want to shoot politics again. It will wear you out. — Chicago Tribune/TNS
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