Pete Souza took nearly 2 million photos of Barack Obama during the eight-year presidency. From high-stakes moments like the Bin Laden raid, to Obama’s meetings with world leaders, to tender moments between the first family… Souza was always there.
Now he’s out with a photo book, “Obama: An Intimate Portrait,” which includes more than 300 images.
Souza became the White House photographer when he was 54. He told Press Play that the role was a great privilege, but the daily grind took its toll. “It was just the 24/7 aspect of this job, where even if you weren’t at the White House, you were always monitoring everything that’s going on because you didn’t know when you might have to come back in.”
Souza first met Obama in 2005. “When I was photographing him as a senator, in the back of my mind, I was thinking okay, some day this guy is gonna be a national leader. He may even run for president. He may even be president.”
In the foreword to the book, Obama wrote that he spent more time with Souza than anyone else other than his family.
Did Obama ever tell Souza, “Don’t take pictures of this?” Souza said he couldn’t remember such a time.
Souza recalled that Obama said this photo — of him being zapped by 3-year-old Nicholas Tamarin, the son of a White House aid, on Halloween 2012 — was his favorite. “And it was like two days later when he saw one with Sasha and Malia, and he’s like, well that’s my favorite photo. So any time he saw a really nice photo that included Sasha and Malia, that was always one of his favorites, and it kind of continually changed.”
Souza recalled being in the room during the raid on Osama Bin Laden’s compound. “You have the president, the vice president, the chairman of the joint chiefs, secretary of state/defense, representatives from the CIA … the chief of staff Bill Daley was there. So you’ve got the most powerful people in our government are all in that room at the same time. And unlike any other meeting, they could not affect the outcome. Because they had already made their decision to launch this raid in the days and weeks before. And now they’re all gathered to see how it’s gonna play out with those guys on the ground. And it could have gone terribly wrong. And they were helpless to do anything about it. And I think that’s what leads to this tension and anxiety on their faces.”
When Obama shook hands with Trump after the inauguration ceremony this January, it was a symbolic transfer of power, said Souza.
Obama’s face might have come off as grim in that photo. But Souza didn’t see it that way. “Obviously he wished he had been shaking hands with Hillary Clinton. That’s what we all thought was gonna happen, including possibly the person he’s shaking hands with. But it didn’t turn out that way, and I think he was trying to not say or do or act in any way that was disrespectful to the incoming president.”
On Instagram, Souza kept up with Trump after the inauguration. Whenever Trump did something controversial, Souza posted a photo of Obama in a similar situation. Was Souza trolling Trump? “I had no grand strategy. It was more accidental than anything,” he said. “I think I’ve been subtle, respectful, playful. Especially when you compare it to the comments that some people make on Twitter.”
This became one of Souza’s favorite photos — taken during a reception for African American History Month. “I saw this little kid standing in front of the rope line… When the president came over, for a one brief second, he touched his face. Then the president bent down and looked Clark in the eyes and said hi to him, tried to straighten his tie a little bit. And I have that whole sequence. But that first picture before he bent down caught my attention. And I thought that was the moment.”
Souza also made a big print of the photo to send to Clark, and Obama signed it. “He wrote something like, dream big dreams, you’ll do great things in the world.”
Could this boy grow up to be president? “That would be something, wouldn’t it?” Souza said.