Pete Souza has had two stints as White House photographer: 5½ years working for Ronald Reagan, then eight for Barack Obama. Talk about camera-ready bipartisanship. It’s working for Obama that’s the main concern of “The Way I See It.” The documentary opens Friday at the Kendall Square and several suburban theaters. It will also be broadcast Oct. 9 on MSNBC, which produced the film.
Souza, 65, was born in New Bedford and discovered photography as an undergraduate at Boston University. He went to Kansas for a master’s degree, worked for a couple of small papers there, then was hired by the Chicago Sun-Times. This led to that first White House job. Souza makes plain that while he didn’t share Reagan’s politics he liked and respected him. Which makes all the more striking his disgust with Donald Trump (we’ll get to that, the documentary certainly does).
At Nancy Reagan’s request, Souza was asked to be official photographer at her husband’s funeral. That’s hard to top as a vote of confidence. He was working for the Chicago Tribune at the time. When Obama was elected to the Senate, Souza was assigned to document his first year in office. The two men hit it off. “I wasn’t with him every day,” Souza recalls, “but I got to know him pretty well professionally.” Four years later, the offer came to work for Obama. “We’re going to have some fun,” the president-elect told him.
Fun may not have been quite the right word. “Imagine trying to take a sip of water from a fire hose that never shuts off,” Souza says of the job. “If you really want to document the presidency for history, you have to be there all time.” It’s hard to imagine a more demanding job — there’s no Camp David for the White House photographer — but it’s also hard to imagine a more exhilarating one. That exhilaration very much comes through in the documentary. Looking at the various photographs and film clips, we are there. Imagine what it was like for Souza, being there all the time.
“The most interesting part of my job was seeing him in all these different compartments of his life,” Souza says of Obama. We see those compartments: chief executive, politician, husband, father, national consoler, even basketball player and coach. Also matchmaker. There are many good anecdotes in “The Way I See It,” but the best may be how Obama “badgered” Souza — that’s how the photographer puts it — into marrying his longtime girlfriend. The wedding was held in the Rose Garden, with Obama officiating. No, Souza didn’t take the wedding photos.
Souza has become far better known since Obama left office. He’s had two best-selling books of his Obama photographs. More than that, his Instagram account has 2.3 million followers. Souza regularly posts photos from his Obama tenure in response to things Trump has said or done. This means he has not lacked for inspiration. Since leaving the White House," Souza says, “I made this conscious decision that I couldn’t not say something: that I couldn’t not speak out.”
To describe the contrast between Obama and Trump — not just political, but moral, personal, intellectual, physical, and let’s not forget racial (Trump certainly doesn’t) — is . . . well, maybe the best place to begin is the now-famous Souza photograph of Obama bending down to let a 5-year-old touch his hair. Does Trump allow even Vladimir Putin to touch his hair? But precisely because the gulf between the two presidents is so vast, it becomes all too easy to belabor it. Which is what “The Way I See It” does. It doesn’t help that the documentary is about 20 minutes too long and pours on the musical score like too much syrup on too few pancakes.
“The Way I See It” begins with Souza telling a lecture audience that he’s going to be throwing some shade. (“Shade” is the title of one of his books.) So we can’t say we weren’t warned. But what’s best about the documentary is all that Obama sun. It’s hard to come by these days, even in retrospect. The shade, however, and what occasions it, is all too available.
THE WAY I SEE IT
Directed by Dawn Porter. At Kendall Square, suburbs. 101 minutes. PG-13.
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.