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The Obama presidency through the lens of Pete Souza

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images/file

White House photographer Pete Souza snapping images of President Obama at the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2013, as the president met with family members of the victims and survivors of the 2001 attack on the Pentagon.

By Joseph P. Kahn Globe Correspondent 

Pete Souza first met Barack Obama, then a newly elected US senator from Illinois, in January 2005 while working as a Chicago Tribune photographer. And he covered him for the next two years. When the Obamas moved into the White House in 2009 they asked Souza to be their official photographer. Souza, who had worked inside the Reagan White House, took the job on one condition: having near total access to POTUS and his family. With that understanding, the South Dartmouth native and Boston University grad began capturing moments of behind-the-scenes drama and poignancy rarely if ever made public during previous administrations. Nearly 2 million pictures later, Souza, 62, had compiled a stunning visual record of the Obama presidency. Organized chronologically, around 300 of his most memorable photos are contained in his new book, “Obama: An Intimate Portrait,” published Tuesday by Little Brown. He will be appearing Nov. 18 at the Harvard Science Center in Cambridge to discuss it.

Pete Souza

President Obama meeting with Vladimir Putin at Putin’s dacha outside Moscow in July 2009.

Q. How important was having unfettered access?

A. The reality is, to be photographed every day all day long takes getting used to. So there was about a six-month period of adjustment. Still, I think Obama understood its value. Not necessarily for the then-and-now but for the future. Every picture I took will be stored in the National Archives. Years from now, people will be able to study his administration in detail and have this visual record too.

Pete Souza

President Obama with first lady Michelle Obama on a freight elevator heading to the inaugural ball in January 2009.

Q. To do your job effectively, did you rely more on your professional skills or interpersonal ones?

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A. Probably the latter. I’m a pretty good photographer but not the best in the world. Yet I feel I was absolutely the right person for that job. I knew [Obama] already. I’d worked in the White House before. I was the same sort of generation as him. I knew how to navigate that whole world.

Pete Souza

The president with Ella Rhodes, daughter of adviser Ben Rhodes, the day before Halloween in 2015.

Q. Did you and Obama become personal friends?

A. The first thing anyone in my role needs is the president’s trust. And vice versa. You don’t have to be friends. Our friendship was a professional one, based on my being in close proximity to him every day for eight years. I was probably in his presence more than anyone except his wife. Over time our professional friendship did morph into another kind of friendship, but I was not the kind of friend he invited out to dinner.

Pete Souza

The president at one of daughter Sasha’s basketball games in February 2011.

Q. Were you often asked to leave the room or put away the camera?

A. I operated more by intuition than anything. If he were having a one-on-one meeting with someone, I knew he wanted to keep it private. So I’d get the needed shots and bag out of there. Same with family events. I wanted to strike the right balance between documenting his family life and giving them all — especially the girls — the privacy they deserved.

Q. Any shots the Obamas wanted deleted?

A. No, they trusted me. For instance, although I photographed them opening presents every Christmas morning, those pictures have never been made public. Other fairly intimate family photos seen in the book are ones I showed him beforehand. Mostly he was looking out for the girls and wanting not to cause them any embarrassment.

Pete Souza

The president hearing about the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newton, Conn., from Homeland Security adviser John Brennan in December 2012.

Q. You do acknowledge times when you found it difficult to shoot, period.

A. Yeah. Look at the photo of [Homeland Security adviser] John Brennan telling Obama that 20 first-graders had been shot to death in Newtown. Obama reacted more as a parent than a president. He became emotional in a way I maybe hadn’t seen him before. Two days later, when we traveled to Newtown, he spent several hours with the families. That was really difficult to photograph. Working on the book, I drove to Newtown to ask one family if they’d allow me to publish one of these photos. They said they would be honored. Still, it’s a hard picture to look at. It brings up the worst moment of their lives. Incidentally, I’m still pissed at Congress for not enacting some basic gun legislation after something as horrific as that. Not to take guns away from people but to take guns away from bad people who have no business walking around with one. Shame on them.

Pete Souza

President Obama and his national security team monitoring the Bin Laden raid in May 2011.

Q. Any favorite images?

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A. I could say [the ones of him] playing with Sasha and Malia in snow in the Rose Garden. But that tells you one sliver of what he’s like as a dad. Or the picture taken during the Bin Laden raid. Again, that’s a historic day, but how much does that tell you about Obama the man? To pick out any one photo leaves out so much. So I try not to go down that road.

Q. On a personal level, what was the job like?

A. It was the culmination of my career. My goal was to create the best photographic archive of a president ever. Others will ultimately judge that, but I felt I did my best work.

Pete Souza

President Obama at the White House in October 2016.

Q. Compare working in Reagan’s White House to Obama’s.

A. Because I joined midway through Reagan’s first term, when level of access had already been set, I didn’t have the same relationship with him that I did with Obama. Also, Reagan was much older and not as active as Obama. So coverage was more one-dimensional. His whole administration was more formal, too. A schedule rarely changed. Traveling with Obama, it changed literally every day. Interestingly, the two presidents did have similar dispositions. Both were very even-tempered individuals.

Lane Turner/Globe Staff

Former White House photographer Pete Souza, pictured in September at Lippman House, the Nieman Foundation headquarters at Harvard.

Q. What reaction are you and the book receiving these days?

A. People only really know me from Instagram [where he has some 1.5 million followers] and the pictures I’d already made public there. That and the White House Flickr page. Now that I’m essentially reposting them as historic photos, it’s amazing to me that people react so emotionally. They have — not buyer’s remorse — but a longing for what we had for eight years. I think people now realize this president did a pretty damn good job. And that he was a good person, which they maybe see in my pictures, too. He wasn’t perfect. But I think people would take him . . . well, I won’t complete that sentence.


Interview was edited and condensed Joseph P Kahn can be reached at josephpkahn@gmail.com.