Pete Souza on the magic of photography, his New Bedford exhibit, and his old boss, Barack Obama
Pete Souza was a fly on the wall during Barack Obama’s eight years as president.
As White House photographer, Souza, a South Dartmouth native, captured American history: from the anxious moments of the raid on bin Laden to personal asides between the president and his family.
Even today, Souza — a Boston University alum — and Obama still stay in touch. “We text occasionally, usually about sports. He’s a White Sox fan, I’m a Red Sox. He roots for the Bears, and usually he’s rooting for whoever’s playing the Patriots,” Souza, 64, said with a laugh. “But I did get him to acknowledge that Tom Brady is the greatest quarterback of all time.”
In Souza’s 2017 book, “Obama: An Intimate Portrait,” Obama wrote in the foreword:
“Over the course of eight years in the White House, I probably spent more time with Pete Souza than with anybody other than my family… Over those eight years, Pete became more than my photographer — he became a friend, a confidant, and a brother… We broke up long overnight flights with fiercely competitive card games… Having Pete around made my life better.”
Now, Souza has selected 50 of his Obama images — a few never before shown — for an exhibit in New Bedford, that runs through June 16.
We caught up with the photographer recently.
Q: You took millions of photos of President Obama. How did you select these 50 for the exhibit?
A: I tried to choose some of the ones that have gotten lot of attention over the years — most of them were from my book — but there are like four or five that have never been [seen] in any books, or online anywhere. As time passes you start to look at pictures differently. [There’s] a good mix of images that show not just what he was like as a president, but as a person, as a human being.
Q: How did the exhibit come together?
A: Someone from the museum contacted me, and I was headed home to see my mom [Lillian], coincidently. And one thing led to another. It came together rather quickly.
Q: You fell in love with photography at Boston University, and later worked as a photographer at the Reagan White House in 1983.
A: Yeah, I took photo class my junior year. That was my first exposure, if you will, to photography. I knew right away I wanted to do it. It was magic. And you were in total control of the magic, all the way through the process.
[Working at the White House during the Reagan adminstration] was different obviously, and I wasn’t chief [photographer]. Reagan was an older guy, very formal, so the access wasn’t the same as it was many years later when I went to work for Obama. But it was a great experience. I had a front-row seat to history.
Q: What did you do between White House jobs?
A: For nine years, I was a freelancer in D.C., then for nine years, I [worked for] the Chicago Tribune in D.C. When Obama was elected to Senate, I met him in ’04, and documented his Senate [career].
Q: How did you get the Obama White House job?
A: They called me about a week after the election. I remember sending Robert Gibbs, his communications director, an e-mail that just said, “Robert, I’m interested. Pete.” That was it. Just put it out there that I was interested. They make the decision on many factors. And they knew me enough to make a decision without a formal interview or anything like that. Technically my first official day was Jan. 20.
Q: How did you like it?
A: The fact I’d known him for four years, knew how the White House worked, he and I already had this professional relationship. I think there’s an advantage to being a seasoned guy, not overwhelmed by the circumstances that you’re in. I was comfortable being there.
Q: What are some highlights?
A: The highlight was just doing the job. To be there. I never took days off, even if I was sick, I didn’t take sick days, because you never know when history is going to happen. The whole experience is the highlight for me.
A lot of the best pictures, or favorite pictures, are not necessarily from the historical events — they’re from the little moments that show you so much about the character of the guy, and how he related to other people. For me, that’s more valuable for history. The big history events, there are 50 photographers covering those. It’s the little moments, when I’m the only person there.
Q: Which ones stand out?
A: The stuff with his kids. There’s one where he’s walking from one meeting to another, and fist-bumping the custodian in the hall. One where’s he’s eating lunch at a bar in Minneapolis with someone who wrote him a letter.
Q: “Hair Like Mine” became a famous photo.
A: Yeah, as the administration was ending, that picture was bought up again and again. That was in May of ’09. Here’s this 5- or 6-year-old kid, touching the head of the President of the United States, who looks like him. But it shows you something about Barack Obama that at the behest of a kid he’d bend over and let him touch his head. Those are the pictures that really help tell the story of this president.
Q: Were there moments you weren’t allowed in the room?
A: Not really. I mean, I had a top secret clearance. I was allowed to be in these meetings where national security is being talked about.
The Bin Laden raid, that was tense and anxious. You’ve got the most powerful people in the executive branch of our government all gathered into one room at the same time. And there’s nothing they can do to affect the outcome. For 40 minutes they were helpless.
Q: Would you want to a White House photographer again?
A: No. It takes so much out of you. I’m older, I think someone younger needs to do it. I say all that, and who knows.
Q: Anything you want to add about your gallery show?
A: We live in very polarizing times, politically. And whatever people think of the policies of Barack Obama, I think the exhibit will show the character of the man, and the decency of the man.