For eight years, during President Barack Obama’s two terms in office, photographer Pete Souza served as the official White House photographer. He captured the President’s every move. Every meeting, every overseas trip, every historic event—Souza was there with camera in tow, ready to document an undoubtedly significant presidency in U.S. history. Whether you realized it or not, all those memorable and now-iconic photos of President Obama were taken by Souza.
Last week, on August 3, I had the esteemed privilege of attending Adobe Presents: A Evening with Pete Souza—an event at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York—where Souza took the stage for a look back at some of his most notable work and a discussion about photography today.
The night began with cocktails and hors d’oeuvres at The American Wing of the Met. The wide, open space, illuminated by a beautiful skylight and lined with marble sculptures, welcomed guests to a refined evening to chat about art and technology, and how it has altered the course of creativity.
That evening, when Souza took his place at the podium in front of an eager audience, he shifted through slides of his work, stopping at each image to share his memories as a documentarian in each respective moment. His genuine admiration and respect for President Obama was palpable, as he shared anecdotes to complement the endearing and enduring photographs. He provided firsthand insight to the images we’ve all seen many times.
There was one image he accompanied with live commentary that was particularly memorable for me. It was for a photo of President Obama visiting Kenya, to which Souza looked at the audience and emphasized “Where his father was born.” It was an invigorating taste of the biting wit he’s won over 1.5 million Instagram followers with. A following he’s cultivated through embracing social media and offering an insider’s view.
After his slideshow, Souza sat down for a one-on-one interview with Adobe’s Director of Photography Product Management Tom Hogarty. They quickly dived into his relationship with the Obamas and how devoted he was to his job—side note: he only took 3 weeks of vacation and 3 three-day weekends over the course of 8 years!
“I don’t think that I’m the best photographer in the world. I think I’m a competent photographer,” he admitted. “But I think I was the right person to be Barack Obama’s photographer. We kind of have the same generation. I had established a professional relationship with him coming in. I spent a lot of time with him when he was a senator, so he got to know me and saw how I worked. He liked my pictures. He could see that I was truly trying to capture things as they happened, not do a hatchet job.”
He went on to add, “I think I tried to accurately portray what happened, what he was like. And I think ultimately, other people are going to have to judge how I did. Clearly, when you’re in that position, you’re not a photojournalist, but my background is as a photojournalist. I tried to approach documenting for history the same way.”
Despite his inability to shake his photojournalistic approach, Souza has proven to be a master adapter, especially when it comes to new media. Like most photographers from his generation, he started by working with film, and has made the leap to the digital world. “Every photographer that I know of, every professional photographer, uses Photoshop as a tool every day for every picture they take,” he told Hogarty with conviction.
Souza’s ability to wholeheartedly embrace the new is inspiring. It isn’t a case of “out with the old, in with the new” but more of a “there’s room for everyone at the table.” He’s even supportive of camera phones. In fact, on a recent trip to Italy, he shot almost exclusively with his iPhone.
“I took the bus into Verona and spent the day taking street pictures with my iPhone in a square format in black and white,” he recalled. “That was the way I thought. For like five hours, that’s what I did, was just trying to make square pictures. I was doing all kinds of funky stuff, I was doing pictures from the hip and kind of like grab shots. I was just having fun, trying to exercise my mind in that way, thinking in black and white, thinking square, thinking, ‘Okay, even though I have a regular camera around my shoulder, I’m mostly shooting with my iPhone.’ So, I’m trying to do those things when I can.”