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South Salt Lake Journal

Former White House photographer chronicles, shares inside the presidency

Jan 05, 2023 10:47AM ● By Julie Slama

While being chief photographer at the White House, Pete Souza captured personal moments of the presidents, including Barack Obama being a dad, shooting basketball with his daughters. (Julie Slama/City Journals)

When former White House photographer Pete Souza was in fourth grade, he taped a photo from the New Bedford Standard Times on his closet door. 

It was soon after the assassination of former U.S. President John F. Kennedy in November 1963 with Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson being sworn into the presidency with Jacqueline Kennedy by his side aboard a plane that would fly to Washington, D.C.

“For whatever reason, I was transfixed by the images that came out,” Souza recently told a standing-room only auditorium at Salt Lake Community College’s Grand Theatre. “There was something about the still image that even as an 8 year old, I was struck by enough so that I taped these pictures to my closet door. I know that the photograph taken by Army Capt. Cecil Stoughton, one of the two military photographers assigned to the Kennedy White House, became probably the most famous official White House photograph ever.”

Little did he know then that he found his future career. It took Souza enrolling in a photography class during his junior year at Boston University to realize “it’s what I wanted to do. It was magic to me.”

Souza, who photographed Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama during their presidencies, began his career shooting for the Hutchinson, Kansas newspaper. He moved on to the Chicago Sun Times, where amongst his assignments, he was to photograph the campaign of Harold Washington, who in 1983, became the first Black mayor of Chicago. 

That same year, Souza received a call from a former photo director at the Kansas City Star, where he was turned down for a job. She invited him to join the White House photography staff during the Reagan era.

“One of the things I used to tell my (Ohio University) students was, ‘don’t ever piss anybody off professionally because you never know how they’re going to help you some day,’” he said. “Being an official White House photographer was an amazing experience. Documenting the presidency for history, in a lot of situations, I was the only photographer in the room.”

He recalled covering Reagan when he greeted wounded Marines in 1983 after a terrorist attack in Beirut; watching the space shuttle Challenger explosion in 1986, all four summits with Soviet Union President Mikhail Gorbachev; the Iran-Contra scandal; at the hospital following his wife Nancy’s breast cancer surgery; and even, joining him on vacation.

“He and Nancy would go to Camp David every weekend and ride horses and here he is helping her from a horse,” Souza said as an image projected on a screen behind him. “The idea is that you’re making photographs, not for the next day’s newspaper, but for the National Archives. Every single picture that I made during both during the Reagan administration and the Obama administration are now at the National Archives.”

Souza not only took the photos of the serious moments of the commander in chief, but also, the lighter ones.

“I’m trying to humanize them as much as possible. This is Reagan at a hotel in Los Angeles,” he said referring to another image. “I walked into the hotel room where he was staying, and he was folding a piece of White House stationery into the shape of paper airplane. He looked up at me and he’s, like, ‘I’ll be right with you.’”

Then, Reagan flew his official White House stationery paper airplane off the hotel deck.

After Reagan left the White House, Souza freelanced for several publications, including National Geographic. Then, as a national photographer for the Chicago Tribune, Souza was among the first photojournalists to cover the fall of Kabul, Afghanistan after the 9/11 attacks; he did so by joining the local Northern Alliance soldiers and crossed the Hindu Kush mountains by horseback in 3 feet of snow. Also, while at the Tribune, Souza was part of the team who were awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 2001 for explanatory reporting on the troubled air traffic system.

In 2004, Souza served as the official photographer at Reagan’s funeral. It was during the flight from Washington, D.C. to Reagan’s final resting place in Simi Valley, California that he realized then he had never seen any pictures of JFK’s casket being flown from Dallas to Washington, D.C.

“Cecil made the decision not to be on the plane with JFK, but to take this film to a lab there in Dallas, get it processed, and get that picture sent out to the world. I can’t imagine trying to make that decision because my instinct would have been you got to be with the President on that plane. Cecil probably chose the right thing to do, but I don’t know that I would have been able to make that decision,” Souza said.

That same year, while working for the Chicago Tribune, Souza was documenting newly elected U.S. Sen. Obama. He recalled Obama’s first D.C. office in the basement of the Dirksen Senate Office Building, with no windows or anything on the walls. 

“People already were talking about that someday he might be a national candidate and I was like, ‘Man, this is going to be a great contrast photo if he ever makes it.’ The thing that struck me so much about that first day was that I’ve just met the guy, and I’m in his personal space, photographing as he’s having lunch,” he said, pointing out in his photograph that Obama’s young daughter Sasha was eyeing part of the uneaten sandwich. “It’s as if I’m not even there. He’s just more about his businesses. I’m about my business. For a photojournalist, that’s the kind of stuff that you want, right? Somebody who’s just going to do their thing while you’re doing it.”

Souza went on to become the chief official White House photographer. 

“I was able to say to him, ‘Look to do this job the right way, I need unfettered access’ and he agreed. My goal was to create the best photographic archive of a president that had ever been done,” he said.

Souza captured moments, which now the world can see on his Instagram posts.

He has moments that highlight the passing of the Affordable Care Act to same-sex marriage, from the president receiving the Nobel Peace Prize to Obama singing “Amazing Grace” as an eulogy for Rev. Clementa Pinckney, who was killed in 2015 in a Charleston church shooting. He also shared photographs of Obama touring the 9/11 Memorial Museum while under construction and visiting the firehouse where 18 firefighters died during the twin towers’ collapse.

Souza snapped historic moments.

He photographed Obama visiting Nelson Mandela’s prison cell in South Africa; reflecting at Martin Luther King Jr.’s memorial as the first Black president; sitting on the bus where Rosa Parks refused to give her seat to a white man; and joining in the 50th anniversary of the civil rights march in Selma, Alabama. 

Souza’s lens not only saw the occasions that marked Obama’s presidency, but also personal times, when Obama and his wife have a quiet moment in a freight elevator or intertwining their hands on a boat rail in the Gulf Coast. His photographs show the president playing in the snow with his daughters, intensely coaching daughter Sasha’s basketball team or getting zapped by a 3-year-old boy dressed for Halloween as Spider-Man—all which audience members chuckled at as stories were shared.

“I would use quiet cameras, usually one with a wide-angle lens and another one with a short telephoto lens. I had a knack for being unobtrusive. President Obama, in his memoir, says I had an ability to remain invisible. I don’t think I was invisible, but I think I was able to blend in so much so that I became part of the presidency. I could go right behind him and show things from his perspective and do it in a way not to disturb anybody,” he said.

Perhaps the first of two of the most emotional photos, Souza said, is when Obama and all the national security team were gathered inside a small room within the Situation Room complex in May 2011. Souza took a spot opposite of the officials who were watching a screen that showed Special Forces on the ground raiding the Pakistan compound of Osama Bin Laden, who claimed responsibility for the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

“You’ve essentially got all the most important people in the executive branch of our government all jammed into this room and there’s nothing they can do. They are powerless in this moment because it’s totally up to those Special Forces guys on the ground. You can imagine the tension and anxiety,” he said, recalling that Obama quietly took a place in the corner. “As soon as they had Bin Laden, and the helicopters lifted off from the compound in Pakistan, everybody started filtering through. The reaction was very subtle. There was no high fives, no cheering.”

A second poignant photo Souza shared was when Obama gave a hug to the Wheeler family who just lost their 6-year-old son Ben during the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting.

“The worst day (of Obama’s presidency) happened five weeks after he was reelected. That morning, John Brennan, his homeland security adviser, came upstairs saying there were reports of a shooting at a school in Connecticut,” Souza said, looking at a photo he snapped at the time of the president “reacting as a parent.”  

Before Obama spoke to the nation in the press briefing room, he took a deep breath and slowly exhaled. It was the first time Souza had ever seen him do that.

“I think he was worried he was going to lose his composure. Later that afternoon when he went up to residence, Malia had just come home from school. He latched on to her and wouldn’t let her go,” he said to a noticeable collective sob in the audience. 

As Souza looks back, and shares his first-hand account through books he published, talking and having his photographs been displayed globally, and being featured in the 2020 documentary, “The Way I See It,” he knows his experiences are making an impact on others as it did himself.

“I realize how lucky I’ve been when I look back and see how much I’ve been able to witness, especially considering I did get a D in U.S. history,” Souza said, adding that history lessons when he was in school lacked stories and pictures. “There were some days where photographing at the White House was like watching paint dry. But when things were happening, there’s no other place I’d rather be than documenting things as history is unfolding. That was a great honor and privilege to be there.”

During his visit, he also met with SLCC students where he gave the advice to “go out and make pictures every day because that’s how you’re going to get better.” Souza said that because he had been a photojournalist prior to the White House, he was able to “anticipate and recognize moments—and that’s experience more than anything.”

SLCC Humanities Associate Professor Claire Adams said students came to know Souza as a storyteller as well as a photographer.

“His conversation was really informal and came from the storytelling angle as well as the more technical questions from our photography students,” she said, adding that each student received an autographed copy of either his No. 1 New York Times bestseller “Obama: An Intimate Portrait” or his recently released book, “The West Wing and Beyond: What I Saw Inside the Presidency.” “It’s apparent that it’s the dignity of the office that he cares about, not politics. He highlights it through his eyes and through his literal lens.”

Adams said that her Honors 2100 Intellectual Traditions class had watched portions of the documentary preceding his visit and was reviewing his presentation.

“The theme of that class is storytelling specifically. Pete Souza is a really good resource to use in terms of artifacts that we look at in the humanities, such as literature, photographs, art, music. His photographs are definitely something I’ll continue to use in classes,” she said, adding that students and the community took advantage of seeing his “Obama: Intimate Portraits” display at SLCC’s George S. & Dolores Doré Eccles Art Gallery.

SLCC Provost for Academic Affairs Clifton Sanders also was drawn into Souza’s photography and storytelling.

“He was captivating,” Sanders said. “The way that he was able to chronicle history through the photographs and give a little bit of information that no one would know other than him being there in those moments. The pictures are very compelling, but the stories really give depth to the pictures. I just got a sense that he was the person for that time in history. He’s really down to earth. There are no airs about him. What you see is really what he’s like. I can really appreciate that the way he documented and is sharing the history for us all to gain insight and witness it through him.”

The annual Tanner Forum on Social Ethics, funded in part by the O.C. Tanner Co., has hosted about 20 speakers from journalists to scientists “to encourage the community to learn more about the world and encourage us to think more critically about issues,” Sanders said.