If, when you hear the name “Pete Souza,” the only images that come to mind are of President Obama bowing to let a young Black boy touch his hair or watching intently in the tension-drenched Situation Room as the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound goes down, you’re not getting the whole picture.
Visit his website and you’ll see shattering photographs of the war in Afghanistan and portraits of its people. Review his Instagram feed and you’ll find arresting shots of singer/songwriter Brandi Carlile and the recent lunar eclipse, as well as the acerbic shade posts that helped lift him to a following of 3.1 million.
However, the focus of the photojournalist’s Dec. 8 presentation at the Zeiterion Performing Arts Center in New Bedford will be images from his new book, The West Wing and Beyond: What I Saw Inside the Presidency, and the stories behind them.
Souza grew up in South Dartmouth, the son of the late Alfred and Lillian May Souza. When he was 12, the family moved from Smith Neck Road to Middle Street.
A graduate of Dartmouth middle and high schools, Souza enrolled at Boston University to earn his bachelor’s degree in public communication. He also holds a master’s in journalism and mass communication from Kansas State University.
While the Dartmouth native has spent decades working and living far from the South Coast and now resides in Madison, Wisc., his hometown still resonates with him.
Souza began his career at small newspapers in Kansas. His resume includes several years as an official photographer in the Reagan White House, stints at the Chicago Sun-Times and Chicago Tribune, and eight years as the chief White House photographer during the Obama administration. He also has freelanced for publications such as LIFE and National Geographic.
There aren’t many people who can say the president of the United States has described them as “a friend, a confidant, and a brother,” as he wrote of Souza in the foreword to Obama: An Intimate Portrait, published on Election Day (Nov. 7), 2017. The book became a New York Times bestseller, a ranking subsequently achieved by his Shade: A Portrait of Two Presidents. A 2008 book, The Rise of Barack Obama, also made the list.
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Winner of numerous prestigious photojournalism awards, Souza has lectured and exhibited nationally and internationally. In April 2019, New Bedford Art Museum/ArtWorks! and the New Bedford Historical Society presented a solo exhibition titled Obama: An Intimate Portrait, A South Coast Look into The White House Photographs by Pete Souza.
The Critics’ Choice Documentary Awards named Souza most compelling living subject of a documentary for The Way I See It, a 2020 film that chronicled his experiences as official White House photographer.
During the eight years of the Obama administration, Souza had unprecedented access, and made nearly 2 million photographs over the course of a remarkable 25,000 hours of shooting.
New Bedford Light: When did your interest in photography begin?
Pete Souza: I didn’t take a photo class until my junior year of college, so that’s when it first developed — no pun intended. But looking back at my early life, clearly, I was fixated on photographs, even at a young age … there were instances when I cut pictures out of the newspaper that got my attention. I would tape them to the closet door in my bedroom, and I would look at magazines and books to look at the photographs. So evidently, I was always a visual person. I just didn’t know it.
NBL: Since you are semi-retired, does it feel odd to not have a camera in your hand all the time? It must feel like a physical extension of yourself.
PS: In many ways, I still have a camera. Although I’d say 50% of the time it’s my iPhone and it’s in my pocket. I’m still making photographs every day, either with my iPhone or — I mean, I still get out and photograph. Just this week I was photographing a couple of campaign events locally in Madison, and I was out photographing the lunar eclipse at 4 o’clock in the morning the other day. So I’m still out there making photographs. I’m sort of my own publisher, on Instagram — that’s really my main outlet for my photography.
NBL: Professional photographers talk about “making” photographs, not “taking” them. Can you explain what the distinction is?
PS: I think that terminology comes from [famed wilderness photographer] Ansel Adams, which was the way he described what he did. Now obviously, his genre of photography was completely different than mine, in that he was doing black and white landscapes, and perfecting his photographs in the darkroom.
But for me, I think it’s just a way of catching people’s attention, and having them ask me, “Why do you say that?”. I want people to realize that there’s actually some thought to the photographs that I make, that it’s not just randomly shooting pictures. I’m out there actually thinking about my composition, my framing, when exactly to click the shutter, and that there’s a thought process to it. So that’s why I use the word “make” rather than “take,” which sounds a little thoughtless — the word “take.”
NBL: What do you think is the most impactful photo that you made of President Obama?
PS: It’s impossible to narrow it down to a single photograph. I mean, for me, especially working with essentially one main subject for eight years, my whole thing was trying to create the best body of work and show a series of photographs throughout his presidency that show what kind of a human being he was, and obviously, also a president.
As a White House photographer, you’re photographing your main subject in all these different compartments of his life — whether it be in the Situation Room, on vacation with his family, attending a state dinner, the ceremonial aspects of the presidency, stressing over a decision — and for me to choose just one photograph is not possible.
NBL: What are you most looking forward to when you come to the South Coast for your Dec. 8 program at the Zeiterion? You haven’t lived here for decades, but there must be some things you still miss.
PS: I miss the beach — we sort of grew up on Round Hill Beach, which at the time we lived on Smith Neck Road, was a private beach. But the owners had given all of us that lived on Smith Neck Road an honorary pass, if you will, to use the beach. I grew up on that beach, and now it’s owned by the town … so I miss Round Hill Beach. It meant a lot to me in my growing-up years. And now I can’t go [laughing] because I’m not a resident of Dartmouth, which is too bad.
There was also a place that we called “The Can,” which was Salvador’s ice cream [stand], right across from Smith Neck School, where I went to first and second grade, and I guess now it’s closed. But that was always, anytime I would come visit my mom, we’d make a trip to Salvador’s.
NBL: We’re a couple of days past the midterm election. What are your takeaways?
PS: Only that, you know, never trust the prognosticators to tell you how people are going to vote, because clearly the result of this election was completely different from what everyone was saying it was going to be. I was always a little bit more optimistic than most. …
Nationally, I was sort of pleasantly surprised that it looks like the Democrats are going to hold the Senate and will lose the House by a little bit, but not a lot. So it shows that even though the country is struggling with high inflation, that people are concerned about the state of our democracy and some of the recent Supreme Court rulings, especially on the abortion front. That is foremost in people’s minds as well, not just inflation, which is a world phenomenon, not just in the U.S.
So I think it also means nationally that there is less and less interest in Donald Trump. He still has significant support within the Republican Party, but that is starting to dwindle as well. … I think it’s healthy for our country that enough people realize that our democracy is in a state of peril, that we can’t let the people who deny that Joe Biden won the election be those people that are in power.
NBL: Having worked several years with President Reagan, how do you think he would react to the GOP of today?
PS: It’s hard to speak for someone who’s no longer with us, and has no longer been with us for almost 20 years … I think he would be very dismayed at what’s happened to the Republican Party, to be honest with you. I have a lot of colleagues [that were political appointees] that I worked with in the Reagan White House … most of them are totally against everything that Donald Trump stood for. And they express that Ronald Reagan would never have gone along with what Donald Trump has done to the Republican Party.
NBL: I imagine that you started your newspaper career developing your own film. Digital photography has changed the playing field. During your eight-year tenure with President Obama, you shot about 2 million photos. How does that compare with your production during the Reagan years (1983-‘89)?
PS: There was definitely a lot less. I don’t think it was due to the fact that it was film, not digital. It was more because I was not the chief photographer, and the access to Reagan wasn’t quite as good as it was during Obama, and quite frankly, Reagan just did not do as much as President Obama.
With President Obama, I was there literally every day for eight years, whereas with President Reagan, I was there most days, but I was not there every weekend and at night, and it was not all-in like it was with President Obama.
NBL: Official White House photos are in the public domain. How can people access them?
PS: It depends on the photograph. Some of the photos are already online at the National Archives [catalog.archives.gov], and they are easy to download. There are some that you have to make a special request for.
NBL: Do you sometimes have to pinch yourself to believe you were present for so many consequential moments in our recent history?
PS: For sure.
Joanna McQuillan Weeks is a freelance writer and frequent correspondent for The New Bedford Light.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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