It’s the last Tuesday of the last week of the Obama presidency and, already, the place is beginning to feel like a ghost town. It’s raining and a grey gloom pours in through the windows. The gates are blocked by trucks full of temporary fencing and Inaugural scaffolds. Much of the staff has already packed up and left and the few remaining West Wingers are doing the best they can, but clearly have their minds on the weekend and the freedom that comes with no longer being employed at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. But one staffer who is still very much on task is Pete Souza, the chief White House photographer, who has been by the president’s side since well before Obama became the leader of the free world. In fact, one might argue that Souza helped Obama become that imposing figure, the man who will go down in history as the first African American president, one of the most popular presidents of the modern era and, well, a guy who looked equally at home behind a podium and crawling around on the ground playing with toddlers. An interesting facet of the Obama Era is the simple paradox that Obama was both formal and casual, aloof and intimate. Souza’s photos captured that, and blended formal training with a knack for making the pictures that found viral acclaim online. If Obama was the perfect president for the Internet Era, Souza was the ideal person to launch the official White House Flickr and later Instagram. GQ spoke with him in the Old Executive Office Building on Tuesday.
Photography: Pete Souza | Author: Mark Hofman and Alex Residewww.gq.com
GQ: Some people might be surprised to know that you were a White House photographer first during the Reagan years and then again with President Obama. How has the White House changed and how has Washington changed?
PS: The White House itself has not changed that much. I mean, the Oval Office is still the Oval Office. It’s exactly the same, the way it was. So when you walk around the White House it’s sort of like, you know, if you return home after 20 years you still remember how to drive out to your grammar school. I remember the first couple of days, President Obama came to me saying “How do I get over to the EOB?” or “Where’s the Cabinet Room again?” And then finally on like the third day I just said, “Sir you’re on your own.” I was just joking, but anyway, the White House itself hasn’t changed that much. But everything else has.
On a technical level, did digital photography increase your output? You’ve said you’ve taken around 2,000 a day average, or something like that.
I actually don’t think I shoot that much, because I’m not a motor drive kinda guy. So everything is kinda single frame. I don’t know even if I had been shooting film this administration that I would have shot any less. I don’t feel that I overshoot because of digital. Sure, you don’t have to stop at frame 36, but that’s the reason why you’d always carry ten rolls of film with you at a time. So I don’t know that that would make that much of a difference for me, at least.
Okay, because we were trying to do the math, adding up the shutter clicks, and wondering how many cameras have you completely ruined?
I don’t know how many cameras I’ve gone through but it’s probably been eight or ten. I never blew a shutter, which I know a lot of photographers occasionally do. I usually try to switch when I can feel like a camera’s about to give out. I always carried a backup camera, especially on foreign trips just in case one went down.
What do you carry with you day to day? What’s your favorite ideal camera setup?
I’m using the Canon 5D Mark III, and we were originally using for the first few months I was using my own personal gear because I had the original 5D but then once we were able to purchase equipment we got the 5D Mark II, and then you know it took them awhile to upgrade, and then we traded all our gear in and then got the 5D Mark III. So those two cameras, lenses, 24-70mm, 135mm, and then I sort of, the other ones is I use, is 35mm, 50mm, 85mm.
Who are the photographers who influenced you?
Certainly in terms of what I do now, Yoichi Okamoto, who was LBJ’s photographer. He was what most consider the first Chief Official White House Photographer, and he set the bar so high in documenting for history. Plus, he had such an interesting character in LBJ who just had no inhibitions whatsoever. So certainly you know he’s been my biggest influencer I think in terms of this job.
He took that famous photo of LBJ leaning over that senator?
Oh man, his stuff—he’s got pictures of LBJ in bed having a meeting with some aides. I mean, I have access to President Obama, but I don’t think he would want me in his bedroom when he’s in his pajamas, you know what I’m saying?
Have you ever taken a photo and thought to yourself, That’s going to be used for political purposes?
I have and they did. If you go back to the first couple of years when the President was dealing with the economic crisis, we put a lot of pictures on Flickr where he has his head in hands—like not the kind of picture you would expect maybe in [a] previous administration, where it’s a smiley picture, but this is real life. This is what he’s dealing with. And we posted those because we thought that you know people should see those. Those were in fact used in ads and out of context. But that’s the risk you take anytime you post a photo.
In Obama’s photos, especially the ones with kids, he often seems really casual and relaxed, while Reagan was always seen in a more formal way. Was that a function of the times? How has social media has shaped the way we see presidents?
I think it’s more a function of who they really were. Obama is more relaxed and casual, and people would say laid back. And Reagan certainly was more formal. And that comes through in the photos. It would be hard to photograph each of those presidents in a different way than I did because I photographed who they are.
Do you think Reagan’s background as a film actor influenced the way you relate to him or the way he related to you?
I don’t know. Even his wife said he was very difficult to get to know. His son has talked about this, too, and I certainly didn’t know him better than his own son or his own wife, but he was just hard to get to know, in a much different way than President Obama. I think it comes across in the photos but I think it also comes across in the many interviews he does. Obama is just very open, relaxed, matter-of-fact kinda guy in a way that I don’t think Reagan ever was.
You said you went to Russia with Obama in 2005 as a senator, one of the last moments where we could imagine him as a person that was unrecognized. Did you have an inkling then that he would run for president? Was it apparent even then?
It’s easy to say this now because if it hadn’t happened I wouldn’t be telling you this. But even his first week in the Senate when I was photographing him, I was thinking, Okay, if this guy ever becomes the President of the United States, it would be really nice to have a set of pictures that shows him as this freshman senator that people may not know. So I have this one picture where it’s like he’s in his basement office in the dark Senate building and there are no windows. There are fluorescent lights. There’s nothing on the wall, and a computer wire hanging from the desk, and it’s just like I was thinking to myself as I was making this picture roll, this will be an interesting contrast to a picture of him sitting at the Resolute Desk in the Oval Office if that ever happens. Did I ever think it would happen this fast? No. In the back of my mind I was thinking, He’ll be Senator for six years. He’ll run for Governor of Illinois and then he’ll run for President. But you know, things were quicker than that. So when we were in Russia, I was very consciously trying to make pictures of him in Red Square where nobody recognized him and nobody paid attention to him because I knew—having the previous experience in the White House—that if he ever became President, this would never happen again ever. No matter where he went in the world he would always be recognized.
Is there a moment or a photo from Obama’s Administration that you feel you missed or you wish you would have done differently? You know, like composition or just like completely blew your exposure?
Well, I’m kind of hard on myself. So I see something wrong with probably every picture I’ve ever taken. One photo that’s getting a lot more attention now shows a little boy touching his head to see if his hair cut feels the same as the President’s. I really got the moment right—that exact precise time, but it’s kind of a haphazard composition. And actually some people think that’s what makes the picture special, that it’s not perfection. There’s another photo of Obama lying on his back holding up Ben Rhodes’ daughter, Ella, whose dressed up for Halloween like an elephant. In that one, I’m trying to get a low angle and so his complete shoe is not in the frame, and that just bothers the hell out of me. People overlook that because the moment’s so extraordinary. But I look at pictures like that and go, “Ugh, I wish I had been a little to the left.” You can only do what you do and try to get better at it every day.
What about the photo of him touching the boy’s cheek?
Yeah, I mean that one’s pretty good [laughs]. I had spotted that kid when the President was at a reception for African American History Month and we’ve done dozens of these in the last eight years, and it becomes routine, right? The President makes remarks, then he works the rope line, and then he leaves. You figure, “Okay, you’ve done every picture that can possibly be done.” So I saw this little kid standing there in the front row, and I kind of had my eye on him, so as soon as the President finishes the remarks, and he starts working the rope line I stand right in front of that kid, and I kneel down because I know the President of the United States is gonna bend over and shake his hand. Right? I can sort of see it happening. Except the moment before that actually happened, he just touched his face. So I have just one frame literally where all you see is the hand touching his face. But that frame tells the story. You don’t need to see that it’s the President. You can just sort of conjure it up.
Is there one photo that sums up the Obama Presidency? Or do you not think of it that way?
I don’t think of it that way because, the one thing that’s unique about my job, more so than anybody else who works at the White House or with him, is that I see all the different compartments of his life. Certainly the National Security Advisor is in all the National Security meetings. Well, so am I. And certainly you know his personal aide is present when all these kids come in the room. Well, so am I. The point being that I’m sort of like the only person who crosses all those boundaries. I’m with him and his family on Christmas Day. I’m in the Situation Room for all the security meetings. I’m on every trip on Air Force One. So I see all these compartments of his life. And to then choose one picture, it would not encompass all those aspects of his life that I’m trying to show, right? So I’m trying to punt and say there’s no way I could do this because it would be unfair if I were to pick a picture of him with a little kid. Because that, to me, would belittle what happens in the situation room, and if I were to pick a picture in the Situation Room, then I think you’re losing what he’s like as a person which is important in terms of the presidency. What’s the man like? Time Magazine wanted me, after the first four years, to do my ten favorite pictures of the first term, and I said, “All right, I’ll try.” I ended up giving them I think like 95 photos because I look at my job as trying to show, really trying to show what he’s like as a man and as a president, and you can’t do that in one picture. Or I just never made that iconic image. I guess that’s the other way of looking at it.
For a photographer, it’s rare to have such a long time with a single subject. What do you think about as you think about next week? I imagine you’ll be on the plane with him to California, but after that what?
After that I’m looking forward to having new subjects. I don’t know what those subjects will be. I have some ideas. But my guess is, I won’t get started right away. I need to sleep and go to the gym every day and just sort of unwind from this job. It’s been a great privilege, but it’s also been very physically and emotionally challenging. So I just need a break to clear my mind. But I definitely will continue to do photography. I just don’t know what. Somebody on, I can’t remember if it was Twitter or Instagram, asked if I would like be shooting trees now. You know?
Like George W. Bush painting?
I mean, I don’t know that I’ll be shooting trees.
I imagine that one change from your first stint at the White House is the rise of Twitter and Instagram, and the back and forth between people and fans of your work and you and the distance between the President and people has in some ways has collapsed. What has that been like?
Yeah, it’s been interesting to me. I’m the same person I was eight years ago, but now people seem to know who I am mostly because of Instagram. To be quite honest with you, it’s been a little unsettling at times and for a while there, there was a lot of hate going on the Instagram comments, but that seems to have dissipated. I’ve tried to keep what I do non-political in the sense that you don’t ever see me make political comments. It’s always just trying to show the photo and maybe occasionally the backstory of what happened. I’m trying to stay true to doing documentary photography. I think everybody realizes that I am the President’s photographer, and if they don’t like this president or if they’d rather see photos from a press photographer they can choose to not follow me. But it’s been very interesting to me to very occasionally engage with people on Instagram. For the most part, I think it’s been a good thing. For the White House photographers of the past, a lot of the work would not be seen for ten, twenty, thirty years. Today, they’re seen almost immediately and I think that gives people a window into this presidency and this president in a way that in past years you might have to wait twenty years or thirty years to see.
In an era of social media with so much video made and shared today, there’s something about photography that’s so enduring and in some ways seem to better capture the reality of the situation even if it’s metaphorical.
I mean I’m definitely a proponent of still photography versus video. To me there’s something iconic in freezing a moment in time that is special in a way that video cannot capture. I think also, with video, sound becomes important and I think it’s the reason why you can’t have a video camera present all the time, because then you’re recording the sound and people may change what they say. And that’s not a good thing, you know. There’s something also about still photography and the Presidency that, I don’t know, just seems more historical than video.
The hashtag #ThanksObama has been used ironically—
I’m not a big hashtag guy. I still don’t understand hashtags that much. For a while there I was trying to do hashtags. Some photographers who are friends of mine use 20 hashtags on each of their photos, and I’m not sure why they do that.
Yeah that’s too much, but I was going to ask though, as you think about the past eight years, what is the thing you would thank Obama for?
I would thank him for trusting me enough to give me access to his Presidency. That is the reason why I’ve been able to make the pictures that I can make. It’s that he trusts me and he gives me access. So that’s what I would thank him for.
And what’s your advice for the next White House Photographer?
I don’t know if Mr. Trump has a photographer yet. We have not been told. But what I would say to him or her is simply: Earn the person’s trust and push for access to everything. Remember that your primary goal is to document the Presidency for history. Politics doesn’t matter. And the social media stuff is like one little aspect of it, but what really matters is that you’re accurately documenting visually this Presidency for history.