By the end of Barack Obama’s term as the President of the United States, former chief official White House photographer Pete Souza had captured those eight years in a collection of two million photos. Three hundred of these photos make up his best-selling photography book, Obama: An Intimate Portrait, and it was that visual narrative that led him to speak about his experiences in front of a packed Baker Hall. Lehigh students, faculty, staff, and the larger Bethlehem community all sat in awe as Souza recounted what it was like to document the life of such a historic president.
Rather than begin his discussion with President Obama’s first days in office, Souza opened his talk with commentary on his final days as President. The following photo, taken in the helicopter bringing the President and others to Joint Base Andrews, filled the gigantic screen to Souza’s right. I’ve never been one to put much faith in the adage that “a picture is worth a thousand words,” but I couldn’t stop the small gasp from escaping my lips. Those around me let out similar, sharp exhales of breath.
Souza admitted that he struggled greatly with the presidential transition period because he wasn’t convinced that the humanity President Obama brought to the office would be carried through by the president-elect. Souza even struggled to look at photos of President Obama and his successor because they were too “disturbing.” He couldn’t ignore the gravity of the first African American president having to welcome Donald Trump to the White House. Souza’s candor in expressing his thoughts about the sitting president allowed the audience to reflect upon our feelings about the stark contrast between the two leaders.
In addition to being an excellent photographer, Pete Souza is also incredible at ‘throwing shade’ (to publicly criticize someone or something in a subtle way)—so much so that it led to his next book: Shade: A Tale of Two Presidents. The inspiration behind this book came from the success of Souza’s Instagram account, which he often used to ‘throw shade’ at the current president. One of the earliest examples of ‘shade’ thrown came after the Trump administration redecorated the Oval Office with new drapes over the windows. Souza posted the following photo with the following caption: “I like these drapes better.”
Many of his followers saw what he was doing and cheered him on; his popularity on Instagram grew. Souza recounted several times that the sitting president would tweet or make defamatory statements about President Obama. It was a never ending stream of content for Souza’s Instagram. Everyone in the audience applauded his willingness to make a statement and his brilliant usage of political humor.
Souza also spoke to the importance of his role in the White House and what it was like to accept that position. He’d already known Barack Obama for four years before the inauguration in 2008, having followed the then-Senator on the campaign trail. In order to do his job, and to do it well, Souza knew he needed total and complete access to his movements in office. His role was to document the President for national history; by having immense liberty to follow the President closely, he could take authentic photographs of major events in the life of the nation. Ultimately, he created the largest and most extensive photographic archive of a U.S. president.
Souza’s other goal as the White House photographer was to show how the presidency affected Barack Obama as a human being. He captured multiple photos of President Obama’s late nights in the Treaty Room during the Financial Crisis; the President taking an emergency military call while clad in a vacation shirt; the stoic faces of the Executive Branch during the Bin Laden raid; and the tear stained cheeks that came with the news about Sandy Hook. In every single frame, you see the 44th President of the United States, but, you also see a person doing his absolute best to take care of and protect the people of our nation.
By capturing the President interacting with those around him, Souza focused on the importance of Obama’s humanity. One of the most powerful photos of the night was the one pictured above. Former National Security Council employee Carlton Philadelphia visited the Oval Office with his family to take a photo with President Obama. Philadelphia’s young sons had questions they wanted to ask the Commander-in-Chief. Jacob, who was five at the time, asked to know if the President’s hair was like his own. President Obama responded by bending over and allowing Jacob to touch his head. Jacob concluded that they did feel the same. The significance of this action was not lost on Souza at the time nor the audience as he recounted the moment. For the first time in our country’s history, young boys like Jacob saw someone who looked like them in the Oval Office. Souza recalled that it was instances like this one that truly spoke to the President’s character.
Souza helped us to know Barack Obama, the person, through his photography. Proud of the way he blocked personal aide, Reggie Love, while playing basketball in New York, President Obama asked Souza to make the shot a “jumbo” (one of the large framed photos that lined the White House walls). Another jumbo came out of a day when the President decided to take an unsupervised walk—without a Secret Service escort—to a corner hot dog stand and proudly shook hands with the vendor. Some of the best snapshots came out of the day that he coached his daughters’ basketball team as if, recounts Souza, “it was game seven of the NBA.” And, if anyone ever doubted President Obama’s humor, Souza dispelled those thoughts with a jumbo he made during one Easter at the White House. He’d managed to capture a shot from behind the President while he stood next to the Easter Bunny. When Obama noticed it hanging proudly on the wall, he’d remarked that those were “the two most famous sets of ears.”
We were lucky enough to see those small, personal moments not often seen in the media. In the above photograph, Souza captures a look of love between Barack and Michelle. In other photos, he presents a long hug shared between him and his daughters and a run down the hallway with their dog Bo. Souza aimed to document the 44th President of the United States for national history, but he did more than that. He documented all the goodness that Barack Obama brought to that office and all the goodness that Barack Obama embodied in himself. And for that, his pictures really are worth more than words could ever do justice.