David Walker: Pete Souza On His Long-Term Photographic Partnership With President Barack Obama
PDN: You first met the President on his first day as senator in 2005. What was he like as a subject at that time?
Pete Souza: He had just been through a campaign in Illinois, and oftentimes had photographers tagging along with him. So I think he was used to a photographer being with him, maybe not to the extent that I wanted to try to work with him, which was to do a lot of things behind the scenes, but I think he appreciated the way I worked: leaving a small footprint, not interrupting what he was doing, and things like that.
PDN: Can you talk about what you think about—and what you want to say about—the President when you photograph him, and how that has changed since you started as the chief White House photographer?
PS: I used to tell people that I’m trying to make photographs so that 50 years from now, people will have a sense of what Barack Obama was like as a president and as a person. [Then] I saw, somebody had archived a presentation about the work of Yoichi Okamoto, who was LBJ’s photographer, and he essentially said the same thing, except he didn’t say 50 years—he said 500 years. And that just sort of shook me a little bit in the sense of how important it was for me to do a good job documenting visually this administration, because the reality is that: It’s 500 years from now.
People could be going through these photographs to try to get an idea [of this administration]. So that’s sort of the way I think about things.
PDN: What images come to mind that stand out to you because of what you know about his manner or mannerisms?
PS: I think how he interacts with his girls, for instance. I’m sensitive to giving him the necessary privacy with his girls, but at the same time, they know who I am. I know the great relationship that he has with his girls, so I think I’m able to make some photographs that show him as a father that a stranger coming in would never be able to make … That’s one example.
PDN: And anything about your relationship with the President you want to comment on? Does he comment on your photos, for example? Has he said anything to you or anything publicly [about your work]?
PS:Yeah, we hang photos on the walls of the West Wing. He’s usually struck by the photos that he’s not in, or photos that he’s in with his family, or photos that he’s in with little kids. I think those are the three categories of photographs that he enjoys the most.