In The Know

Former Obama photographer Pete Souza moves to the other side of the lens

Pete Souza is finding out what it’s like to go from official White House photographer — and outspoken critic of President Trump — to the subject of his own documentary.

The longtime photo pro’s work, which spans two presidential administrations, will be featured in “The Way I See It,” a retrospective and behind-the-scenes look at his snapshots from the administrations of Obama and former President Reagan. The documentary from director Dawn Porter debuts Friday in select theaters before premiering on MSNBC on Oct. 16.

Souza has been making his own headlines since at least 2017, when he first began posting photos of Obama in the White House on his Instagram page, highlighting contrasts with Trump.

“I like these drapes better than the new ones. Don’t you think?” Souza captioned an image of Obama in the Oval Office with crimson curtains behind him.

He’s since amassed more than 2.3 million followers and released a 2018 book called “Shade: A Tale of Two Presidents.”

Despite putting himself out there on social media, Souza says he was reluctant when he was initially approached about participating in a documentary.

“I knew if I would do a documentary film, it would delve a little bit of my personal life,” he told ITK in a Tuesday interview.

“The Way I See It” gives a glimpse into Souza’s formerly 24/7 job at Obama’s side.

He remembers the lighter moments, like when the then-commander in chief — whom Souza calls “the most competitive guy I’ve ever met” — played a pickup basketball game with his aide Reggie Love, a former college player. After Souza snapped away at the game, the president asked the photog, “Did you get that block?”

Obama later had the image of his move printed out and had Love sign it: “Dear, Mr. President. Nice block.”

Souza, 65, recalls with a laugh other times he competed against Obama in a scaled-down version of the president’s favorite sport.

“For a while we had a little basketball hoop suction cup” right outside the Oval Office, Souza says.

Nearly every waking moment was spent documenting Obama’s presidency, Souza says, which resulted in him essentially putting his personal life on hold for eight years.

“I knew it would be all-encompassing. And I sort of did this to myself. I did have a staff, so I could’ve taken more days off,” he says. “The way I approached it is you can’t always predict when great images are going to happen. It’s tough physically and it’s tough mentally. I knew this was my last hurrah.”

The film, and Souza, quickly turn serious when it comes to the job itself and the damage he says Trump has done to the nation’s highest office.

He hopes viewers take away from the documentary the “power of the still image,” which he says “can reveal what a person is like” and the “importance of the presidency.”

“It really does matter who’s in that job,” says Souza.

He expresses disdain when asked about referring to himself as a “historian with a camera,” despite his photos of Obama showing the president in a largely glowing light.

“These are authentic moments. These are what really happened. It’s not like every picture is a picture of him smiling,” he says. Souza points out that images the White House released showing Obama “stressing during the economic crisis” were “used by the Republicans in attack ads because they used them out of context.”

It’s difficult for Souza to choose a single photo that captures Obama’s presidency, but one quickly comes to mind for Trump.

“It’s one of the very few behind-the-scenes pictures that we’ve seen, but it’s [House Speaker Nancy Pelosi] standing in the Cabinet Room and she’s admonishing Trump,” says Souza, of the 2019 photo. “The funny thing to me about the photograph is that Trump himself tweeted it out because he thought it made him look good. To me, it showed Nancy Pelosi is a badass woman.”

He says he’d tell critics who might call him a troll against Trump that they’re right.

“Somebody called me a shade assassin yesterday and I thought that was awesome. I was like, I’ll happily take that title.”

Souza, who now lives in Madison, Wis., says if Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden wins come November, his Instagram account is likely going to undergo a makeover.

“It’ll be a lot different,” he says. “And I suspect it’ll involve more of my current photography and not so much looking back at the past. It won’t have the same editorial bend to it.”

—Updated Sept. 25 at 10:16 a.m.

Tags Barack Obama Donald Trump Joe Biden Nancy Pelosi Reggie Love Ronald Reagan white house photographer

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