In 1846, James Polk became the first president to be photographed, but it wasn’t until the Kennedy administration that the first official White House photographer was appointed. Pete Souza has one of the most unique jobs in the world. He’s Chief Official White House Photographer and Director of the White House Photography Office for President Obama’s administration.
This isn’t Souza’s first term in the White House, however, having served as a staff photographer for President Reagan. Souza’s book Images of Greatness: An Intimate Look at the Presidency of Ronald Reagan was published in June 2004 by Triumph Books. Ironically, that same month, Souza was the official photographer for the June 2004 funeral of President Reagan. Souza’s book The Rise of Barack Obama (Triumph Books) illustrates the 44th U.S. president’s road to the White House by documenting his first year in the Senate. Now Souza is recording President Obama’s time in the Oval Office.
Souza has won numerous photojournalism awards in and out of the White House, including the prestigious Pictures of the Year International annual competition, the National Press Photographers Association’s Best of Photojournalism and the White House News Photographers Association’s yearly contest. Originally from South Dartmouth, Mass., Souza graduated cum laude with a bachelor of science degree in public communication from Boston University and a master’s degree in journalism and mass communication from Kansas State University.
DPP: How does one become a White House photographer?
Pete Souza :In every case, it’s different. For me, I got to know Senator Obama when he first became a Senator and I was based in Washington, D.C., working for the Chicago Tribune. I spent a lot of time with him because we were doing a feature on his first year in the Senate. I got to know him; he got to know me. He liked the way I worked, and he liked my photos. So one thing led to another. When he was elected president, he asked me to be his photographer.
DPP: Did you hire additional staff? You can’t work 24 hours a day.
Souza: Sometimes I feel like I do! I did hire staff—three other photographers, a couple of editors and someone to handle the paperwork. It’s pretty much a seven-day-a-week job, though I try to take Sundays off. If he goes golfing, I’ll have someone else cover it. I’ve taken one weekday off in the last two years.
DPP: How are you able to get the photos you need without being a distraction to the president?
Souza: I try to have as small a footprint as I can. He’s very used to me being around and has become oblivious to me when he’s in the middle of meetings. I’m also very selective as to when I shoot. I’m not doing motor-drive bursts. Also, I try not to use a flash ever, unless I’m doing "grip and grins." One of the things I had to decide when I started this job was which cameras to use. I chose the Canon [EOS] 5D Mark II, mostly because I thought it was quieter than the Nikon cameras. To me, that was a big consideration.
DPP: Are you shooting any hybrid video with it? The 5D Mark II is the go-to camera for that.
Souza: I’m not shooting any, mostly because I’m in a lot of top-secret meetings and a lot of economic meetings that are very sensitive. I don’t want anyone to think that I’m shooting video with audio capabilities because that would completely change what my access would be. I have top-secret clearance. I’m sworn to uphold what that clearance is.
DPP: That level of clearance was definitely needed in the Situation Room during the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan. What was it like in there?
Souza: The minutes felt like hours during that particular operation. It was very intense. I remember I was changing the ISO between 640 and 1600 because I wanted to get some more depth of field for some of the shots.
DPP: What equipment were you working with that day?
Souza: Two camera bodies and four lenses: a 24mm, 35mm, 50mm and 135mm. That’s what I carry most of the time. I think these fixed lenses are sharper than the zooms, and if I need to, I can use a 1.4 aperture in a dark room. The 35mm is probably the lens I use the most. It’s one of the sharpest lenses I’ve ever used. Sometimes, for a big public event, I’ll bring a 70-200mm, which is actually a sharp lens, as well.
DPP: You also worked with President Reagan. What are the differences between covering Reagan and Obama?
Souza: I wasn’t the chief photographer for President Reagan—I was staff—so I didn’t have the same access then that I do now. The chief photographer Mike Evans hired the staff, and I was one of them. I had a prior relationship with President Obama that I didn’t have with President Reagan. Reagan was close to 50 years older than me when I first worked at the White House, and now, I’m a few years older than President Obama. I’ve had many life experiences between the two presidents, including having been in war zones, so I’m a more seasoned photographer than I was more than three decades ago.
DPP: When the president goes on vacation, do you go, as well?
Souza: I do. I’m not photographing him there every minute of every day, but there are certain family activities and the working part of the vacation I photograph. I try to balance documenting the presidency with giving him some privacy. As my friend PF Bentley said to me, "People don’t realize that when he’s on, you’re on, and when he’s off, you’re still on."
DPP: Going back to the time when you were photographing Senator Obama, there’s a shot of him running up the steps to the Capitol with the dome in the background. It’s a masterful shot
in terms of composition and symbolism.
Souza: Having been a presidential photographer before, I was thinking to myself at the time, if this guy ever becomes president, I want to create images of him as senator that people will go back to and say, "Wow, look at this!" For instance, there’s a shot of him walking along in Red Square in Moscow, and nobody is paying attention to him. I was thinking about that while I was taking the photo.
DPP: It has become important not to delete photos too quickly—Dirck Halstead’s shot of Monica Lewinsky and President Clinton hugging, for instance. He had shot film at the time while most other photographers covering the president were already sho
oting digital. They probably had similar shots, but deleted them long before the news broke about the scandal.
Souza: I asked Dirck what he thought when he saw that slide. He said, "Ka-ching, ka-ching." Anything my staff and I shoot is part of the presidential record so we don’t delete anything. We shoot all RAW files. Eric Draper, by the second term of Bush 43, was the first to shoot 100% digital.
DPP: In a given day, how much do you shoot?
Souza: Anywhere from 500 to 1,000 images. I use 8-gigabyte cards. If I’m at the White House, I drop cards off at my office every couple of hours. Once they’re downloaded, we reformat and use them again. There’s a photo archivist at the White House who’s been there 25 years.
DPP: Is it an extremely stressful job?
Souza: First of all, I feel so privileged to be doing this job. I try to never lose sight of that. That said, the job is also a grind. Working pretty much every day, I don’t take vacations. Is it stressful? There are no bullets flying over my head. I’m not putting my life on the line for a photo. So compared to the James Nachtweys, those guys have stressful jobs. Look what happened to Chris Hondros and Tim Hetherington in Libya.