Poster for the upcoming documentary film on Photographer Pete Souza, “The Way I See It.”
It’s hard to believe that we have less than 90 days to go before the start of the 2020 US Presidential Election between President Donald Trump and the Democratic hopeful, Former Vice President Joe Biden. At this point, Biden may be leading in the polls, but anything can still happen. But a new film trailer released this week for a documentary film (by Focus Features) that will appear in movie theaters this September, as well as this year’s cancelled Telluride Film Festival starting August 30, may certainly help Biden in his quest. That’s because the new documentary, “The Way I See It,” not only chronicles the work of photojournalist and photographer, Pete Souza, during his eight years with two different Presidents—Ronald Reagan (1981-1989) and Barack Obama (2009-2017)—as White House photographer, but also because it highlights Souza’s current role as a vehement critic of President Trump. (Souza was the official chief White House photographer under President Obama but had a more junior staff role during his eight years with President Reagan.)
Right from the get go, the trailer is provocative: “I know what happens in the oval office, and that’s what scares me,” are the first words you hear Souza say in this trailer for “The Way I See It,” which has been directed and produced by Dawn Porter. But just what exactly has scared Souza for the past three or so years? For starters, President Trump’s behavior as the 45th US President, and just how much he has differed in that role, in Souza’s opinion, with both President Obama and President Reagan.
For example, just a little over midway through the trailer (around the 1:30 mark) you hear Souza’s voice describing the election of President Obama and what that meant for the African American community, as powerful images shot by Souza are shown on screen. He says, “I thought, who is this man? How does he deal with crisis? Leadership, character, and empathy.” Then, the trailer cuts to Souza speaking on screen at a podium, and you hear him say, “Don’t you wish you had that now?,” referring to President Trump.
It’s intriguing to see Souza’s current role as political critic, seen by many on his Instagram feed, and how in some ways it harkens back to his photojournalism roots.
But that’s quite a different role than being a White House photographer, which is to cover the day-to-day activities and goings-on of the Commander in Chief and is more a combination of being documentary photographer as well as a commercial or public-relations type of photographer, instead of being a photojournalist. After all, if you’re a photographer employed by the sitting US President, you’re not going to be shooting images that take pot shots at his or her agenda.
However, that’s not to say that White House photographers haven’t captured important moments in history. They certainly have: For example, a webpage from the White House website, during President Clinton’s second term, lists the following as examples of photos captured by White House photographers: President Lyndon Johnson signing the Civil Rights Act of 1964; President Richard Nixon’s final wave to his staff as he boarded Marine One after resigning as President; President Jimmy Carter signing the Camp David Peace Accords; President Ronald Reagan shaking hands with Mikhail Gorbachev; President George Bush meeting with American troops during Desert Storm; and President Clinton encouraging the famous handshake between the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat.
One of the more photojournalistic-like images captured by a White House photographer was this one, now on Getty Images, by Barbara Kinney, which depicts five towering figures in the world of 1990s Middle East politics: (from left to right) Yitzhak Rabin, Hosni Mubarak, King Hussein, President Clinton and Yasser Arafat—who had stopped to adjust their ties prior to the signing of a peace accord at the White House in .
The President Clinton webpage goes on to describe the role of a White House photographer in the following way: “Whether photographing the President as he works in the Oval Office, enjoys quiet moments with his family, delivers a speech, or makes a crucial decision affecting our nation’s future, White House photographers have a front row seat to history in the making.”
However, those images, even the charming one by Barbara Kinney, are quite different than say how Photojournalist Doug Mills of the New York Times covers a US President, which you can see here, in this story, “Our White House Photographer on Covering President Trump.” Mills might cover the same events, such as President Trump’s State of the Union address in 2019. But a White House photographer would never shoot a photo like the one Mills caught of Nancy Pelosi making a “gesture” of a clap towards President Trump, which some of the right have taken to be disrespectful, which is why a White House photographer would probably not shoot that type of image.
You can find more on the role of a White House photographer on this Wikipedia page, which includes a list of the official photographers going back to President John F. Kennedy as well as some iconic images captured by those photographers. The Washingtonian also includes an intriguing article as well, and The New Yorker includes a short slide show of photos by White House photographers. Artsy has a story by Haley Weiss, which includes Souza’s spectacular photo of President Barack Obama bending over to let an African American boy, who was the son of a White House staff member, pat his head during a family visit to the Oval Office in 2009.
For more on Pete Souza, check out our Digital Photo Pro interview on him and read about how he captured his famous photo of President Obama and Vice President Biden, along with members of the national security team, as they received an update on the mission against Osama bin Laden in the Situation Room of the White House, May 1, 2011. You can also read about Souza and other political activists in our story on photographer KK Ottesen, who photographed Souza and others, in a story we posted earlier this year on KK Ottesen’s book, “Activist: Portraits of Courage”. Plus, check out my story from 2019 on Chris Buck and how he captures US Presidential portraits.