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Pete Souza, bestselling author and chief official White House photographer during the Barack Obama and Ronald Reagan administrations, has lectured on his work around the world and across the country — at Carnegie Hall, the Smithsonian Museum of American History, Harvard University and, most recently, UD.
Article by Diane Stopyra | Photos courtesy of Pete Souza
Most Americans will never set foot inside the White House. And those who do are typically relegated to a carefully plotted public tour. You may leave with a presidential trinket from the visitor center retail store, but — let’s face it — you’re not seeing anything that millions before you haven’t already seen. An intimate view inside 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue? Not happening.
At least, this was the case before Pete Souza came along. American photojournalist and Instagram celebrity with 2.8 million followers, Souza worked as the chief official White House photographer during the Barack Obama administration. During his eight years in the job, he captured nearly 2 million moments both public and private, heart-wrenching and humorous. And he brought fellow Americans into the Oval Office (and the president’s private quarters) for these moments as well.
On Tuesday, March 9, during a special “Behind the Lens” event sponsored by the University of Delaware’s Biden Institute, Souza shared some of his most intimate, humanizing shots with students, faculty and a virtual crowd from all over the country.
“You almost become part of the extended family,” Souza told 2,500 fans from California to Florida. “I think that, ultimately, Obama trusted me, and with that trust I had essentially total access.”
Prompted by questions from moderator Valerie Biden Owens — vice chair of the Biden Institute, a graduate of UD and the sister of President Biden, also a UD alumnus — Souza shared the story of his professional journey, which began with stints at Kansas newspapers, photographing everything from car wrecks to cow feedings. Eventually, he worked his way into a position at the Chicago Sun-Times before becoming official White House photographer for President Ronald Reagan. In this role, still in his 20s, he covered events both playful (Reagan folding a piece of White House stationery into a paper airplane and tossing it from the balcony of a Los Angeles hotel) and poignant (Reagan comforting U.S. Marines injured in a 1983 terrorist attack in Lebanon).
“I saw firsthand what it meant to have somebody in the office who was compassionate and empathetic,” Souza said.
In the 90s and early aughts, Souza returned to newspaper work — he captured the 9/11 attack on the Pentagon, and he crossed the Hindu Kush mountains to document the start of the war in Afghanistan. For the Chicago Tribune, he followed Obama’s journey as a senator, which included travel to six countries. And, in 2007, Souza found himself backstage with Obama, capturing the expression on his face just before he announced his candidacy for president: “This is the look of someone who knows his life is about to change forever,” Souza said as he shared the memorable image.
Once in the White House, Souza became the first White House photographer to engage with social media, making behind-the-scenes shots accessible to the world and earning himself a fanatical online following. While the White House press office had to greenlight the selections before they went live, “I told them: I don’t want you going through all my pictures and saying, ‘Well, Obama looks good in this one, let’s use it’,” Souza said. “I wanted to maintain control of the pictures we were posting. I wanted people to see the authentic goings-on of the administration.”
Capturing this authenticity meant being present for moments of great national interest, like the monitoring of 2011’s raid on Osama bin Laden’s Pakistan compound from inside the Situation Room. (You won’t see it in the iconic shot that made the media rounds, Souza said, but Joe Biden had a rosary wrapped around his hand). It also meant being present for private moments, like the time Obama had to jokingly pull the first lady from a bench in their private residence because she really, really did not want to attend yet another White House Christmas party. Then there is the photo of Obama embracing daughter Malia on the day of the 2012 shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, in which 20 kindergarten students were shot and killed.
“He wrapped her up and he wouldn’t let her go,” Souza said. “On that day, he was reacting more as a parent than a president.”
Souza also offered a behind-the-scenes look at some of these behind-the-scenes shots. That photo of Obama joyfully making snow angels with his kids during a storm on the South Lawn? It is still the background on the former president's iPad. That picture of Obama stepping in to coach his daughter’s basketball game? Souza loves it because it showcases the pre-teen embarrassment on Sasha’s face, as well as Obama’s intense competitive edge: “He’s coaching as though this is an NBA game.” And that most famous shot of Obama bending down in the Oval Office so a little Black boy could feel the top of the president's head, because his friends at school had told him his haircut was similar? It was a candid, fleeting moment, of which Souza only had time to grab one frame.
“I have had so many African American parents tell me what this photo meant to them,” he said.
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In “Hair Like Mine,” a photo taken by former Chief Official White House Photographer Pete Souza in 2009, Barack Obama bends down after a first-grade boy asks if the president’s hair is similar to his own. The shot was described by Time magazine as “the most iconic” of all Souza’s images.
After he left the White House with the change in administrations, Souza earned a reputation for using his extensive archives to throw shade at Donald Trump online, showing the sharp contrast between the country’s 44th and 45th presidents. When Trump made headlines for arguing with Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto over his planned border wall, Souza posted an Instagram photo of Obama sharing tequila with this same leader. When Trump received pushback for his travel ban, which restricted entry to the U.S. for citizens of some majority-Muslim nations, Souza shared a photo of Obama reaching out to a Malaysian refugee. In 2018, the photographer compiled such images into a New York Times bestselling book titled Shade: A tale of two presidents.
No matter where photography-minded college students fall on the political spectrum, they continue to draw inspiration from Souza’s compelling portfolio. At the Biden Institute event, some of these young scholars had an opportunity to ask questions of the esteemed photojournalist, including his best advice for pursuing a career in the field… perhaps one that will take them all the way to the White House.
“You just have to get out there every day and take pictures, and have people critique them,” Souza said. “That’s how you learn — you make mistakes. You figure out what kind of photographer you want to be, what your style is. And then? You practice, practice, practice.”