Pete Souza considered himself to be a historian when he served as the White House photographer under President Ronald Reagan and President Barack Obama. He believed his role was to fade into the background, never letting his personal opinions impact his job as a documentarian.
That all changed when President Donald Trump was inaugurated in 2016. Souza, then a private citizen, posted a photograph of Obama sitting in the Oval Office with the caption, “I like these drapes better than the gaudy new gold ones.” Thus began an unexpected new chapter of Souza’s life, as an Instagram influencer whose tongue-in-cheek comparisons between the current and former president led to the publication of his 2018 photo book Shade: A Tale of Two Presidents.
Souza is now the subject of the new Dawn Porter documentary The Way I See It, which premiered Friday on MSNBC. Following our interview with Porter, Souza spoke with KCM about the Reagan photos the world never got to see, his new identity as an activist and his thoughts on presidential hopeful Joe Biden.
Wake Up Call: Having been behind the camera for so long, how did it feel to be the subject of a documentary?
Pete Souza: It was a little weird, just trying to wrap my head around whether I wanted to do this or not. I do like my anonymity. Obviously I’m known from Instagram, but I can walk down the street and nobody knows who I am, which is great. And I knew that during this film, I was going to get recognized. So I had to make a decision about whether I really wanted that or not. In the end, I decided that if this film could show people that are not on social media and don’t know about my Instagram, what respect and decency in the Oval Office looks like, that was worth giving up that anonymity for.
You served as a White House photographer for both President Reagan and President Obama, and you say these positions provided you with “a unique experience… seeing what it’s like on the inside of a presidency.” How did your experience differ serving under each of these presidents?
With President Obama, I had already known him for years before he became president, and I had established a professional relationship with him. So he trusted me. He and I are from the same generation, and he understood the value of having somebody document his presidency literally for history.
With Reagan, it was a different era. I wasn’t involved in the Reagan campaign, and I didn’t know him at all — I wasn’t there at the beginning of his presidency. But clearly his handlers had gotten him elected president by projecting a certain image. They were reluctant to show him as a regular human being.
I’ll talk about two pictures specifically. One was after the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded in 1986. [Reagan and his team] weren’t watching it live, but as soon as they heard that it had exploded, they moved to the private dining room and watched the replay on this little black and white TV. And I had a picture on them, all watching. You can see the agony on everybody’s faces, including President Reagan. And the White House photo editor chose that picture right away, and wanted the press secretary to release it to the wire services. And they said no. And I was like, wait a minute, he’s reacting as a human being. Why wouldn’t you want to show him like that?
In the other one, [Reagan] had made a paper airplane out of white stationery. And I got this picture of him throwing the paper airplane off a hotel balcony. To me, it was such a human moment. It showed that there’s a little bit of kid in every one of us. But again, the White House wouldn’t make that public. I don’t know [if that picture] would have changed anybody’s views of him, but I think it would have humanized him.
President Obama’s administration was the first to make a large number of candid photographs of the president available to the public. How were you involved in that decision?
There’s this tradition that’s gone on I think since the Nixon administration, where the White House photography office hangs these big 30 by 20 prints in the West Wing, and they get changed out every two weeks. I curated that collection, and it was all behind-the-scenes stuff, because I didn’t want to show just the stuff that everybody sees. One day, [former White House Press Secretary] Robert Gibbs and his team came to me and said they were so struck by the intimacy of the pictures that I was hanging on the wall, and that we needed to let the public see these. I agreed, as long as the White House photo editor and I could choose the photos. There were a few [the communications team] objected to, and if that happened we wouldn’t make them public, but by and large, 98% of the time they went with whatever I chose. But Gibbs had reservations about a lot of pictures that show President Obama agonizing about certain decisions. They weren’t flattering pictures, but they were authentic. My argument was that if we were going to do this, then we need to show this side of him too.
After President Trump’s inauguration, you began posting photos from the Obama administration on your Instagram, and some have called you an activist. Do you agree with that assessment?
I’ve never thought of myself as an activist. But [author KK Ottesen] did a book called Activist: Portraits of Courage, and she interviewed and photographed a bunch of different people. John Lewis is on the cover of this book, and then I’m one of the people featured inside. It’s like, “Holy cow.” What an honor to be included in a book with John Lewis. But to quote John Lewis, “If you see something that is not right, not fair, not just, you have a moral obligation to do something about it.” I’m a private citizen now. And I saw something wrong, and I thought, I should say something. I did it by comparing photographs on Instagram. I had a unique perspective having worked for both Reagan and Obama, so I was able to talk about the presidency in a way that others probably couldn’t. I don’t know if that makes me an activist, or if it makes me a critic, or just someone keeping a reality check on the dignity of the office of the presidency.
During your eight years at the White House, you must have developed a relationship with Vice President Joe Biden. What was that relationship life?
I was in every single meeting that Joe Biden was in with Barack Obama. So I know Joe Biden. He was the kind of vice president who made his views known in those meetings. I remember Vice President Bush, who later became President 41, he did it a different way. He would never say anything when he was in a meeting with President Reagan. He would weigh in privately with Reagan. Whereas Biden, he let his views be known in the meeting.
Joe Biden is one of the most compassionate and empathetic people that I know. My mom passed away recently, and he was one of the first people to call me. That just speaks to his character. There was no notice — nobody knew. And I answered the phone, and it was him. That’s the kind of person he is.
The Way I See It is currently available on Peacock and iTunes.