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1.9 million photos in 8 years: Pete Souza talks about new book, time as White House photographer

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“On some mornings, I’d walk in to find that ‘my’ chair had been hijacked by Bo, the family dog, and I’d be relegated to the chair next to it.” Copyright © 2022 by Pete Souza. (Courtesy of Pete Souza)
“On some mornings, I’d walk in to find that ‘my’ chair had been hijacked by Bo, the family dog, and I’d be relegated to the chair next to it.” Copyright © 2022 by Pete Souza. (Courtesy of Pete Souza)

Pete Souza is a local kid made good. After growing up in South Dartmouth, Massachusetts and graduating from Boston University, his career highlights include serving as Chief Official White House Photographer for all eight years of the Obama administration.

Souza’s latest book is “The West Wing and Beyond: What I Saw Inside the Presidency.” It's a visual and narrative tour of the places most of us will never see–the inner sanctum, both in the White House and in presidential travel mode. However, the book does not focus on the president. This collection documents the people and the places involved in the phenomenon that is the modern presidency.

Pete Souza spoke with WBUR’s Weekend Edition host Sharon Brody, ahead of his book tour stop in Boston on Friday, October 7.

Interview highlights:

On the distinction he makes in this book between the president (the focus of his first book, “Obama: An Intimate Portrait”) and the presidency:

There's a lot of people involved in making the presidency work, and I wanted to highlight some of those people as well as give my readers a view inside places like the Situation Room, Air Force One, the cockpit of Marine One, what it's like to ride inside the motorcade. So it's kind of like all the things that I saw inside the presidential bubble, kind of away from the main guy.

Approaching the Jefferson Memorial and the National Mall in 2011. Copyright © 2022 by Pete Souza. (Courtesy of Pete Souza)
Approaching the Jefferson Memorial and the National Mall in 2011. Copyright © 2022 by Pete Souza. (Courtesy of Pete Souza)

On his 25,000 hours spent inside the presidential bubble during the Obama administration and how this book shares what he witnessed:

One of my favorite sections is called “Inside the Spare.” The Spare is the decoy limousine. It's the exact duplicate of the limousine that [Obama] rode in in the motorcade.

A shot from Pete Souza's vantage point in the Spare on a motorcade route in Camden, New York, 2015. Copyright © 2022 by Pete Souza. (Courtesy of Pete Souza)
A shot from Pete Souza's vantage point in the Spare on a motorcade route in Camden, New York, 2015. Copyright © 2022 by Pete Souza. (Courtesy of Pete Souza)

And I actually sat in the same seat that he sat in in his limousine, so that when we were on a motorcade ride, people would be looking in the limousine I was riding, and thinking they were going to see the president, and they'd be seeing me! So I have a section that shows some of the people that I saw along that motorcade route, when there's that anticipatory look in their faces…and instead they see me.

On his role as an eyewitness to history:

My job was to provide an archive for the people. I shot 1.9 million photographs in eight years. They are all at the National Archives. So that was my primary mission – just thinking about somebody looking back 50, 75 years from now at this period of time, getting a sense of what it was like inside the presidency…. I think it is important for history to have a visual archive of a president… It's important for the historical record to have those photographs, not only to show who's in the room when big decisions are made, but give a sense of the mood and the emotion. That's one thing that I was always looking to capture, when I was in the room where it happened.

White House butler Von Everett holding President Obama’s suit coat during a luncheon with TV anchors. Copyright © 2022 by Pete Souza. (Courtesy of Pete Souza)
White House butler Von Everett holding President Obama’s suit coat during a luncheon with TV anchors. Copyright © 2022 by Pete Souza. (Courtesy of Pete Souza)

On the natural light in the Oval Office:

It was the one room in the White House really, where the lighting would change depending on the time of the day or time of the year. Like in the winter, the sun would be lower on the horizon, the leaves would be off the tree. The sun would just kind of stream through the windows late in the afternoon. So I was always on the search for that. There's a picture in the book of Obama’s personal secretary, Katie Johnson, leaning on the desk as she's talking to him. And the sunlight is right on her face…

Personal Secretary Katie Johnson leans on the Resolute Desk while listening to the President in 2010. Copyright © 2022 by Pete Souza. (Courtesy of Pete Souza)
Personal Secretary Katie Johnson leans on the Resolute Desk while listening to the President in 2010. Copyright © 2022 by Pete Souza. (Courtesy of Pete Souza)

That bright sun on her face and everything else around it kind of goes dark. So it has a painterly effect, almost. It's almost like a painting where you don't really see the president because he's in the shadow and everything is focused on Katie.

On how photos of the presidency reflect democracy:

I think that all the people that I worked with really sacrificed so much. They are public servants, to the nth degree. And they were held to the highest standards, both with their work ethic and with their work ethics. And I just want people to know that, at least during the Obama administration, the people that I worked with were the kind of people that we want in our government.

Copyright © 2022 by Pete Souza. (Courtesy of Pete Souza)
Copyright © 2022 by Pete Souza. (Courtesy of Pete Souza)

On the connection between his childhood in South Dartmouth and his eventual career path:

Here's the irony that I've been thinking about recently – I got a "D" in U.S. history when I was in grade school. But also, there's something that happened to me when I was in fourth grade, which is when John Kennedy was assassinated. For whatever reason, over those next four days, I cut pictures out of the New Bedford Standard Times. One of John-John saluting the casket, LBJ being sworn in on Air Force One. And I cut them out of the newspaper and then taped them to my closet door. So clearly, when I was growing up in South Dartmouth, photographs were speaking to me – the fact that that was my reaction to a national tragedy was to look at the photographs and study the photographs. I guess even then, you know, even being eight years old, I was a visual person and didn't really know it.

On what has surprised him about his career:

Pretty much everything. I mean, I was not voted the most likely to succeed in high school. I probably would have been voted the most likely to not succeed. So I think I've been extremely lucky in the things that have come my way.

The Easter Bunny waits in the Red Room to enter the adjacent Blue Room to meet the President as a Secret Service agent stands guard before the annual Easter Egg Roll in 2015. Copyright © 2022 by Pete Souza. (Courtesy of Pete Souza)
The Easter Bunny waits in the Red Room to enter the adjacent Blue Room to meet the President as a Secret Service agent stands guard before the annual Easter Egg Roll in 2015. Copyright © 2022 by Pete Souza. (Courtesy of Pete Souza)

But when I did have those lucky moments, I've tried to make the most of it. So it's kind of crazy that I've had the chance to document, on the inside, two iconic presidents. And, like, if you had said that to me when I was cutting news pictures out of the newspaper in 1963, that would have been the furthest thing from my mind.

This segment aired on October 2, 2022.

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Sharon Brody Twitter News Anchor
Sharon Brody is the voice of WBUR's weekend mornings. On Saturdays and Sundays, she anchors the news for Weekend Edition and other popular programs.

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