The job of the official White House photographer is to remain as unobtrusive as possible while somehow managing to be in just the right spot to capture moments historic and mundane, public and personal — and Pete Souza proved to be a master at the craft while taking countless pics of arguably the most beloved presidents from each party of the last half-century: Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama.
When Obama left office and handed the keys to the White House to Donald Trump in January 2017, Souza expected to fade from the reflected glow of the spotlight and continue his career as a photojournalist — but a funny thing happened on the way to anonymity. Souza started throwing shade at Trump (before he ever knew what the term meant) by juxtaposing crude and classless tweets from the current POTUS with pics of Obama in refined and dignified and empathetic moments, gaining more than 2 million Instagram followers, publishing two bestselling books and becoming a bit of a cult celebrity through his TV appearances and promotional tours. Director Dawn Porter’s fascinating documentary “The Way I See It” tells Souza’s remarkable story in straightforward and effective fashion, as even Souza himself seems surprised at the turn his life has taken.
Souza, who worked as a news photographer for the Sun-Times in the early 1980s and for the Tribune for 10 years starting in 1998, acknowledges he wasn’t a fan of Ronald Reagan’s politics when he was hired to photograph the final year of Reagan’s presidency in 1988, but he came to admire Reagan’s loving relationship with wife Nancy, as evidenced by photos of the two holding hands in the White House movie theater after the first lady’s surgery.
When Souza met Obama for the first time at the White House, the new president greeted him warmly and said, “We’re going to have some fun.” And indeed, Souza captured dozens of intimate and lighter images, e.g., Barack and Michelle sharing a tender moment and the president intensely coaching daughter Sasha’s middle school basketball team. But Souza also was in the room when Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and other high-ranking officials looked on during the raid on Osama bin Laden, and he was snapping photos when Obama met with parents after the Sandy Hook mass shootings, hugging them and shedding tears with them. Souza spent eight years at Obama’s side, taking hundreds of thousands of photographs, and it was inevitable they’d become somewhat close; in fact, when Souza got married, the ceremony was in the Rose Garden.
Appalled by Trump’s lack of empathy (and ticked off because unlike Obama, the current president reportedly allows very few candid pics by the White House photographer and prefers stilted, posed photo ops), Souza was inspired to turn his Instagram account into a photo album of political commentary. At times “The Way I See It” comes close to sounding like a Democratic Party promotional video, especially in the late stretches, but Porter is a talented director who knows every picture tells a story, and boy does Pete Souza have a story to tell.