This is not about politics. Yet it is. You’ve heard of Pete Souza, chief photographer of the U.S. president — and he probably knows Barack Obama better than any of the president’s closest advisers know their boss. Souza’s images from the inner circle offer a unique view of the politician as well as public and private Barack Obama. Yet this post is strictly about photography.
To start with, what’s in the chief official White House photographer’s and photojournalist’s gear box?
Pete Souza is a Canon and prime glass guy, shooting 5Ds with the 28mm F1.8, 35mm F1.4L, 50mm F1.2L, 135mm F2 L and — a lonely zoom — the 70-200mm F2.8L IS. Add a Mamiya 7 with 43mm and 65mm lenses, Apple PowerBook and this and that.
Granted, this list dates back some years, but it’s probably safe to say that Souza is sticking to his Canon guns and basic lens setup, and I haven’t seen any photo of him with other gear in hand.
How did he become the official White House photographer? Souza is on an extended leave of absence from Ohio University’s School of Visual Communication where he is an assistant professor of photojournalism. He has worked as an official White House photographer during President Reagan’s second term from 1983 to 1989.
58-year-old Souza is the winner of numerous photojournalism prices. Before becoming the White House photographer he was the national photographer for the Chicago Tribune based in their Washington Bureau. At that time Obama was a virtually unknown senator. Not to Souza. His book The Rise of Barack Obama was published in July 2008 and includes exclusive photographs of the senator’s rise to power.
What he does as Obama’s personal photographer is kind of unseen to this day: Souza helps to stage the president, the world’s probably most powerful man, as a cool kind of guy without shying away from the man’s weaker moments.
Furthermore, Souza provides unique insights into the inner workings of the White House. Here’s one of his most famous photographs:
Other photos show the main character, the president, far away in deep thoughtfulness. That’s part of his style: Souza portrays not only the celebrated side of the president. He portrays a man, a family man for that, with human weaknesses. His work chronicles the ups and downs and the ins and outs of the president’s day to day work.
Souza is a unique documentary photographer and witness to a man’s life that’s hidden from the outside world behind dozens of security layers. Yet Souza makes the man look somewhat accessible and even common.
Through the lenses of Souza the seemingly omnipotent appears looks fragile at times, occasionally even impotent. Souza doesn’t attempt to glamorize the U.S. president. He lets the images tell a far bigger story than what’s just shown in the limiting frame.
To achieve this up close and personal perspective, Souza cultivates a clean, no-nonsense, no artsy fartsy style of photojournalism. He’s not famous for a certain technique. His photos may even look bland at first sight. But they all do what good photography’s supposed to do: tell a story.
Question is, are the events mostly staged especially for the photographer? Yes and no. Whatever deeper motives, the president looks genuinely worried or engaged. Souza never produces glossy propaganda, but down to earth observations of situations and events that could happen anytime anywhere to anyone
Souza tries to portray an average man. He doesn’t judge him, he doesn’t comment. He just shows him. Souza’s candid snapshots are solely focused on the president. It’s all about the president and one wonders what shots never make it into the public eye.
Souza is wherever the president is. He sees and hears everything the president sees. But all he’s focused on are the president’s expressions, postures, tensions and the occasional relaxation.
Except for a few images, each and every one shows the president: Obama joking, Obama focused, funny Obama, Obama relaxing, Obama tweeting, Obama in a helicopter or Obama with his family.
The White House clearly knows the power of such and especially Souza’s images. His photos already break with the long-held tradition of mainly showing red carpets, important faces and state limousines. Traditionally, White House photos should praise the president and make him appear in good light.
Many of Souza’s photos will never be seen as they’ll likely show a less positive, tired, grumpy, impatient and disinterested president. But what we get to see is already quite amazing. I wouldn’t know of any other world leader who’d let a photographer get as close and personal as Souza. Sure it’s all part of the PR game. A new PR game.
Obama lets Souza show important and hardly important moments in the president’s life. And in January 2009, when Souza took up the assignment, the president’s hair was less gray.
Other official photographers might apply filters and post-processing to make their boss look younger. Not so Souza. His photography is authentic.
His boss, however, is not as popular anymore as back in 2009 when he signed copies of his book The Audacity of Hope by the pile.
Souza will be there in the coming years when the hair becomes even grayer, accompanying a president who knows better than anyone else on the world that he can’t reignite the old euphoria.
To be documented by Pete Souza, White House photographer.