Photographer in Chief
Pete Souza’s extraordinary career has put him at the forefront of two presidencies and some of the most iconic moments of United States history. He masterfully tells the story of those instances, and everything in between, through captivating photography.
“You can’t plan for the way your career is going to go. When I look back at decisions I made 20 or 30 years ago and how they led to things that happen in the present day, it’s still amazing to me,” says Pete Souza. “If I had turned left instead of right, who knows where I would have ended up. That’s the way life goes.” A powerful message from a man whose life and career as a photographer for many notable publications, historic events and two presidents have led him to countless countries and some of the world’s most powerful people; a life full of moments that might seem impossible to capture, except perhaps through the lens of a camera.
Born in New Bedford, Pete Souza grew up in South Dartmouth, Massachusetts. Living within a mile of the ocean for much of his life, he describes enjoying simple pleasures like the change in seasons and a good Red Sox game. It was not until college at Boston University that Souza discovered a passion for photography. “Sometimes you just don’t know what’s going to strike you,” he says. “My junior year I took a photography class, and that’s when the bug hit me. I didn’t grow up thinking I was going to be a photographer; Until I took that class I didn’t really think about it at all.”
Since then, Souza has worked in the White House with Ronald Reagan and later at his funeral. His career has included assignments for newspapers and magazines like National Geographic and Newsweek and put him in the snow covered mountains of Afghanistan, in the Situation Room with Barack Obama, in the Oval Office the day Obama left for the final time, and many places in between—always behind a camera.
When asked what it’s like to not only be present for some of the most iconic moments in U.S. history but also to have the responsibility of capturing those moments for generations to come, Souza is quick to put it into words. “That’s why you become a photojournalist,” he says. “You make pictures that hopefully are timeless enough that people—and history—remember them.”
Since 1961, there have been eight Chief Official White House Photographers, with the first appointed by President John F. Kennedy, each charged with capturing behind-the-scenes moments, from intimate to iconic, of the highest held office in the country. Pete Souza has had the unique opportunity of being in the White House through two presidencies. For his second term, Ronald Reagan did not appoint a Chief Official White House Photographer, instead opting to rely on other official photographers, including Souza. “I think my biggest challenge was after I left the Reagan administration,” says Souza who was also the official photographer for President Reagan’s funeral services in 2004. “I became a freelancer for 9 years, and even though that was successful at times, there were a lot of ups and downs in terms of having enough work or having enough money. Those 9 years were probably the biggest challenge in my career: just trying to survive as a freelance photographer.”
In 2001, Souza, who was working full time as the national photographer for the Chicago Tribune in their Washington Bureau, found himself in Afghanistan. He was among some of the first photographers to document the fall of Kabul. Years later in 2005, he met a newly-elected senator who he would eventually follow to the White House, this time as Chief Official White House Photographer to President Barack Obama.
“My career as a whole has been very interesting, and certainly the capstone highlight for me has been working with the Obama administration,” says Souza. “All my experiences and skills came together at just the right time—for him too, I think. He and I were a good match.” The most memorable moments of Obama’s presidency—his emotional visit to Sandy Hook, his tense night in the Situation Room during the raid on Osama Bin Laden, his meetings with Russian President Vladimir Putin—Souza was there for all of them. He even captured the first presidential portrait taken with a digital camera. But it’s the moments in between, the intimate times that the president spent playing with his children or adoring his wife that make Souza’s work so captivating; It’s his ability to take a larger-than-life figure and capture his humanity, his flaws, his successes, and his relatability in a single image.
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