Photographer in Chief

Cape Cod Life  /  September/October 2019 / , ,

Writer: Allyson Plessner / Photographer: Pete Souza and Pete Souza 

Photographer in Chief


Cape Cod Life  /  September/October 2019 / , ,

Writer: Allyson Plessner / Photographer: Pete Souza and Pete Souza 

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.

Souza’s capacity to just as expertly capture intimate personal moments means he has left his mark on both the history books of the world and the hearts of the American people. Above, the President and First Lady share a private moment at their second Inaugural Ball, while their security members do their best to make themselves scarce. 

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.”

An historic snowstorm turned the White House grounds into a winter wonderland, and the president took time away from the Oval to be a dad—playing with his daughters on the South Lawn.

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.

As Chief Official White House Photographer, Souza was present for some of the most memorable moments in political history. Above, this photo of President Obama in the Situation Room during the mission against Osama Bin Laden has been heralded as one of the most recognizable shots of Obama’s presidency, capturing the intensity of the time spent in that room.

“Some politicians are too aware of the camera,” says Souza about the unique challenges of political photography. “I was fortunate that I don’t think that was true of Obama at all.”

Over many years, countless unbelievable seconds immortalized by his photographs and two separate presidential administrations, Souza has had time for growth and contemplation. “I’m a smarter photographer than I was 30 years ago. I’m slower,” he says with a chuckle, “but there’s something to be said for experience. I think I’m more observant and my attention to detail within the frame is better.” Technology has played a large role in his evolution as a photographer. His traveling exhibit, “Two Presidents” displays photos of Reagan and Obama in the same space, demonstrating not only the similarities and differences between the two Heads of State, but also how Souza’s craft has developed—pun intended. “The way I approached the photography never changed,” he explains, “but people are more familiar with my Obama pictures because he happened to be president when all these social media tools just exploded.” 

Souza, having worked with presidents on both sides of the aisle, has also used his photography to compare the Trump administration to its predecessor. His recent book, “Shade: A Tale of Two Presidents” is a poignant commentary on the current political climate, one that “throws shade” through pointed photographs and captions about President Obama contrasted with memorable headlines, tweets and comments made by President Trump during his first 500 days in office. Souza’s Instagram account, where he often posts retrospective photos of Obama, has also become famous as a commentary on the legacy of one enigmatic man—who Souza knew more intimately than perhaps anyone else—and the controversial present of another.

President Obama meets with Russian President Putin in 2014—a particularly tense time period for a political relationship that isn’t traditionally known to be amiable.

“One of the things that’s great about photography is that it’s a universal language,” says Souza. “It doesn’t matter what nationality you are or what language you speak, people look at photographs and understand them. At the same time, everybody brings their own background and experience to a photograph, and sees different things. I think one of the great challenges is trying to make an image that is universal.”

Souza’s best advice for photographers is to make photos every day. He quotes famous French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson: “Your first 10,000 photographs are your worst.” “I think you get better with experience. You have to do it every day,” says Souza. “Light, color, composition, the moment…those are the ingredients. Hopefully every once in a while you get all of those in the same frame.” And about what inspires him? “Music inspires me, good people inspire me, Barack Obama inspires me,” he says. “Photographically, I am inspired by Yoichi Okamoto, LBJ’s White House Photographer.”

From exhibiting and speaking to his eloquent collection of books, Souza, who lives in Virginia with his wife and pet tortoise Charlotte, keeps busy. “I hope people come away with some emotion,” he says about his pictures. “Whether that be a happy or sad emotion depends on the photograph.” With so many unbelievable experiences under his belt, it’s understandably difficult to pinpoint one standout moment, and Souza says that he is simply grateful for the rewarding opportunities that photography has afforded him. 

“My favorite will be the one that I take tomorrow. Like Tom Brady said when asked which was his favorite Super Bowl,” says Souza, ever the New Englander. 

Allyson Plessner

Allyson Plessner is a former editorial intern for Cape Cod Life and now works for the publication as a staff writer and digital media coordinator. Born in Florida, Allyson has been a lifelong summer resident of the Cape. She is a recent alumna of the College of Charleston, located in Charleston, South Carolina, where she completed bachelor’s degrees in both English and Spanish. In her free time, Allyson is an avid sailor, beach-goer, and—like her fellow Cape Cod Life colleagues—a dog-lover.