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Photographer in Chief

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. 

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