Barack Obama's chief photographer, Pete Souza
For 50 years, presidential photographers have covered it all: upheaval, tragedy, joy — often developing friendships with the presidents they serve. Acting as both visual historians and key links between the public and the presidents, for these photographers no day is the same — whether they are aboard Air Force One, backstage at the State of the Union or in the heart of the West Wing.
As the 44th president's chief photographer, Pete Souza is never far behind President Obama. Now in the National Geographic Special, The President's Photographer: 50 Years in the Oval Office, viewers can follow Souza, and those who came before him, for a behind-the-scenes look at the everyday grit of the American presidency.
The presidential photographer's job is two-fold: one, taking photographs of the president greeting dignitaries, visitors and guests; and two, perhaps more challenging and gratifying: documenting for history every possible aspect of the presidency, both official events, backstage happenings and "off-duty" private moments. "Creating a good photographic archive for history is the most important part of my job, creating this archive that will live on," says Souza. "This is not so much photojournalism as photo-history." Souza and his staff produce up to 20,000 pictures a week.
The movie offers rare interviews by Souza and four veteran presidential photographers — David Hume Kennerly (Gerald Ford); David Valdez (George H.W. Bush); Bob McNeely (Bill Clinton); and Eric Draper (George W. Bush) — tell insider stories about photographs that reveal what presidential speeches, press conferences and posed images often cannot.
"The job of presidential photographer is all about access and trust, and if you have both of those you're going to make interesting, historic pictures," Souza says. He earned the President's trust by following Obama on his rise to the Presidency covering then Senator Obama as a photographer for the Chicago Tribune. Souza, like all the other photographers who have held this post, cites Yoichi Okamoto, President Johnson's photographer, as the gold standard.
Okamoto, known as "Oke", had unparalleled, and unfettered access to President Johnson. Only Oke and LBJ's appointments secretary were allowed to walk into the Oval Office whenever they wanted. Okamoto's coverage reveals the benefits of such access with a body of work that shows the president in every imaginable phase of his work — cajoling senators, pondering pros and cons of issues, even examining one of his dog's illicit deposits on the Oval Office carpet.
Not every photographer has had such access. President Nixon's photographer, Ollie Atkins, had very limited access to the president. All picture opportunities had to be cleared with the press secretary.
So far, eight professionals have served as Chief official White House photographers for any significant period. Their images, from September 11th to Kennedy's assassination, have become icons that can also serve as a visual tools to help future historians understand what went on during a particular presidency.
To a documentary photographer, like Souza, every presidency has defining stories, and those images are often how we remember a president. For Johnson, it was civil rights and Vietnam. President Reagan is forever tied to the end of the Cold War. President Clinton pursued peace in the Middle East. History has yet to define the Obama administration, but Souza is there to document it, every step of the way.
Pete Souza is the Chief Official White House Photographer for President Obama; he is also the Director of the White House photo office.
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 for President Reagan, a freelancer for National Geographic, and as the national photographer for the Chicago Tribune based in their Washington bureau.
Souza's book, "The Rise of Barack Obama," was published in July 2008 and includes exclusive photographs of the Senator's rise to power. Souza extensively documented Obama's first year in the Senate and accompanied Obama to seven countries including Kenya, South Africa and Russia. The book was on the New York Times bestseller list for five weeks.
In addition to the national political scene, Souza has covered stories around the world. After 9/11, he was among the first journalists to cover the fall of Kabul, Afghanistan after crossing the Hindu Kush mountains by horseback in three feet of snow.
As a freelancer, Souza has photographed two articles on assignment for National Geographic Magazine and three photo essays for Life Magazine. His photographs have also been published in many other magazines and newspapers around the world including on the covers of Fortune, Newsweek, and U.S. News & World Report.
In 1992 Souza produced and published "Unguarded Moments: Behind-the-Scenes Photographs of President Reagan," a coffee-table book based on his 5 1/2 years in the White House. A newer book, "Images of Greatness: An Intimate Look at the Presidency of Ronald Reagan," was published in June 2004 by Triumph Books. Former Sen. Howard Baker Jr. said in his introduction to the book that Souza recorded "some of the most intimate, honest and humanizing scenes of the presidency I've ever seen." Souza was also the official photographer for the June 2004 funeral of President Reagan.
Souza published another documentary book entitled, "Plebe Summer at the U.S. Naval Academy". The book chronicles one company of incoming midshipmen through the six-week indoctrination period of Plebe Summer.
Souza has won numerous photojournalism awards including several times in the prestigious Pictures of the Year annual competition, the NPPA's Best of Photojournalism, and the White House News Photographers Association's yearly contest.
He has lectured many times on his photography including at the Smithsonian Museum of American History, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Harvard University, Boston University, Ohio University, the University of Kansas, Western Kentucky University and Kansas State University. He has appeared on the ABC news magazine show 20-20, Nightline, Good Morning America, CNN Special Reports, Fox Friends and Family, and on National Public Radio.
Souza has had solo exhibits of his photographs at Kansas State University, Fermilab, the U.S. Naval Academy, the Navy Museum, the University of North Carolina, Boston University, and the National Press Club in Washington. His photographs have also been part of group exhibits at the National Archives, Smithsonian Museum of American History, Corcoran Gallery of Art, the Newseum, and the 92nd Street Y in New York City.
He is a native of South Dartmouth, Mass. He graduated cum laude with a bachelor of science degree in public communication from Boston University and received his master's degree in journalism and mass communication from Kansas State University.