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How Pete Souza became President Obama’s secret weapon

You probably have never heard of Pete Souza.

But, Souza, the White House official photographer, plays an absolutely critical -- and often under-estimated -- role in the shaping of "Barack Obama", the image of the president presented to the public.

And, in an election in which Obama's likability seemed to trump policy concerns that many voters held about him, it's not an exaggeration to say that Souza was a major cog in the machine  that got the incumbent re-elected.

"When these eight years are done, Pete will be its most important illustrator," said Robert Gibbs, who served as White House press secretary in Obama's first term.

Two Souza photos make clear his importance as the prime teller of the Obama narrative to the public.

The first is of President Obama in the Situation Room watching the operation that led to the killing of Osama bin-Laden.  

The second is of President Obama in a lighter moment, "caught" in a spiderweb thrown by a child dressed as a Spiderman.

Screengrab from


The first image, which the White House distributed far and wide via its Flickr feed, paints Obama as a serious and engaged commander-in-chief -- someone who understands the gravity of the mission and the lives at risk. (The photo has been viewed on Flicker almost 2.7 million times.)

The second image, which Obama tweeted from his Twitter account (24.6 million followers) this morning, shows a side of the president the average person (or reporter or non-White House photographer) never gets to see -- and a side that is hugely appealing to lots and lots of people. (Kids are like kryptonite for partisanship -- particularly kids dressed in Halloween costumes.)

But, wait, you say. All presidents have official photographers. True.  But no president before Obama and no presidential photographer before Souza has had access to Flickr, Twitter and the variety of other social networking and sharing sites.  Those sites allow any image of the president that the White House wants people to see to be seen, a massive distribution channel simply not available to past presidents.  

And that fact -- coupled with the fact that media photographers believe the Obama Administration has been the most restrictive in terms of access in several decades -- make Souza's photos all the more important and impactful.  

Souza, who is on the White House payroll, is telling THE story of Obama for many Americans. "If a picture is worth a thousand words, then Pete Souza has written the comprehensive story of the Obama presidency with his images that help foster the direct connection the people of America feel with their President," said Anita Dunn, a former senior White House communications adviser.

That's a remarkable shift from the role/influence that White House photographers in the past have enjoyed. How you feel about that shift depends on what you think of the president. Of course, what you think of the the president has probably been influenced -- directly or indirectly -- by Souza's images of Obama.  

All of which just (re) affirms the centrality of a man the vast majority of the American public wouldn't know if he bumped into them on the street.

Here is more of Souza's work this year, from Bo to a football pass to a run around the Oval Office:

Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix,” a politics blog for the Washington Post. He also covers the White House.



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Aaron Blake · December 19, 2012

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