White House photographers don’t usually become household names. Their job is to fade into the background, to become the invisible chroniclers of what happens behind the scenes in a presidency.
Pete Souza knows that. His mission, as chief White House photographer for President Barack Obama, was “to create this visual archive for history,” he said recently. And he did that, including compiling the book of photographs “Obama: An Intimate Portrait.” It’s what he did after that made him famous: He subtly trolled the current administration on Instagram. After various scandals or news events, he responded by posting serene images of his old boss. When President Trump launched a Twitter attack on Jeff Sessions, for example, Souza dug up a photo he took of Obama and his own attorney general, Eric Holder, peacefully standing side by side.
News outlets started reporting that Souza was “throwing shade.” Once Souza looked up what “throwing shade” meant, he had to agree. Now he’s compiled some of his Instagram posts into a book, “Shade: A Tale of Two Presidents,” and he’s done being coy. His book presents his Instagram posts alongside the news events that irked him.
He spoke recently about how he tracks down old photos, how he told Obama about the book and what’s hiding underneath the hardcover’s dust jacket.
This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
Do you have any sense of how many photos you took during eight years working for Obama?
Yeah, it was just under 2 million.
And yet, you very quickly respond to the news with photos. Did you keyword them or something?
Yeah, but I have to say that most of the time I know exactly the right picture to use. I oftentimes just Google them because I’m out of town or I’m not near a computer and I would know a picture that we had made public in some capacity, and I can usually find it with the right Google search.
In the book, there’s a photo with Obama talking to a group of female aides with a note about his respect for women. I assume when you took the photo, it probably seemed sort of banal, but given what’s happened since, you feel differently about it. Does that happen a lot with photos from that time?
I think that’s true. I was putting together my presentation for this book, I was thinking about showing the last year of his presidency before I get into the “shade” aspect of the presentation. And I went through the pictures, and I almost started crying because I saw how hard this guy worked and how seriously he took the job. And to see what’s happening now is just really hard for me to watch. And I fear that we’ve become numb to the daily antics out of the White House, you know? It’s like every day there are things that just bother the hell out of me and having been with President Obama so much on a daily basis and watched him do this job — it’s almost too much to bear sometimes.
I couldn’t help but notice that you don’t mention Trump’s name in the introduction.
[Laughing.] Yeah, I was trying to avoid that.
Why is that?
I don’t know, maybe I’m trying to whitewash history. I don’t know. I don’t know. It’s just that I am still actually in disbelief that we elected him.
Have you gotten any feedback from Obama about your photos?
It’s funny, I made a purposeful decision not to tell him that I was doing this book. And I think it was about two weeks ago, I had gone into his office to see him — I try to catch up with him every few months. I figured I’d better let him know, and I just told him, I said, “Hey I didn’t want to put you in an awkward position where people thought you were asking me to do this book or something like that.” And we didn’t really talk about it; we sort of moved right to other things, you know, “How are the girls?” He asked me how my wife was doing. We didn’t really get into what he thought of the book, per se.
I noticed you have a new hashtag on your photos: #throwshadethenvote. Are you transitioning to Instagram activism?
I am trying to do my small part and making sure people realize how important it is to do our civic duty and vote. And I think that too many people stayed home in November of ’16.
You shot a lot of iconic photos — I’m thinking of the Osama bin Laden raid photo, for example, which became so famous. Do you have any that you’re most proud of?
It’s a cop-out answer, but for me it’s always been about the body of work — trying to create a group of pictures that are taken together to show what his presidency was like and what he was like as a person. I will say that I sort of take some pride that even today President Obama’s iPad screen saver is a picture I shot of him and Sasha and Malia making snow angels after a big snowstorm in the Rose Garden. And I know, to him, those are the pictures that he is thankful for the most, that I was there to help document his family life.
I think that’s all I have. Is there anything else you think readers should know?
Have you taken the dust jacket off the book?
Hm, no. Let me grab it. Oh! [Under the dust jacket, which has a photo of Obama wearing American flag sunglasses, is a photo of the White House under ominous clouds with the word “Stormy” underneath.]
I seriously wanted this to be the dust jacket, but I couldn’t get the publisher to agree. So we put it on the case cover instead. But that’s the way it’s going to be displayed at my house.
Stephanie Merry is editor of Book World.
By Pete Souza
Little, Brown. 240 pp. $30.