Eight years of the Barack Obama presidency are detailed in a new book of photographs by that administration’s official White House photographer.
Pete Souza, who met Obama in 2005 when he photographed the newly elected senator from Illinois, had intimate access to the president during difficult, pivotal moments of world history. He also documented more relaxed times as Obama laughed with his wife, Michelle; played with his kids; and teased members of his staff.
In a WHYY event, Souza will be in Philadelphia Thursday to present an hour-long slideshow of “Obama: An Intimate Portrait” at the Suzanne Roberts Theater.
Souza’s job, first and foremost, was to compile a visual document of the Obama administration. He had to follow the president every day to photograph ceremonial meetings. Along the way, he shot thousands of candid, unguarded moments to capture the mood of the moment.
“Sometimes my job was watching paint dry. The meetings can be boring, visually,” said Souza. “The great thing about Obama was he was an unexpected guy. A lot of moments happened — not when big things were going on, but little things. You never knew when a moment is going to happen that tells you a lot about him as a human being.”
The result is a roller-coaster ride with political and emotional highs and lows. The book is arranged chronologically, starting with Obama’s 2008 election and ending with his final liftoff away from the White House in January 2017. It reads like a visual timeline.
“For a newspaper, you’re taking pictures to go along with a story or the news of the day,” said Souza, a former photographer for the Chicago Tribune. “The mission of the White House photography office — my main role — was to document the presidency for history.”
Souza often had to react immediately to situations, taking shots quickly without much opportunity to consider composition. One of his most famous images is the president in the Oval Office bending at the waist to allow a 5-year-old African-American boy — the visiting son of a staff member — to touch his head. The boy wanted to understand that they both have the same kind of hair.
In Souza’s caption, he admits the moment happened without warning: “Compositionally, the photograph is not ideal.” But that picture became an indelible image of one trailblazing generation bowing to the next.
One of the more mundane shots Souza had to take was during a whirlwind tour of France in 2009, on the 65th anniversary of D-Day in Normandy. One of the hundreds of hands Obama shook was that of Army Ranger Cory Remsburg. After taking the photo, Souza dutifully sent a copy to Remsburg and immediately forgot all about it.
Fast forward eight months, Obama visited a wounded soldier at his hospital bed to offer the Presidential Coin for his service. The soldier suffered severe head wounds, causing brain damage and loss of eyesight. He could not speak, and it was unclear of he could understand what was happening.
Taped to the hospital room wall was that snapshot from Normandy, which Remsburg’s family made sure was nearby. Over the remainder of Obama’s presidency, he met the injured soldier at least seven times; each time, Remsburg had gotten a bit better.
“He’s doing pretty well,” said Souza. “I actually saw him last month.”
Other photos are more purely visual than narrative. Souza was with Obama on a fishing trip in Martha’s Vineyard and took a shot of the president casting, his line gracefully curving against a deep blue sky. Another image of the president’s Marine One helicopter landing in Jordan swims in the thick orange and yellow desert haze.
Another picture was taken around midnight on March 28, 2010, as Obama was leaving Kabul in a helicopter. The image is mostly black, with smears of unfocused light and a grainy visage of the president.
The scene is too dark for the camera to handle. The identifiable parts of the picture do not form a coherent image, because no light was allowed inside the helicopter for fear it could become an artillery target.
Then, three pages later, is an image of the president’s dog Bo, alone, climbing the carpeted jetway into Air Force One.
“I don’t know, percentage-wise, if it represents exactly how many fun moments and how many hard moments, but I wanted to give people a taste of what it was like to be president for eight years,” said Souza.