Like a pro ball player or a touring musician, Pete Souza spent eight years at one of those jobs that doesn’t really seem like work from the outside.
As the Chief Official White House Photographer for President Barack Obama, Souza had a front-row seat to a historic presidency. Every day, he worked with his compelling and photogenic subject. He witnessed world-changing events and charming private moments. And he spent his evenings editing and compiling an awesome (in the truest sense of the word) photographic archive of Obama’s time in office.
It seems Souza had the coolest job in the world, but it’s more complicated than that, he says. “I understand why people say that... and there are days that I felt like that,” he tells me over the phone. “[But] it’s a very difficult job, physically and mentally. Some days it’s kind of like watching paint dry. Not every day is an exciting day.”
But every day is an important day. Souza was the man behind the iconic White House Situation Room photo taken during the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound, the shot of Obama leaning down to let a Black boy feel his hair, and scores of other images featured in Souza’s new book, Obama: An Intimate Portrait. The photographer’s been touring with the book for months now, but he still gets choked up when he talks about a photo he took of Obama hearing about the Sandy Hook school shooting.
Souza thinks the contrast of the Trump presidency gives images of the Obama White House more emotional resonance.
“I think if Hillary had won the election, my book would’ve still done well, but I don’t think people would still be reacting to it in the same way,” he says.
But they are, and Souza has become something of a rockstar, thanks to his book and his popular personal Instagram account. On Tuesday, he’ll return to Portland for the second time to promote An Intimate Portrait with two scheduled presentations. Souza’s show always turns into more than just a show-and-tell, he says.
“It’s sort of a communal affair where... like-minded people come together and reminisce about what we had and where we are now,” he says.
For his part, Souza’s ready to return to anonymity and get back to the business of taking pictures. (He’s a former newspaper photographer, and recently stayed with Seattle musician Brandi Carlile for a week to document her working on a new album.) He hopes to slow down or stop the speaking engagements, and start letting the images do the talking again.
“I set my bar high. I wanted to create the best photographic archive that has ever been done,” he says. “That was my goal. Other people will have to judge how I did, but that’s what I was reaching for.”