On Wednesday, Sept. 20, Pete Souza, Former White House photographer for Presidents Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama, drew a full room in the JFK Forum at the Institute of Politics. Though Souza discussed his experiences with both presidents, he primarily focused on Obama’s, as the release date for his upcoming book, “Obama: An Intimate Portrait,” edges nearer.
Anne Marie Lipinski, a curator at the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University, introduced Souza to the audience. First, Souza opened his work with a few highlights from Reagan’s terms. One particularly amusing photo included Michael Jackson, standing behind Reagan and his wife, Nancy, as they engage in what seems like a quarrel.
With Obama, Souza’s work began before he became the president. In January 2005, Souza began to shoot for Obama as he was sworn in as junior senator of Illinois. Souza showcased photos of then-senator Obama before delving into the images that will be a part of his upcoming book. This part of the event went through contrasting points in Obama’s presidency: beginning and end, good and bad, personal and occupational, aesthetically pleasing and narratively informative. He claimed that President Lyndon B. Johnson’s White House photographer, Yoichi Okamoto, was his inspiration during Obama’s presidency.
The pictures themselves were intimate, often portraying Obama alone or with close family and friends. Other times the photos display what happens behind closed doors during historical events. Souza claims to have gotten lucky with some of the iconic Obama images. In one picture, Souza snapped Obama waving on the top of an airplane staircase, a rainbow behind the president’s figure, as if it was curving out from his hand.
Behind the lens, Souza offered a lot of personal insight into Obama’s life. He said that he believes that if asked, Obama would say that the Sandy Hook shooting was the worst day of his life. Souza also remarked that during Biden’s son’s funeral, Obama could not look at Biden during his speech. He mused about the enthusiasm with which Obama coached his daughter, Sasha’s, basketball team, deeming it comparable to the level of an NBA coach.
One photo of Obama and his wife, Michelle, in the backseat of a limousine uncovered a humorous story. Souza said that when he asked Obama whether he could sit in the limousine with them to take a photo, Obama answered, “Well, Michelle and I were planning to make out.”
Souza said that with the 1.9 million pictures that he took of Obama, it was a challenge to choose which 300 pictures to include in the book. He said that Obama told him, “Boy, you’ve got to choose the aesthetic over the narrative.” For Souza, however, the aesthetic was beyond what a photographer may capture in lighting and position—the aesthetic was the narrative of the President itself.
—Staff writer Kamila Czachorowski can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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