Four years ago, former White House chief photographer Pete Souza wouldn’t have imagined he’d be the subject of a documentary and an Instagram superstar.
“We hadn’t elected Donald Trump four years ago,” reminds Souza in a phone interview.
Three years and 10 months ago, that had changed. Souza began posting photos of former President Barack Obama on Instagram with wry commentary that sharply contrasted with the actions of the White House’s current occupant. “I didn’t think Trump was competent,” he says. “He was a reality TV star.”
Since leaving the White House in 2017, Souza has published two books and accrued over 2.3 million followers on Instagram. The photos in Obama: An Intimate Portrait and Shade: A Tale of Two Presidents, inspired the documentary The Way I See It, which airs at 10pm October 16, on MSNBC.
He admits he didn’t know what throwing shade was when he posted a photo of the red curtains in the Obama Oval Office after Donald Trump opted for the glitzier gold draperies, and Souza said he liked the old ones better.
“I didn’t think I would get the attention I have,” he says.
The film also traces Souza’s evolution from photojournalist to White House historian—he worked for President Ronald Reagan too—to outspoken critic.
“I had gone back and forth twice,” says Souza, working for the Chicago Tribune between his stints in the White House. “It’s not like you walk into the White House and become a different type of photographer. The work itself is the same.”
For the newspaper, the concern is getting a photograph for the next day. In the White House, it’s “are you doing a good job documenting this president for history?” he explains.
“When I left the White House, I was not working as a photojournalist,” says Souza. “It’s like John Lewis says, ‘If you see something wrong, say something.’”
Says Souza, “I have a unique perspective on the office of the president,” and both Reagan and Obama respected the dignity of the office. “Maybe there was a little hesitation about speaking out, but not much. I was offended by [Trump’s] trashing of the office.”
Souza has been to Charlottesville several times, including when Obama showed up in 2010 to try to bolster Tom Perriello’s unsuccessful reelection to Congress.
He says he doesn’t see Charlottesville as a symbol for white supremacy after 2017’s Unite the Right rally, but rather as a place where “an incident of white supremacy” occurred, much as Minneapolis and Kenosha and Louisville have become known for incidents of racial injustice.
He did have an incident here at UVA on a book tour a couple of years ago, “the only time I’d done a presentation where something questionable happened,” he says. “Just as I began to speak, fire alarms went off. Someone had called in a bomb threat.” While nothing was found, it did leave him wondering whether that was coincidental or “because of me.”
Filmmakers Jayme Lemons, Evan Hayes, and Laura Dern were already Souza fans when they jumped on Lemons’ idea to do a documentary on him, and tapped director Dawn Porter, who was in post-production on John Lewis: Good Trouble. Porter realized the urgency to get the film out before the 2020 election after she saw a Souza appearance and his photographs moved her to tears.
“I didn’t realize until I saw them as a collection, the magnitude of what we’d lost in the 2016 election,” she says
Using Souza’s vast archive of 2 million photos from his eight years with Obama, the film crafts a montage of Obama’s leadership with intimate, candid shots. Authenticity was a clear goal for Souza, and his photographs make you realize that there are no such images coming from the current administration.
While Trump is rarely mentioned by name, in the film Souza demonstrates the difference in styles of the two presidents, comparing the iconic, nail-biting war room shot of senior Obama administration officials watching the takedown of Osama bin Laden in 2011, and a posed Trump photo with uniformed generals staring at the camera after Isis leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was killed in 2019.
Following Trump’s Bible-clutching photo op in front of St. John’s Church in June, Souza parried on Instagram with a shot of Obama inside the church and the comment, “No tear gas was needed to get there.”
Souza says initially he turned down the job with Reagan because he wasn’t that interested in politics. And while he didn’t agree with Reagan’s policies, Souza became a fan of Reagan’s genuineness and his empathetic understanding about the power of his decisions.
With his extraordinary access to both presidents, was he ever asked to leave the room?
“I think I had a good, intuitive sense of when to leave the room,” Souza says. He recalls one time when Obama asked him to leave when the president “was going to admonish someone.”
The Way I See It reminds viewers of what it’s like to have a president with a sense of humor. Souza recounts asking Obama if he could ride with him in the limousine to his second inauguration, and the president quipped that he had planned to make out with Michelle.
Souza worries that young people won’t realize that what is happening in the White House now isn’t normal, and he says in the film his decision to troll Trump isn’t partisan.
“It’s all about the dignity of the office,” he says. “This is somebody that I think is not a good person.”