‘Doc­u­ment­ing the pres­i­dent was an all-con­sum­ing, 24/7, no-va­ca­tion, no-sick-days, Black­berry-al­ways-vi­brat­ing kind of job’

Pete Souza on life as Obama’s of­fi­cial pho­tog­ra­pher

The Guardian - G2 - - Front page - ALL PHO­TO­GRAPHS PETE SOUZA

The man was seated at a desk in a win­dow­less base­ment of­fice. Two aides had just left the room. I was alone with the new US sen­a­tor from Illi­nois. It was 5 Jan­uary 2005.

One of his feet was propped up on the desk. A govern­ment com­puter had been dumped on the floor, ca­bles strewn. Flu­o­res­cent lights flick­ered over­head. The desk held only a few ob­jects, in­clud­ing a notepad, a book (Robert Caro’s Mas­ter of the Se­nate: The Years of Lyn­don John­son) and a mouse pad. The sen­a­tor was read­ing a doc­u­ment, pay­ing me no mind.

Click. I made a nice can­did frame of this scene, as any pho­to­jour­nal­ist would do. I was us­ing a quiet cam­era. I didn’t want to dis­turb him. Click.i paused. Click again. I waited for a ges­ture, some­thing, any­thing. He never once looked up at me – just went about his busi­ness. So I went about my busi­ness, too. I cap­tured a few more frames and walked out. I had what I needed.

I had met Barack Obama just the day be­fore, when he had been sworn in as a 43-year-old sen­a­tor. It was a day of pomp and cir­cum­stance. He had his fam­ily in tow: a stylish wife and two young daugh­ters. I saw right away how much those girls meant to him. He doted on them through­out the day, mak­ing sure they were com­fort­able. Out­side the Capi­tol, Malia, then six, had twirled a lit­tle dance just for him. Later, in­side the Capi­tol, he got kisses from Sasha, then three. All the while, it was as if he didn’t even no­tice there was this pho­tog­ra­pher with him, cap­tur­ing those mo­ments.

How lucky for me that I was the Wash­ing­ton pho­tog­ra­pher for the Chicago Tri­bune, the young sen­a­tor’s adop­tive home­town

news­pa­per. That was the first day doc­u­ment­ing his first year in the Se­nate. Jeff Ze­leny, the po­lit­i­cal re­porter for the pa­per, and I were pre­par­ing a se­ries of ma­jor sto­ries through­out the year, track­ing how he ad­justed to life in Wash­ing­ton. The plan was for me to spend as much time as I could with him.

Af­ter only 24 hours, I had al­ready be­gun think­ing a crazy thought. The sen­a­tor was not from a fa­mous or po­lit­i­cal fam­ily. His fa­ther was from Kenya, his mother from Kansas. His name was Barack Hus­sein Obama. But he had a gift. What if ? I thought. Could I be ob­serv­ing the fu­ture US pres­i­dent? I imag­ined how that pho­to­graph of him seated at his stale bu­reau­cratic desk in his drab govern­ment of­fice might com­pare with a fu­ture one of him at the Res­o­lute Desk in the Oval Of­fice.

Thus be­gan my pro­fes­sional re­la­tion­ship with Barack Obama. I shad­owed him ex­ten­sively dur­ing his first year in the Se­nate. We got to know each other and un­der­stand how we each worked. In 2005, I ac­com­pa­nied him on a con­gres­sional del­e­ga­tion trip to Rus­sia, Ukraine and Azer­bai­jan. I re­mem­ber try­ing to make a telling pho­to­graph of him walk­ing around Red Square un­recog­nised, just in case that scene could never be re­peated. In 2006, I doc­u­mented him on a fam­ily trip to Kenya, where his fa­ther was born. Thou­sands of peo­ple gath­ered to try to catch a glimpse of some­one who at the time was still a lowly fresh­man sen­a­tor.

In 2007, I re­signed from the Tri­bune to start a new life as a pho­to­jour­nal­ism pro­fes­sor at Ohio Univer­sity. But I did con­tinue to pho­to­graph Obama and even­tu­ally pub­lished a book, The Rise of Barack Obama.

His in­com­ing press sec­re­tary, Robert Gibbs, called me in early Jan­uary

2009 to of­fer me the job as chief of­fi­cial White House pho­tog­ra­pher. I re­mem­ber telling Gibbs that I needed to have ac­cess to ev­ery­thing. All the im­por­tant stuff, when de­ci­sions are made. Even if it was clas­si­fied. He said: “Of course, the pres­i­dent-elect gets it.” That was all I needed to hear.

On pa­per, the job is to visu­ally doc­u­ment the pres­i­dent for his­tory.

But what, and how much, you pho­to­graph de­pends on each pho­tog­ra­pher. I thought I knew what I was in for. I had worked at the White House in my 20s as a “ju­nior” of­fi­cial pho­tog­ra­pher dur­ing the Rea­gan ad­min­is­tra­tion. I wanted to em­u­late Yoichi Okamoto, Pres­i­dent Lyn­don John­son’s chief pho­tog­ra­pher. Pre­vi­ous pres­i­den­tial pho­tog­ra­phers had taken a lot of cer­e­mo­nial pic­tures and few can­did ones. Okamoto pho­tographed seem­ingly ev­ery­thing John­son did.

Start­ing on day one – 20 Jan­uary 2009 – I was de­ter­mined to take Okamoto’s ap­proach. It sounds sim­ple. But ev­ery­thing can change the mo­ment a pres­i­dent sets foot in the Oval Of­fice.

I had a plan for how to make it work for both of us. I would ex­plain to him and ev­ery­one around him why I needed to be in ev­ery meet­ing, ev­ery day: it was my job to cap­ture real mo­ments for his­tory. The highs and lows, the things we didn’t know would be im­por­tant un­til later. But, to para­phrase a line from Lin­manuel Mi­randa’s Hamil­ton: “You gotta be in the room where it hap­pens.” If you’re not, you’re not go­ing to cap­ture any mo­ment, let alone a his­toric one.

My job was to be the ob­server, not the par­tic­i­pant. Easy, right? But it was damn hard. Phys­i­cally. Men­tally. Spir­i­tu­ally. It is a job meant for some­one with some ex­pe­ri­ence, and a lot of youth and en­ergy. Ideally some­one in their mid-30s, maybe early-40s, tops. I started the job when I was 54.

Some­one – I think it was Andy Card, White House chief of staff un­der Ge­orge W Bush – once de­scribed work­ing at the White House as try­ing to take a sip of wa­ter from a fire hose that never shuts off. That’s a pretty good anal­ogy. Just when you think you have a break, boom, you re­alise that doc­u­ment­ing the pres­i­dent is an all-con­sum­ing, 24/7, al­ways-on-call, no-va­ca­tion, no-sick­days, Black­berry-al­ways-vi­brat­ing job.

Obama and I shared a lot of time to­gether. It was 10 to 12 hours a day, five days a week (and some­times six or seven). I pho­tographed ev­ery meet­ing, ev­ery day, ev­ery place he went to. The Oval Of­fice, the Si­t­u­a­tion Room, the Roo­sevelt Room. Nearly 1.5m miles on Air Force One. All 50 states; more than 60 coun­tries. Just shy of 2m pho­to­graphs over eight years.

Along the way, we be­came friends. How could you not when you share so much of life to­gether? We played count­less card games on long flights over­seas. He called me Pete or later the Azorean, when he found out my ances­try, and I called him Mr Pres­i­dent or, more of­ten, Potus. He poked fun at my age, my bald spot, the rep­tiles I kept at home. And I saw what de­lighted him, what wore on him, what made him mad and what brought him peace. Did I ever get on his nerves? Cer­tainly. Did he get on mine? One learns to al­ways say no.

Now, I think back to that scene from Jan­uary 2005 in the base­ment of­fice. So much has changed since then. But in the 12 years I’ve known him, his char­ac­ter has not changed. Deep down, his core is the same. He tells his daugh­ters: “Be kind and be use­ful.” And that tells you a lot about him. As a man. A fa­ther. A hus­band. And yes, as a pres­i­dent of the United States.

Obama: An In­ti­mate Por­trait – the His­toric Pres­i­dency in Pho­to­graphs is out now (£30, Allen Lane)

He poked fun at my age, my bald spot; I saw what de­lighted him, what made him mad

Obama greets cus­to­dian Lawrence Lip­scomb in the Eisen­hower Ex­ec­u­tive Of­fice Build­ing, 3 Dec 2009; (be­low)

Souza, 2014

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