Since former United States President Barack Obama exited the White House at the beginning of this year, former Chief Official White House Photographer Pete Souza has taken on an unlikely sort of celebrity status among a wide swath of online enthusiasts. Last week, Souza headed to The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City for an extensive exchange with Adobe‘s Director of Photography Product Management Tom Hogarty. Sitting down in front of a packed NYC crowd, Souza used the intimate setting as an opportunity to open up about getting the perfect shot, social media, memes and more.
“The good thing was that, with President Obama, you never knew what was going to happen,” shares Souza, recalling his time spent with former President Barack Obama. “He might have a question about something, and instead of calling that person on the phone, he would walk down to the West Wing basement to their office – just walk in. So that sort of made it interesting, in the sense that you never knew what was going to happen.”
While Souza did indulge more technical questions, he was at his best when the time came to share stories from his dream-career. Most notably, the former White House Photographer had the following to say regarding a trip to Italy:
“I took the bus into Verona and spent the day taking street pictures with my iPhone in a square format in black and white. That was the way I thought. For like five hours, that’s what I did, was just trying to make square pictures. I was doing all kinds of funky stuff, I was doing pictures from the hip and kind of like grab shots. I was just having fun, trying to exercise my mind in that way, thinking in black and white, thinking square, thinking, ‘Okay, even though I have a regular camera around my shoulder, I’m mostly shooting with my iPhone.’ So, I’m trying to do those things when I can.”
Elsewhere, Souza entertained with an anecdote involving the opening night of Washington, D.C.’s African American museum:
“Im a span of 30 seconds, I made two pictures that I’m still proud of to this day. One was President Bush, who was also there, handed his smartphone to President Obama, and he’s like, ‘Hey, Barack, take a picture for me.’ So, it’s like a picture of President Obama with an iPhone taking a picture of President Bush and some other people. It’s kind of a funny picture. And then, 30 seconds later, Vice President Biden got down on his knees. There was a woman who was a descendant of a slave in a wheelchair who was honored in this event, and he had gotten down and was kneeling on the pavement and was like, right on her face talking to her, and it was a really nice picture. So, that happened, boom boom, so I wanted to call Kathy up and say, “Screw you.'”
Besides putting a human face to the man behind the lens of some of modern American history’s most significant shots, the 62-year-old former journalist revealed the following to sum up his time in The White House:
“I don’t think that I’m the best photographer in the world. I think I’m a competent photographer. But I think I was the right person to be Barack Obama’s photographer. We kind of have the same generation. I had established a professional relationship with him coming in. I spent a lot of time with him when he was a senator, so he got to know me and saw how I worked. He liked my pictures. He could see that I was truly trying to capture things as they happened, not do a hatchet job … I’m a stubborn individual. I knew the way the job should be done, and I was determined to do it that way. It also means knowing when to give him some space, especially when you’re being photographed all day long, every day … I think I tried to accurately portray what happened, what he was like. And I think ultimately, other people are going to have to judge how I did. Clearly, when you’re in that position, you’re not a photojournalist, but my background is as a photojournalist. I tried to approach documenting for history the same way.”
To experience some of Pete Souza’s tales for yourself, take a look at his unbelievably extensive photo archives.