Pete Souza shared intimate moments of the Obama presidency with the world
At first glance the photo seems to be of a lush, verdant golf course. But look a little closer and there's a solitary figure in the lower right-hand corner, a man with a golf club sizing up his next shot.
What's remarkable is the man is President Barack Obama. He appears to be all alone, with nary a Secret Service agent, family member or aide in sight.
Pete Souza, the former chief official White House photographer who captured the image in 2009, knew he'd shot something special.
“The funny thing about that picture is any time he (Obama) would go out golfing, there'd be 12 golf carts following him and Secret Service guys everywhere,” says Souza, who appears June 11 at the Carnegie Library Lecture Hall in Oakland for Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures' New & Noted series. “For whatever reason, they were all sort of behind me and he had walked up to take his golf shot. That was one of the few times in eight years I got him alone, let alone on a golf course. I knew when I was composing it how unusual it was.”
Souza's “Obama: An Intimate Portrait,” (Little, Brown, $50), is a collection of Souza's best photos from the 1.9 million images he took during his tenure in the Obama White House.
Earned his trust
Formerly a photographer with the Chicago Tribune and National Geographic, Souza also had worked as a White House photographer during Ronald Reagan's administration, so he wasn't in awe of his surroundings. But he did recognize that Obama was had a special quality in the way he related to people.
“It's unique for a politician to be able to reach people in not just what they say from a podium, but how they interact more directly with the people,” Souza says. “He can do both. He reaches people with his speeches, but he also does it with a personal touch. It's unusual to have someone who does both of those so well.”
Souza often worked between 12 and 14 hours a day.
He was with the president in times of crisis, most notably in the situation room when Osama bin Laden was killed in 2011.
But many of Souza's best photos were shot during ordinary situations: A young boy falling asleep at the White House Father's Day ice cream social, or a snowball fight between the president and his daughters.
In order to gain access to these moments, Souza had to earn the president's trust.
“You have to demonstrate you can move around in highly classified meetings and not interrupt what's going on,” he says. “You had to earn his trust that anything you might overhear, you're not going to repeat to anyone. Yes, he agreed to give me access to everything, but that's easier said than done. … I still had to earn what he promised me.”
Sense of humor
There were times when Souza indulged his sense of humor at the president's expense. A photograph taken of the president and the Easter bunny, with the Washington Monument in the background, called attention to Obama's prominent ears.
There were many other moments that stood out for Souza, who now works as a freelance photographer in Washington, D.C. While state dinners and cabinet meetings held a certain gravity, the photos that remain with him most were the ordinary moments when something unexpected happened: the Obama family dog, Bo, bounding up the steps to Air Force One, or when a young boy asked if he could touch the president's head.
For many people, meeting Obama was the thrill of their lives, and Souza always kept that in mind even if the resulting photograph was not his best work.
“The picture just doesn't work for some reason,” he says. “For the people who are being photographed, that doesn't even matter. It's that you got a picture of them interacting with the president of the United States. For them, that's huge deal, even if it doesn't meet your threshold of what a great picture is. It still means so much to the people being photographed.”
Rege Behe is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.