A first-person encounter with Pete Souza, former chief White House photographer

“Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law. For if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well.” -President Barack Obama on January 21, 2013.

Cold. Dreary. It was an evening where you would prefer reading a book in front of a cozy, warm fireplace. Instead, few brave souls came two hours before Pete Souza’s book talk on “Obama: An Intimate Portrait.” Inside the theater, folks were friendly and accommodating. Questions were asked and answered, spontaneously making new friends left and right, while waiting for the program to begin.

An impressive turnout of over a thousand came, with 1,250 books sold. The event reminded us of what we were then as a nation, and what we still need to do to get to a more perfect union.

Even David Letterman had a joke about Souza’s book when he interviewed the 44th president on Netflix. He lamented that the taxpayers paid Souza a salary to take millions of photographs, and then, the photographer turned it into a book with millions already been sold. Try ordering it, and it is out-of-stock.

I went inside the theater and asked Souza for a selfie. Like the proverbial saying, “the early bird gets the worm,” I got several photos, and a warm encounter with him, to whom I said, “Your book has a lot of heart and magnificence.” He smiled and then asked me, “Have you got a box of tissues tonight?” Indeed, he had us sobbing during parts of his book talk.

Souza was working for the Chicago Tribune when he met then-Senator Obama on January 5, 2005. He photographed the former senator in a windowless basement room with unruly computer wires on the floor. He told himself this would make a good image and a great contrast if this guy ever became president. Then, Souza flips to the next image with President Obama in the Oval Office and what a great juxtaposition of before and after images.

To be exact, Souza and his team took 1,875,000 digital photos to document the historic and inspiring presidency of Obama. Close to two million photos are now in the National Archives, without any image deleted with a 12-year embargo. He had to cull it down to 300 images for the book.

So when he was requesting the 44th president to write a foreword, Obama agreed. He then asked how the book was coming along. Souza told the president about his dilemma of culling 1.875 million to 300 images and the president responded, “as you know, it is aesthetic vs. narrative.”

Souza joked with our crowd, “So, you are going to be a photo editor too?” The crowd roared with laughter, a crowd quite familiar with the president. Obama’s smarts, abilities, and engaging manner of connecting to his staff, as Souza had demonstrated through several his images: fist bumping with Larry Lipscomb, a General Services Administration worker, a hug to the White House butler, practicing for a wedding dance with a staffer about to be married, including very endearing photos where first, Michelle Obama held a crying infant. Then, Obama held the same infant — serene and calm in his arms, with the happy parents in the background — as he smiled and was quite pleased with himself, earning him the title “child whisperer.”

Why this rainbow means more to Souza 

First, Souza showed us a rainbow arc. When the former president waved his hand at the top of the stairs of Air Force One in Jamaica, almost touching the arc of the rainbow, Souza told us he did not include this photo in his book.

Instead, Souza showed us his preferred rainbow photo – that of the White House lit in rainbow colors to celebrate the Supreme Court’s decision to uphold same-sex marriage June 26, 2015.

“U.S. Supreme Court ruled that same-sex marriage is a legal right across the United States, which means, 14 states with bans on same-sex marriage could not enforce them,” BBC News reported.

Souza texted his wife to come to the White House and thousands of folks had gathered that night, some sobbing and no one wanted to go home. It was a historic night of yellow, green, blue, red, orange lights and the U.S. flag flying atop. That was his narrative about what was moving and one of the best days of the Obama presidency.

Another narrative was visiting the Christ the Redeemer statue atop Corcovado Mountain, which overlooks Rio de Janeiro. Souza wrote: “The Obama family was scheduled to see it before dinner, but when heavy fog rolled in, they canceled the visit. After dinner, the fog dissipated, and they received word that it would be safe to drive up the mountain. By then, it was late, and some suggested they call it a night. But someone else remarked that they might never get this chance again. So off we went. The sky was clear when we arrived, and then the fog magically rolled back in. March 20, 2011.”

The image is a dramatic one with dark figures, most notable one of Obama, standing in front of the white-lit Christ the Redeemer statue. The photo is a beautiful contrast of black and white figures with lights and shadows.

An example of aesthetic was when the president was looking out toward the Washington Memorial next to the Easter Bunny, with both of their backs to the camera. The President told Souza, “The two most famous sets of ears in Washington.” When the president saw the photo, he asked for a print to give to his girls, Sasha and Malia.

At several points of his book talk, Souza moved the audience to tears, looking at the stitched up skull of Cory Remsburg, a partially paralyzed soldier whom the president visited at Walter Reed Hospital on Feb. 28, 2010. Eight months before on June 6, 2009, the president had met Remsburg in Normandy and the family asked the president to sign that photograph.

The president visited with 1,000 soldiers in 24 trips throughout his eight-year term in office. Every four months, he would go to a base or hospital to visit with the soldiers.

A high point of the Obama presidency was when Congress passed the Affordable Care Act. A close friend of the president texted him and said, “Your mom would be proud of you today.” His mom was just 52 years old when she died of ovarian cancer and had difficulties getting care because of her pre-existing condition.

“Was there a photo you wished you had taken but could not?” a 16-year-old asked? “Yes,” Souza responded, “there is no photo on the book when the Affordable Care Act website went down for weeks. I could not find a set of images to show what that was like.”

On page 280 of Souza’s book, Pope Francis stands on the arrival ceremony on the South Lawn next to President Obama in front of thousands on September 23, 2015. I was part of that welcoming crowd, standing with over 500 credentialed reporters from around the world, proudly representing the Asian Journal and chronicling that part of history. I was one of those small dots in that photo.

When asked about his technique, he said, “I hang out, I take photos, I wait for great expressions. Peak actions. I had support people who handled my [memory] cards. Every few days or sometimes weeks, I go through photos to see what’s working and what’s not working. I took one sick day in eight years because I had to undergo anesthesia. We posted 50-75 photos per month on Flickr. Photo editors would do the first edit. I would do my second edit and then we sent them to the White House digital team.” As to the camera he used, “a mirrorless Canon Mark 2 and 3 with telephoto lens.”

When someone complimented him on how awesome the book is, Souza responded, “You have not seen the 1,875,000 photos that were sh*tty.”

“The book is a social commentary to remember what we had,” the program organizer said, whose name was not audible..

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Prosy Abarquez-Delacruz, J.D. writes a weekly column for Asian Journal, called “Rhizomes.” She has been writing for AJ Press for 10 years. She also contributes to Balikbayan Magazine. Her training and experiences are in science, food technology, law and community volunteerism for 4 decades. She holds a B.S. degree from the University of the Philippines, a law degree from Whittier College School of Law in California and a certificate on 21st Century Leadership from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. She has been a participant in NVM Writing Workshops taught by Prof. Peter Bacho for 4 years and Prof. Russell Leong. She has travelled to France, Holland, Belgium, Japan, Costa Rica, Mexico and over 22 national parks in the US, in her pursuit of love for nature and the arts.

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