TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. During President Obama's eight years in the White House, Pete Souza took nearly 2 million photos of him. Souza was Obama's chief White House photographer, but he actually started photographing Obama after Obama was elected to the U.S. Senate and Souza was the Washington photographer for the Chicago Tribune. Souza shadowed Obama during his first year in the Senate and then did a book of photos and texts called "The Rise Of Barack Obama."
Now Souza has a new book collecting White House photos and telling the stories behind them. It's called "Obama: An Intimate Portrait." The pictures range from the famous photo of Obama, Hillary Clinton and the national security team in the Situation Room watching the Bin Laden raid play out to a photo of the Obamas' dog, Bo, climbing the stairs alone into Air Force One. Since Trump became president, Souza has become famous for responding to things Trump says and does by posting photos on Instagram showing how Obama handled similar situations.
Pete Souza, welcome to FRESH AIR. So I have to say, President Obama writes the intro for your book. And he says over the course of eight years in the White House, he probably spent more time with you than with anybody other than his family. Now, is that introduction hyperbole, or is that really true?
PETE SOUZA: I think it's really true. And I think he's talking about in my presence. I was there all the time. I wasn't talking to him all the time, but I was always in every meeting and pretty much every situation that he had as president. So it's probably pretty true.
GROSS: Were you trying to be invisible much of a time?
SOUZA: Yes. My goal was to document what was taking place, accurately capture the mood and emotion of the moment and not change what was taking place. And by using what I call a small footprint, meaning not using a noisy camera or not using flash, moving around gingerly - I'm not sure if invisible is the right word, but I was certainly trying to be piece of the woodwork.
GROSS: So what were the ground rules that you established for yourself and that the White House established for you?
SOUZA: There really weren't any ground rules. It was a brief conversation at the start where Robert Gibbs as his emissary, if you will - when he called to offer me the job on behalf of the president-elect, I said, I'm all-in on this, but you have to be all-in. I need to have access to everything. And the immediate response was, the president-elect gets it. And that was basically our ground rules - is access to everything.
GROSS: So let me ask you about one of your most famous photos. And this is the photo of President Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the national security team on May 2, 2011, watching a screen of I'm not sure what during the mission to take out bin Laden. And Hillary's hands over her mouth. Everybody just looks incredibly tense and focused. What was happening in that moment? What were they looking at?
SOUZA: They were monitoring in real time the mission as it was unfolding. We were in that little conference room within the Situation Room for about 40 minutes, I think it was. And during that entire time, the mission was taking place in Pakistan. And they were just monitoring it in real time.
You know, it's - the thing that strikes me about that photograph now is you have the most powerful people in the federal government. You've got the president, the vice president, chairman of the joint chiefs, secretary of state, secretary of defense and on and on and on. And they were essentially helpless. They had made their decision in the days and weeks before to launch this raid, but now it was up to those guys on the ground. And there was nothing they could do to affect the outcome, which I think helps depict why their faces are so anxious and intense - to just essentially watch as this happens right before their eyes.
GROSS: So here's this, you know, really important mission that they're watching. As you say, at this point, they're out of control; there's nothing they can do. Where were you taking their photo?
SOUZA: So the Situation Room is actually comprised of three conference rooms. The president usually holds his meetings in the big conference room. The communications link that had been set up in Pakistan, Afghanistan was set up in this little, tiny conference room which was across the hall from the main room. And they were worried that if they switched that link to the big conference room, they might lose the signal. So instead, everybody just kind of piled into that little conference room.
And it just happened really fast. And the brigadier general that you see seated at the head of the table - when he saw the president of the United States walk in, he stood up to give him that chair. And President Obama looked at him and said, no, no, no, you're running the show because he was kind of the link to the folks in Afghanistan, Bill McRaven. President said, you stay there; I'm just going to pull up this little chair and sit next to you. So that's why the president's sitting where he is.
And I had to make a decision when I first came in that room with this group. I had to pick one side 'cause it was so tight in there that I couldn't really - once I picked a spot, I couldn't really move. I had to basically go left or right. I went left, just took a guess that that would be a good spot to be. And throughout that 40 minutes, I was - I probably could only move 12 inches at the most 'cause it was just so jam-packed in that room. There's actually other people in the room that you don't see because they're, like, standing literally right next to me.
GROSS: And it must have been on your mind to, like, not get in the way, to not interfere in any way in this really tense, important, dramatic moment.
SOUZA: Absolutely. I was using a very quiet shutter, so when I took a picture, it wasn't loud at all. There wasn't a lot - you know, usually in a Situation Room meeting, there's lots of conversation, and it's easy to mask the sound of the camera. But in this particular 40 minutes, there was not a lot of conversation at all taking place. So I was being very quiet as best I could. And in those 40 minutes, I think I took about 95 or 100 pictures, which is not really a lot - you know, one every 30 seconds or so.
GROSS: OK. So getting back to that moment during the bin Laden raid, you say after they got confirmation, that he was taken out. You say there was no cheering, no fist bumping. Why did you think it was important to note that?
SOUZA: Bin Laden was someone who had escaped the grasp of our military for 10 years. He was responsible for the biggest terrorist attack in our country. And I guess I was surprised that at the very end of this mission when they knew they had him, it was somewhat anti-climactic that this had happened. And there was I think happiness. The president reached out and shook hands with a couple of the people in the room. But there was no - it was just so quiet afterwards that I just thought - I was surprised, to be honest with you.
GROSS: So here you have this, like, ultra-secret mission. Everybody's in a part of the Situation Room. And you're the photographer, and you're there. What kind of security clearance did you have, and what kind of access did you have to all kinds of secrets?
SOUZA: I had a top security clearance which, you know, enabled me to go into all these meetings. But I have to say that most of the top-secret material is on paper, and I was not privy to paperwork. You know, I didn't get memos and things like that. And when you're a photographer and in the room in these kinds of situations, you do hear conversations, but you've got so many things to worry about technically with the camera and then hoping to capture the moment at just the right time, composition.
You can get the sense of the conversation and the mood and the emotion. But, like, I couldn't tell you, you know - I couldn't repeat verbatim conversations that took place 'cause I quite frankly wasn't necessarily listening to all the words, just the - just trying to get the essence of what was taking place.
GROSS: So you have a photograph of President Obama getting the news that 26 people were shot at the Sandy Hook Elementary School, that 20 of them were first graders. Obama's leaning against the couch, head down, his arms crossed, his eyes closed as he gets the news from his Homeland Security adviser, John Brennan. Put us in that moment in your shoes. What's it like taking pictures at really such an awful moment? And I imagine there's times when President Obama may have wanted to get news like that without being observed.
SOUZA: Let me set the scene for you even just a little bit more. This is four weeks after he had just been re-elected to the presidency for a second term. It's the middle of December. The White House takes on this almost glorious appearance with decorations and Christmas trees. And there's a big Christmas party every night with 500 people on the state floor that the president does a drop by at. So that was the mood of the White House when this awful thing happened.
And we started to get the news. There's a little TV right outside the Oval Office, and we started to get the news that there had been the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School. And John walked in - and I followed him in - and was telling the president that, yes, in fact, you know, 26 people had been killed, including 20 first graders. And I realized the significance of this moment. It's very emotional. But I'm also worrying about my composition and framing. So all these things are going through my head as this, you know, very difficult conversation's taking place.
And I think - I always tell people that in this moment, he's not reacting as the president of the United States. This - see the body language that you describe. He's reacting as a fellow parent and just trying to imagine that you send your 6-year-old kid off to school - we consider those safety zones - and you've just learned that you're never going to see that 6-year-old again because some crazy guy shot them to death.
GROSS: So this week, on Sunday, people were shot. People were shot to death at a church in Sutherland Springs, Texas. And some children were shot at the church. After that shooting, you tweeted, dear Congress, you are the people's representatives. We want gun control. Do something useful.
So it seems like in some ways, like, your role has changed from the documentarian to be able to, like, speak your mind about things that you feel deeply about, especially having - after having witnessed President Obama learning the news about Sandy Hook.
SOUZA: I am now a private citizen. And I think I should be free to express my views. I saw too many of these things happen - not personally but the effect that these mass shootings have on families. And we need to do something about this. I feel...
GROSS: Well, I imagine you went with President Obama each time he went to a memorial service or to send private condolences to any of the parents or family members of people who were shot to death in these mass shootings. So you were probably by his side for most of that, right? I guess...
SOUZA: I was, and he...
GROSS: I guess what I'm saying as you probably witnessed a lot of grief.
SOUZA: I had to document too many of these instances where President Obama had to play the consoler in chief. And play is probably the wrong word to use. But he would go to Aurora and Charleston and Newtown after these shootings and hug these families and look at pictures that the families had of their loved one that had been killed. I had to do that too many times. And he had to do that too many times. We need to do something about this. I really feel strongly about that.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Pete Souza. He was the chief official White House photographer during all eight years of President Obama's presidency. Now he has a new collection of his photographs called "Obama: An Intimate Portrait." We're going to take a short break here, and then we'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is Pete Souza. He was the chief official White House photographer during the Obama presidency all eight years. Now he has a new book collecting some of his photos called "Obama: An Intimate Portrait." One of your most famous shots is of President Obama bending down so that a young African-American boy could touch the president's hair. Would you describe who that boy was and what the occasion was of this photograph? Like, set the scene for us.
SOUZA: There was this gentleman that worked with national security team by the name of Carlton Philadelphia. He was a nonpolitical worker, and he had actually worked I believe three years during the Bush administration. He carried over for the first six months of the Obama administration. And as a courtesy, the president would often invite departing staff to bring their family into the Oval Office to have a family picture taken in front of the desk.
So just before this picture that you describe was taken, I had made a picture of the family standing in front of the desk. And before the family left, the mom said, Jacob - that's the little boy's name. Jacob has a question for you, Mr. President. And Jacob, in his shy voice, was like, my friends tell me that my hair is just like yours. And at that moment, President Obama bent over, and Jacob touched his head. President said, go ahead, and touch it. And I snapped that one picture.
I mean, I have one picture of this brief moment. And it kind of took on somewhat of a, you know, iconic status in years to follow. And I think what people see in that picture - I guess what I see in that picture is two things. One, here's this African-American kid who's touching the head of the president of United States, who looks like him. And I think a lot of young African-American kids probably could identify with that moment. But it also says something about President Obama that, at the behest of this innocent question from this kid - that he was fine bending over to let this kid touch his head.
GROSS: There's so many great photos that you took of President Obama holding hands with Michelle or kissing her or hugging her and the president playing with Sasha and Malia in the snow, in the White House. There's one where it's, like - Sasha is hiding behind a couch. I think it's in the Oval Office, while the president's at his desk.
So I know you selected these photos from over a million photos. But is that representative of what happened? I mean, was he able to spend a lot of time with his family? I don't know how presidents spend any time with their family.
SOUZA: I think it was important to him, especially when the girls were young, to make sure he was home for dinner every night. And even if there was something going on that called for his attention, he would still try to go home for dinner at 6:30, and if need be, come back to the Oval Office or the Situation Room after dinner and resume discussion. So I think family, for him, was extremely important.
There's a picture in the book right in the midst of the BP oil spill, which, you know, if you remember, went on for weeks. And he had had this meeting in the Oval Office about, you know, trying to figure out how to get them to stop this leak. And as he was - as he finished up the meeting and he was walking back to the Resolute Desk, he saw Malia out on the swing set, which was right outside the Oval Office.
And he walked outside, and sat on a swing next to her and spent just five minutes having a conversation with Malia about what was on Malia's mind. And it was only five minutes, but there was no BlackBerry in his hand. There was no aides in close proximity. He was all in for those five minutes with his daughter. And I saw that again and again. And I tried to convey that part of his life in this book - the family coming in throughout the eight years and how much they meant to him.
GROSS: In your acknowledgments, you write, thanks to Malia and Sasha; I am so proud of how you always conducted yourself in the public eye. You watched those two girls grow up. I mean, eight years is a long time in a child's life.
SOUZA: It is. And I actually - you know, the - I first photographed them when they were 3 and 6. So when he was senator in 2005 and I was working for the Chicago Tribune, I photographed them on his first day in the Senate. And as I said, I think Sasha was 3 and Malia was 6. And now, you know, towards the end I think that last year, I think they were both taller than me. So I did watch them grow up.
GROSS: My guest is Pete Souza, who was President Obama's chief official White House photographer. Souza's new book of photos and text is called "Obama: An Intimate Portrait." After a break, we'll talk about how Souza has been responding to President Trump's actions and comments by posting on Instagram photos of how Obama handled similar situations. And jazz critic Kevin Whitehead will remember composer and pianist Muhal Richard Abrams, who died last week. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Pete Souza, who was the chief official White House photographer during President Obama's two terms. Souza has a new book collecting some of his photos from the Obama years and the stories behind them. It's called "Obama: An Intimate Portrait."
So in some ways, I think you're more famous now than you were when you were the White House photographer because people have just been captivated with your Instagram account in which you've basically - you spent a lot of time shadowing President Trump. And every time - well, not every time, but many times, when he'd say something that wasn't true, you'd post something - you'd post a photo that kind of showed how President Obama handled it or, you know - do you want to describe one of your favorites - one of your favorite examples of that?
SOUZA: (Laughter) Well, I'll start by saying that for the most part, what I've tried to do with my current Instagram feed is display public domain photos and be somewhat subtle and respectful in the words that I write. And I think people can interpret them...
GROSS: Oh, and I will say, the way people interpret it - everybody says that you've been, like, trolling Trump or throwing shade. Those are the two most often used ways of describing it.
SOUZA: I got to say that I had to - when I first - somebody wrote a story about throwing shade, I actually had to look that up because I really didn't know what it meant.
GROSS: (Laughter) And then what was your reaction when you found out what it meant?
SOUZA: I kind of laughed, I guess. I'll say this. I do think that, compared to what some people write on Twitter, I'm being very respectful in the way I present my Instagram feed.
GROSS: Let me give our listeners an example of what we're talking about here. Recently, after four American soldiers were killed in Niger, President Trump was accused of mishandling a phone call to the grieving widow of one of these men. And President Trump said that if you look at President Obama and other presidents, most of them didn't make calls. And then describe what you did on your Instagram account.
SOUZA: First of all, I'd say that I try not to even mention President Trump in my Instagram feed. And I actually give him the benefit of the doubt in terms of the call that he made to this widow, where - you know, those are difficult calls to make. And I don't think he intentionally meant to make this woman feel bad. But, you know, she did, and he should've just let it go, as far as I'm concerned.
But then he tried to turn it into, you know, blaming President Obama for not making calls, and Bush and Clinton. And you know, I spent eight years with this man. And we went to Walter Reed I think 24 times in eight years where we saw sometimes severely injured soldiers. And he would spend hours at Walter Reed with these soldiers, their family.
When we would do events around the country, we would inevitably have private meetings with Gold Star families, meaning the families of soldiers killed in action. And so I thought it was my duty, if you will, to post pictures of President Obama in some of these situations to show that maybe President Obama did more than some people realized, in terms of our wounded soldiers and Gold Star families.
GROSS: After President Trump was photographed having a security meeting at a dinner in Mar-a-Lago when North Korea tested a missile - and he was having this meeting, like, in the open, and everybody at this dinner could have observed it. I think it was somebody at the dinner who took the photo.
You posted a photo of the special, secure location that was erected when the president was traveling and there was a need for a very secure meeting. And you write that everyone had to leave their BlackBerry outside the area. So you posted a photo from March 2011 that was an example of that - comment?
SOUZA: Comment is, that speaks for itself.
GROSS: What was your most stressful moment - if you can narrow it down to one or two - when you were the White House photographer?
SOUZA: I'll start out by saying that compared to what some photojournalists do - you had my friend Lynsey Addario on a while back, who puts herself into extremely dangerous situations to capture life on the edge of war zones. She's been kidnapped. Compared to that, my job was not stressful. I think the hard times for me were just the constant, 24/7 aspect of this job and the physical toll that it takes on you, the emotional toll it takes on you in terms of your family life - you know, these long Asia trips.
You know, the - President Trump's on this long Asia trip right now. Those are brutal on your body, and you're working on fumes and adrenaline in those situations. There are really long days. You're not getting good sleep. And so those are the - those were the hard times. But again, I - compared to what other photographers have to do to get pictures, my job was not that stressful.
GROSS: So you've said, like, you were basically on call 24/7. Were you ever were awakened in the middle of the night with a call saying, something big is happening, get over here so you could document it?
SOUZA: The one that comes to mind is there was a big tsunami in - I can't remember if it was Japan or Indonesia, and they had woken up the president, and then they go down their list, and they call other people. They call me. And my question was always, is the president coming to the Oval Office or the Situation Room? And if the answer was no, then I'd go back to sleep.
SOUZA: And I'd just come in early the next morning because usually - because of communication these days - phone, BlackBerry, messages and things like that - oftentimes, the president would get these calls in the middle of the night. But it would be, like, a five-minute call with the, you know, chief of staff or national security adviser. And there were probably only a couple of times where he would, you know, actually come down to the office in the middle of the night.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Pete Souza, and he was the official White House photographer during all of President Obama's eight years in office in the White House. And now Pete Souza has a new book collecting some of those photographs called "Obama: An Intimate Portrait." We'll be back after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is Pete Souza. He was the official White House photographer during all of President Obama's eight years in office in the White House. And now Souza has a new book collecting some of those photos called "Obama: An Intimate Portrait."
So you've said that, you know, being a White House photographer is really a job for someone in their mid-30s or 40s, and you were 54 when you started. So...
SOUZA: Gosh, now the whole world's going to know.
GROSS: Yeah. You watched Obama age. We all watched Obama age in office, as every president does. Do you feel like you aged more than the eight years?
SOUZA: Maybe ask my wife. I did - the, you know - my hair didn't turn as gray as President Obama's. But, like, now I've got this bald spot that's kind of up the top of my head, which kind of annoys me. But I guess that's - that comes with - as you age so.
GROSS: I think you should just blame Obama for it.
SOUZA: Yeah, no, I - to be serious for a second, I mean, I tried to - you know, one of the things that I admire about President Obama and I'm somewhat jealous of is, he's very disciplined person in terms of exercise and diet. And, you know, people say he aged. Well, that's mostly, you know, because his hair has just kind of turned gray.
But I bet he's probably in better shape today than he was in January 2009. And, you know, I took a page from that, and I did try to exercise regularly and try to eat right. You know, those things make a difference.
GROSS: Before you were President Obama's White House photographer, you were one of the photographers for the White House during the Reagan administration. You know, President Reagan had started his career in Hollywood, so he had been used to, earlier in his life, publicity shots and having films that he was in. So I imagine he had a different sense of photography than other presidents because of that Hollywood experience. Did you get a sense of that from him?
SOUZA: Yeah, I think he was more aware of photographers and photography, and especially when it came to doing these portrait sessions, which President Obama hated to do. He hated to actually pose for, you know, magazine covers or for photo shoots. He hated that, whereas President Reagan I think accepted that more and was more willing to give time to photographers to, you know, sort of create these photographs for the magazine or, you know, for a cover or for, like - Time and Newsweek would often do portraits in the Oval Office or outside the Oval Office. And he was very much more accommodating for those kind of situations than President Obama.
GROSS: So did your political feelings affect your work with President Reagan or President Obama?
SOUZA: No. I did not necessarily agree with some of the things that President Reagan was doing, but I did feel that he was a genuine person who, in his mind, was doing what he thought was right for the country. Like, it'd be difficult to photograph someone that you didn't like. But in terms of whether everything the man you're photographing - if you agree with everything they do or you don't, that's not an issue for me.
GROSS: So after President Trump's inauguration, you were in the helicopter with President Obama and Michelle Obama as they left Washington because they were headed off to a vacation. You took a final shot of the president in the helicopter, gazing over the White House as the helicopter flew over the White House. Then you landed someplace, I'm not sure where. And then I assume you said goodbye to the president and Michelle Obama. What was that moment like for you, that goodbye?
SOUZA: That was a very emotional flight. There was a few staff along for the ride. And the - I remember talking to my fellow staff members, saying how excited I was that I now only had one device. I had my personal iPhone, and I no longer had a BlackBerry, and that was - that's how I cut ties to the White House. That, to me, was the greatest thing to let go of - is that BlackBerry. And I remember walking down the aisle saying, I only have one device.
SOUZA: And we flew to Palm Springs, and it was the one time where we encountered weather so severe that we couldn't land. And we made four or five or six attempts to land in Palm Springs, and we couldn't because of the fog. And that was a little unnerving where the plane was going down and then it was quick going back up. And that happened several times. And we ended up landing at some military base, like, an hour away or something like that. And so it was - because of that, it was sort of anticlimactic saying goodbye to them.
Plus, it was not, like, a final goodbye. When I said my final goodbyes to President Reagan at the end of his administration, I didn't know if I would ever see him again because I was not that close to him personally. When I said goodbye to President Obama in Palm Springs, you know, I hugged both he and Michelle, but I knew that I would see them again. So it wasn't a final goodbye. It was like, you know, enjoy your vacation. There were a handful of others that then stayed on the plane, and we just flew right back to D.C. and dropped them off.
GROSS: Pete Souza, it's been great to talk with you. Thank you so much.
SOUZA: Thank you so much for having me. This is an honor, really, to be here talking to you.
GROSS: And honored to have you - just tell me, really quickly, what kinds of photos are you taking now?
SOUZA: I am still trying to figure that out. This year's been my book year. I've had a couple assignments. I'm friends with musician Brandi Carlile, and she has a new record coming out next year, so I spent a week with her out in Seattle doing some photographs of her for her new record. So I don't know. I'm still trying to figure that out. But next year, I'll be doing some new photography.
GROSS: All right, well, good luck to you. Thank you again.
GROSS: Pete Souza was President Obama's chief official White House photographer. His new book of photos and text is called "Obama: An Intimate Portrait." After we take a short break, our jazz critic Kevin Whitehead will remember composer and pianist Muhal Richard Abrams, who died last week. This is FRESH AIR.
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