ATHENS – What’s it like to spend eight years in close company with the President of the United States, in the Oval Office, in the Situation Room, on helicopters in the dead of night secretly flying in and out of Iraq and Afghanistan?
Pete Souza provided exactly that insight during his first public speech about his work since serving as the chief White House photographer during President Barack Obama’s two terms in office.
Souza spoke Tuesday afternoon at Ohio University’s Schuneman Symposium for Photojournalism & News Media. The Baker Center Theater was so full for his talk that organizers set up an additional 200 chairs in the Baker Ballroom with a live-stream of the speech, and most of those seats were filled as well.
“I looked at my job as trying to show him as president and as a human being,” Souza said. “You guys all know the play, ‘Hamilton,’ and the song, ‘In the Room Where It Happens.’ I was always in the room where it happened. I took that seriously. I tried to do it as a documentary photographer with aesthetics in mind.”
Souza was in the room when President Obama’s signature Affordable Care Act was passed. He was in the Situation Room during Operation Neptune Spear, during which Osama Bin Laden was killed by U.S. Navy SEALS. He was in the auditorium when the president had to play substitute coach on the fly for his daughter’s basketball team.
Souza was the man behind the lens for the most iconic photographs of the Obama presidency, many of which are now on display in the Scripps College of Communication Schoonover Center first-floor VisCom gallery.
Before directing the White House Photography Office, Souza taught photojournalism as an assistant professor in the OU School of Visual Communication.
Back in 2005, he was working for the Chicago Tribune, and he snapped a photograph of the new junior U.S. Senator from Illinois, Barack Obama, at his desk in his basement office of the Dirksen Senate Office Building in Washington, D.C.
Souza pulled up the photograph during his slideshow presentation on Tuesday.
“I was thinking even then, this guy is going to be president someday,” Souza said. And then he pulled up a photo of President Obama sitting at the Resolute Desk in the Oval Office.
During his presentation, Souza went over many moments from between 2009 and 2017, from Inauguration Day and the subsequent Inaugural balls, to “boring meetings” that lasted all weekend, to moments of crisis, such as when President Obama called the CEOs of Chrysler and GM to talk about the plan for the government to step in and rescue their companies.
It’s common practice in the West Wing and Washington in general to refer to the president as POTUS, an acronym for President of the United States.
The times Souza and POTUS flew to Iraq and Afghanistan, it was always secret and in the dead of night. After a couple times, though, Souza said, when he told his wife he couldn’t tell her where he was going, she could figure it out.
Souza brought up the photo of President Obama bending over to let a black child feel his hair. The kid had told the president he wanted to see if his hair felt like his own.
“The president bent over and Jacob touched his head,” he said. “It showed so many things. Here’s this little African-American kid, looking up to somebody who looks like him, thinking, this is the president of the United States. And for the president, I think it showed to him what it meant, he being president, to young African-American kids.”
Another photo shows just President Obama’s hand pointing out a line of edits he made in a speech he gave to a joint session of U.S. Congress on the importance of getting the Affordable Care Act passed. Souza said Obama would spend hours with his speech-writers poring over every word and explaining his goals and thinking.
“I’m not supposed to get political, but I don’t think that’s happening now,” Souza joked.
He showed photos of Obama meeting with the U.S. House GOP caucus for three hours one day, on television, to discuss their concerns over the health-care proposal.
On the day the ACA passed, Souza had photos of the White House staff celebrating, including them enjoying a glass of champagne on the Truman Balcony.
In one photo, Obama is relaxing with a thin smile across his lips while looking at his phone. Souza said that one of his friends had just texted him, “Your mom would be proud.” President Obama’s mother passed away in 1995.
In a lighter moment, President Obama was body surfing in Hawaii, and Souza showed Secret Service Director Joseph Clancy a series of photos that showed POTUS disappearing beneath a wave.
“He goes, ‘My job is to save him from other people, not from himself!’”
Souza also contrasted the president flying down to the Gulf of Mexico to deal with the Deep Horizon BP oil spill, and flying back to Washington for events at the White House, including Paul McCartney singing the Beatles classic “Michelle” in the East Room, with Michelle Obama front and center.
Souza choked up during several reflections on his time with the president. The idea of a former Beatle singing “Michelle” to the woman who grew up from Chicago’s South Side to become First Lady was one of them. The text about President Obama’s mom was another.
The third was when Souza told the story of Sgt. First Class Cory Remsburg, who met President Obama near Omaha Beach in Normandy, France, in 2009, and Souza photographed the handshake.
Every three or four months, Souza said, Obama would visit the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in D.C. to visit troops who had been injured.
Less than a year after their meeting at Omaha, Souza photographed President Obama meeting Sgt. Remsburg again, at Walter Reed, where he was recovering after being wounded in Afghanistan, brain-damaged, with fresh stitches across his skull, and partly paralyzed.
“I was flabbergasted that he was now in this condition, with this traumatic brain injury,” Souza recalled. “It was tough for me. It was obviously tough for (President Obama). But this is what happens when you send people to war. This is war right here.”
President Obama and Sgt. Remsburg met a third time. This took place in 2013, during a private meeting in Phoenix, when, against previous predictions from his doctors, Sgt. Remsburg stood up and saluted his commander in chief.
Souza’s presentation Tuesday, and his portfolio of photographs over the eight years of the Obama Administration, can also be viewed as a pretty significant salute.
D.C. DeWitt is a writer and man of sport and leisure. He has also written for Government Executive online, the National Journal’s Hotline, and The New York Observer’s Politicker.com. He is the Associate Editor of The Athens NEWS in Athens, Ohio. DeWitt can be found on Facebook and Twitter @DC_DeWitt.