A Life Behind the Lens: An Evening with Pete Souza

Souza photographed several United States presidents, including Reagan, Clinton, W. Bush, and Obama.

On Friday, February 2, Boston University alumnus and former chief official White House photographer Pete Souza was awarded the Hugo X. Shong Lifetime Achievement in Communication. This award honors individuals who have made outstanding contributions to the field of communication.

As the former chief White House photographer, Souza worked for former president Ronald Reagan during his second term, for former presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush on various assignments–and, most notably, for former president Barack Obama through all eight years of his administration.

Souza loyally recorded the public and private lives of the presidents and widely became known as the “people’s photographer.”

During his years as chief photographer, Souza gathered millions of photos and exciting stories about both the presidents and the White House.

Starting his career in public communication at the College of Communication, Souza said he has always been thankful that COM gave him the chance to explore journalism and photography.

At his ceremony, he shared an anecdote with the audience about his application for BU. When a younger Souza looked at his high school transcripts and related work, some advised him that he wouldn’t earn admission to the university. Depressed by this advice, he decided to apply to Northeastern University, just in case he did get rejected by BU.

In the end, though, Northeastern University rejected his application, while BU opened its arms to him.

“I would love to know why,” he said. “But I’m thankful.”

After landing in the field of photojournalism for several years after graduation, he received a phone call in 2009 telling him that the president wanted him to be his chief photographer. He accepted the offer and worked as the chief White House photographer for the next eight years.

Souza’s recently published book Obama: An Intimate Portrait, is a collection of images that capture the essence of his eight years with the former president. Souza shared some photos in the book with the audience at Morse Auditorium. Each set of photos had a theme, roughly grouped into sections like “the best/worst day of his presidency,” “Bin Laden raid,” “interactions,” “family time,” “aesthetic vs. narrative,” “Obama and kids,” and “the final week.” As Souza elaborated on these pictures, he formed a perspective of Obama as a real man emerging little by little.

Souza recently published a book containing his photos entitled “Obama: An Intimate Portrait.”

One anecdote was particularly memorable. Along the West Wing basement hallway in the White House, there is an area of framed photos called “Jumbos,” where Souza would rotate his most recent work to be displayed. The president, it turns out, cared about that photo corner. There was a time when president was playing one-on-one basketball with Reggie Love, his personal aid/bodyman, and Souza was at the court side photographing. Obama, Souza recalled, is competitive by nature–and Love was a former member of the Duke men’s basketball team, a standout program.

The two went back and forth for 45 minutes, and at one moment, Obama succeeded in blocking Love’s shot. After the game concluded, Obama hurried to Souza to check if the photographer had caught that moment.

Souza recalled that sweat was trickling down his back when the president of United States was searching through his camera to look for that moment. When it turned out that play was indeed immortalized on film, Obama commanded the following of Souza: “Make that a Jumbo.”

“And he forced Reggie to sign it,” Souza added.

Souza also spoke about what Obama deemed the worst day of his presidency: the day of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting. In one image from the day, Obama leaned against the back of a sofa, eyes half-closed, a pensive and grieving expression on his face.

“He reacted not as a president, but as a parent,” Souza said.

Souza had unlimited access to whatever events or meetings the president participated in. He also had the privilege to witness how the president of United States interacted with his family, friends, and everyone he came into contact with.

Souza categorically grouped the photos in his presentation, based on specific periods throughout Obama’s presidency.

Souza said that embedded in a person’s interaction with others is his real self–which was clear with Obama. When an African-American boy in the Oval Office asked whether his hair really felt the same as the president’s, Obama bent over and let the boy touch his head. When capturing that moment, Souza said he didn’t realize its importance because it happened swiftly–but thinking back, Souza now sees it as proof of a taste of humanity in the White House.

Pete Souza retired as chief photographer of the White House at the conclusion of Obama’s administration, but his career as a dedicated photojournalist continues. Quoting Obama, Souza concluded his presentation: “If you’re walking down the right path, and you’re willing to keep walking, eventually you’ll make progress.”

 

Muyang Zhou, Staff Writer

Muyang Zhou is a graduate student from Emerging Media Studies at COM. Reminiscing about the time when she worked as associate editor-in-chief for her college newspaper, she joined The COMmunicator as a staff writer. She is always willing to communicate thoughts with different people and get inspired. In addition to writing, her enthusiasm lies primarily in music and gigs.

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