Throughout Barack Obama's eight years in office, Pete Souza, the Chief Official White House Photographer, barely left his side. Save three weeks of vacation and three, three-day weekends, Souza was there to capture everything — from tense moments in the Situation Room to hilarious happenings on the basketball court.
Since leaving his post in January (Shealah Craighead is now the Chief Official White House Photographer), Souza has remained active on his Instagram account, posting photos with cheeky comments that many have interpreted as not-so-subtle digs at Trump. He's also spent time working on his forthcoming book, Obama: An Intimate Portrait, a curated collection of both famous and never before seen photographs from the administration.
Last night, on the eve of Obama's 56th birthday, Adobe hosted an event featuring Souza at the Metropolitan Museum of Art to share some of the stories behind his photographs and speak about the challenges of photographing a tenure in which "social media exploded."
When Obama came to office in January 2009, Instagram didn't exist. The first presence of Souza's photographs on social media was on a White House Flickr site 100 days into his term. When the White House digital team later came to Souza and asked him to start a White House Instagram account, he was hesitant.
"I didn't even know what Instagram was," Souza said. "I was afraid that I was already working 24/7 and I thought that doing Instagram would slow me down."
Instead, he found that it allowed him to show the American public photos they might not have seen otherwise: the Obama White House feed over the course of the administration shifted in the types of photos that were posted. Early on, Souza said, he found himself posting "a lot of things away from the main action." This was largely because he posted iPhone photos to Instagram, but didn't use his iPhone to shoot while in the situation room or at important historical events.
Later on, Souza began uploading his DSLR photos to Instagram, changing the feel of the account. He differentiated between photos he shot on his DSLR versus his iPhone by keeping photos from the latter in square format.
One of the more challenging social media decisions Souza needed to make regarded comment sections. When the White House Flickr account began, comments were enabled. After all, Souza said, there's such a thing as the First Amendment. But per White House lawyers, no comments could be deleted, nor users blocked.
"Over the course of time, people who did not like the president realized this was another form where they could spout off, and it got to be really vile, really nasty stuff," Souza said.
He finally decided to do something about it after receiving an email from a grade school teacher, who wanted to use the photos to teach her students about the presidency but couldn't because of the comments. This was the turning point: Souza shut the comment section off.
His intuition paid off over the course of his time in the White House. It was part of what helped to establish his close working relationship with Obama. During family moments, when Obama was having a private conversation with Sasha or Malia, Souza said he tried to capture the photo, then quickly back away.
"I could sense when he needed some space," Souza said. "It's all about trust. He trusted me and he trusted me with the access."
Of course, there could be downsides to having someone follow your every move. After the 2013 Inauguration, Souza asked Obama if he could ride with him and the First Lady in the car down Pennsylvania Avenue.
"He looked at me and he goes, 'Michelle and I were planning to make out,'" Souza said.
Ahead, a few of the stories Souza shared behind his most memorable photographs.
"I slept in my office on the Friday night [before Snowmageddon]. I had the suspicion that POTUS, which is what I call him, would come out and play with the girls in the snow. I got to know him pretty well and I just knew how his mind worked."
"I like this picture for two reasons. One, you see Sasha on the left who's like, 'Oh my god, my dad is embarrassing me.' The two coaches for her basketball team had prior committments, so POTUS stepped in and was coach for the day. This is during a time out. These are like eight-year-old girls, playing basketball and he thinks it's the NBA finals; That tells you a lot about him — he's a very competitive guy. I got to know some of these girls, including number five, Olivia. Last summer, Olivia, as a high school student, interned in my office for a month because she has an interest in photography"
"This was listening to the National Anthem at the Easter egg roll. [Obama] saw this photo and started cracking up. He was like, 'Look at that — the two most famous sets of ears in Washington.'"