Thought Leadership

A Focus on History: Q&A With Former White House Photographer Pete Souza

President Obama and White House photographer Pete Souza
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While the Oval Office was Pete Souza’s favorite place to take photos inside the White House, he also enjoyed being on the road and traveling to different locations.

“I always liked the newness of the places we went,” said Souza, the former chief official White House photographer for President Obama.

Souza captured some of the most iconic images of the Obama presidency, including the photo of the president and his national security team in the Situation Room receiving live updates during the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound in May 2011.

Souza previously worked as a White House photographer during the Reagan administration and then as chief official White House photographer for all eight years of President Obama’s terms. He has published several books, including 2017’s “Obama: An Intimate Portrait,” which debuted at No. 1 on the New York Times bestseller list.

Beyond his impressive portfolio of work, Souza has also gained a significant following on social media, where he shares personal anecdotes and behind-the-scenes stories of his time at the White House. His ability to capture compelling moments and candid behind-the-scenes photos of world leaders has earned him widespread recognition and admiration.

Souza is a speaker at PRSA’s Travel and Tourism Conference, held June 20-23, 2023, at the Monona Terrace Community and Convention Center in Madison, Wis. His luncheon keynote on June 21 is titled “Seeing the World Through the Lens of Travel.”

Ahead of his luncheon keynote, Souza discusses how his interest in photography developed and what PR professionals need to know about communicating through images.

You started taking photography classes during your junior year of college. Did you own a camera while growing up, and how did your serious interest in photography come about?

The still photograph, even as a kid, was something that I gravitated toward. I didn’t think of it as something that I could do professionally, or as a career. But I remember cutting pictures from the newspaper and Scotch-taping them to my closet door. For whatever reason, they were telling me the story of what was happening in the world.

I specifically remember, after the Kennedy assassination, cutting out the picture of John-John saluting during the funeral. And the picture of LBJ taking the oath of office on Air Force One. The still photograph was speaking to me in a profound way, and I realized it at the time.

As chief official White House photographer, did you consider yourself more of a historian or storyteller?

I have a photojournalism background. The one big difference is pictures on the next day’s front-page newspaper, [versus] these pictures that end up at the National Archives and will be seen for generations to come.

But I wasn’t making pictures any differently as a government photographer, and I saw myself as a visual historian with a photojournalistic eye.

During your time at the White House, was there a favorite place you liked to take pictures?

The Oval Office — there were so many windows that the light in there was always a little different. And that was not true for pretty much any other room in the White House. A lot of photography is about lighting. Using natural light, the Oval Office was my favorite place inside the White House.

And what about outside the White House?

I probably took more pictures in the Rose Garden outside the White House than in any other place. But, for me, it was being on the road because everything was different. Every country is different; every state is a bit different. I always liked the newness of the places we went to.

What insights can you share with communicators about storytelling and how images help drive that narrative?

People can recognize an authentic photograph from a staged one. I would encourage PR professionals to try to produce photographs that are natural and candid and spontaneous — even if they’re trying to promote a brand — as opposed to staging things.

So, you don’t recommend photos of people holding a giant check or a large pair of scissors for the ribbon cutting?

Exactly. Those images mean nothing in terms of telling a story. I did this assignment recently for Howard University, for their alum magazine, on their outgoing president. They wanted me to photograph him. I said, “Do you realize the way I work? I want to tag along with him for a week and show what he really does.” And they got it.

They ended up using about 20 pictures. They could have hired a portrait photographer and had [the university president] pose three or four times, and I don’t think that tells you anything about the guy.

Whereas I think the approach that I took gives people a real insight into what a college president does daily. This college president was also a cancer surgeon, and I did go into an operating room with him. That goes a long way into telling the story that you want to tell.

Are there concerns in the photography profession about using artificial intelligence software that can generate images?

It’s a big concern, especially in the photojournalism community. I don’t work for a company or a staff, but from what I’m seeing online, there seems to be quite a bit of concern about it.

There was one guy who had an Instagram account that was posting these nice portraits of people that were getting a lot of attention. After about a year, he confessed that they were not real people — it was all AI stuff.

And that’s a little scary. For a year, he was getting away with purporting to show real portraits of real people, and it turns out it was all fake. That’s very concerning in the photojournalism community, where your credibility is everything.

John Elsasser is PRSA’s publications director and editor-in-chief of PRSA’s award-winning Strategies & Tactics.

[Photo credit: Pete Souza, posted with permission]

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John Elsasser

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