Any Answers, Photojournalism

Pete Souza on eight years as chief White House photographer

Eight years and two million photographs later, Pete Souza says his job as official chief White House photographer has been a privilege

On 20 January 2017, the new US president will take office, and Pete Souza will finish his stint as the official chief White House photographer and director of the White House photo office. Souza previously spent five years at the White House photographing President Ronald Reagan, and has shot stories worldwide for titles such as National Geographic and Life. After 9/11, he was one of the first journalists to cover the fall of the Afghan capital, Kabul, after crossing the snowbound Hindu Kush on horseback. BJP caught up with him to find out more about his experiences.

When I first attended Boston University, I aspired to become a sports writer. But I took a photography class in my junior year and it didn’t take long before I changed my mind about what I wanted to do.

Luck made me the chief White House photographer. I met Senator Obama when I was working as the national photographer for the Chicago Tribune, and I spent a lot of time with him during his first two years in the Senate and at the start of his presidential campaign. When he was elected president, he asked me to become his White House photographer.

Someone once described working at the White House as trying to take a sip of water from a fire hose that never stops running. I’ve taken three weeks’ vacation in eight years, and that has taken a toll on my personal life.

That said, this job has been a great privilege. I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything. The main challenge of the job is that it’s 24/7. I will probably have taken two million photographs by the end of the administration.

It took the president and others a few months to get used to me being around for every meeting, every day. But after a while, it became clear to everyone that I was going to be around for everything. I try to be as unobtrusive as possible, so that helps.

Photographing the White House is completely different to the work I did in Afghanistan. It’s a lot easier logistically, in that I don’t have sniper bullets flying overhead, or rocket-propelled grenades coming my way.

I’m photographing history every day. But being in the presidential ‘bubble’ is not always conducive to great photography. I think I’ve provided an honest and accurate insight into this presidency and the president’s life in the White House. I don’t look at it as ‘positive’ or ‘negative’.

Many of my images are seen now, but the archive of photographs that I’m creating is for history. That is far and away the most important aspect of what I do. Good documentary photography can give people an insight into the world in a way that words can’t. It’s the universal language.

I started out loading black-and-white film onto reels and then processing and printing in a dark room. The digital revolution has changed photography dramatically in a technical sense, but the making of a great picture hasn’t changed at all.

Hopefully, I’m a better person and a better photographer than I was 35 years ago. If I could talk to my younger self, I’d probably tell myself to take one day at a time and not get down when things don’t go well. Tomorrow is another day.

I can’t comment publicly on politics. Although I really wish I could.

I have a mix of things planned. I’ll be photographing some projects, speaking about my experiences and teaching at workshops. I hope to also publish a book.

How do I relax? I hope to find out after 20 January.

This article was first published in the December 2016 issue of BJP, which can be bought from thebjpshop.com