Pete Souza: In the West Wing and Beyond: Digital Photography Review


Director of Communications Dan Pfeiffer stands outside a colleague’s office in one of the wider hallways, while Sarah Fenn, special assistant to the deputy chief of staff, works in her windowless office. At the far end of the hall, just to the left of the chair, is the formal front door of the Oval Office. Credit: Pete Souza

“I’ll boldly say that I’ve spent more time in the Oval Office than any person in history, other than maybe some of the two-term presidents,” Pete Souza states in his new book The West Wing and Beyond: What I Saw Inside the Presidency. As the Chief Official White House Photographer during the Obama administration, Souza captured nearly every significant moment in and around that celebrated room.

But the American presidency encompasses much more than just one room, and certainly more than one person. In fact, a notable thing about Souza’s book is the absence of his old boss throughout most of its pages. In the handful of instances in which Obama does appear, you see him from behind, or out of focus at the edges of the frame.

Instead, the book is a unique look at the people and the places that keep the presidency running. It’s also a rarefied view from inside the presidential bubble as Souza captures crowds, waitstaff, and even disgruntled diners put out because the President has arrived for a meal or a photo-op.

With the press pool beside them, a couple watches the commotion as the President eats lunch at Hamilton Family Restaurant in Allentown, Pennsylvania, in 2009. Credit: Pete Souza

Documenting the presidency

“Here’s a period of time [where] I’ve got this unique access and vantage point,” Souza said during a recent interview with DPReview. “And I didn’t want to forget, historically, to make these pictures away from the president that show what the presidency is like.”

Souza photographed the entirety of President Barack Obama’s two terms (2008–2016), an experience he’s previously chronicled in his book Obama: An Intimate Portrait. But his history with the presidency goes back to Ronald Reagan’s administration in the 1980s when he served as one of the official White House photographers.

At the time, he focused on capturing Reagan as well as some of the scenes around the president. When the opportunity came to step back into the White House with Obama – this time with unrestricted access – he made a point of broadening his view.

Pete’s images of the Outer Oval office during both administrations in which he served. Credit: Pete Souza

He attributes this perspective to his education and early days as a photojournalist working for newspapers and magazines, using the same approach of looking at the edges of what was going on and not just covering what was right in front of him.

Souza said he was “trying to tell a larger story for history of what it’s like to be inside the presidency, inside that presidential bubble. It’s photographing that one guy who happens to be the president of the United States, but there’s all kinds of stuff that happens on the fringes that are all part of the presidency.”

The American presidency encompasses much more than just one room, and certainly more than one person.

None of it happens without the hard work of a lot of people, which is one of the strengths of The West Wing and Beyond. The book is structured starting within the White House and its notable rooms and spaces, highlighting roles from the president’s body man to senior staff to chefs and groundskeepers.

Executive Pastry Chef Susie Morrison and team. Credit: Pete Souza

Souza explained, “It’s really about the inner workings of not just the Obama staff, but a lot of the civil service employees that stay at the White House or are with the military there for, in some cases, five or six administrations. I have pictures of the stewards on Air Force One and people that work in the residence that have been butlers there for many presidencies.” It reinforces the fact that the White House is the “People’s House.”

Butler Von Everett holds the President’s suit coat during a luncheon with TV anchors. Credit: Pete Souza

Same rooms, same lighting, anything can happen

Photographically, the job was a constant challenge from a creative perspective. The West Wing of the White House is famously less visually interesting than it appears on TV and in movies. Aside from a handful of notable locations – the Oval Office, the Cabinet Room, the Roosevelt Room, the Situation Room – much of the complex is made up of windowless offices. Shooting the same locations using the same overhead lighting was a constant challenge, as was the daily grind of photographing many of the same people…in meetings. “Some days I like to say it was like watching paint dry, you know,” Souza said.

But this is where Souza’s eye for what was happening at the edges conveyed the substance and the stakes of what was being discussed. The book includes scenes where body language reveals tense moments, such as a concerned Attorney General Eric Holder in the Situation Room during an intelligence briefing or United Nations Ambassador Samantha Power gripping her arm during a meeting about Iraq.

Attorney General Eric Holder listens to the President during an intelligence meeting in 2014. Credit: Pete Souza

“A crisis can happen whether you’re sitting outside the Oval Office, or whether you’re on Air Force One, or whether [the president] is doing some sort of cultural event overseas,” Souza said. “Since I couldn’t always be watching CNN or monitoring Twitter, I would be monitoring his staff, because his staff would be the ones to tell him when something had happened in the world that he was going to have to deal with. And oftentimes, he and I would be finding it out at the same time.”

United Nations Ambassador Samantha Power during a meeting about Iraq in 2014. Credit: Pete Souza

So even when the job seemed to be an endurance test of 10- to 18-hour days, Souza needed to always be ready for unexpected crises. “You never know on a given day when history is going to take place,” Souza said. “I think the reason I wanted to do this job when I was asked was because you’re literally in the room where things are happening. And history, as much as I hate to say it, is when a crisis is going on. That’s when I knew my alert level was at its highest. Was it for those moments that I took this job? Yeah.”

On the road

Some of the most insightful images come later in the book as Souza and the presidential apparatus travel beyond the White House grounds. You see the chaos of newspapers and briefing books in the conference room on Air Force One as senior staff prepare for Obama’s first official overseas trip. Or you get a view of restaurant customers taking selfies with the president across the room.

Capturing a selfie with the President, who is off camera in the far background at the Magnolia Cafe in Austin, Texas, in 2014. Credit: Pete Souza

There are also small character moments that most people never see. “I didn’t have shooting lists,” Souza said. “Every day I just approached things as I saw them: what was interesting, what caught my eye, what was a little quizzical in some respects. There’s the guy holding President Karzai’s cape outside the dinner room, just because it’s kind of a crazy scene.”

An Afghan aide holds the chapan cape of President Hamid Karzai prior to a formal dinner during our visit to the presidential palace in Kabul, Afghanistan, in 2010. Credit: Pete Souza

Creatively, being on the road allowed Souza the chance to “encounter the kind of scenes or the kind of lighting or the kind of environment that was not at all like being at the White House,” he said. “You go to Russia or Egypt or Indonesia and they’re all different types of culture, and a lot of the buildings we would go in were unlike any other building in the world. People know what President Obama looks like, so it’s putting him in some of those different locations.”

Presidency and legacy

Although The West Wing and Beyond primarily contains Souza’s photos from the Obama years (with a few from his Reagan days and a couple shots by legendary Lyndon B. Johnson photographer Yoichi Okamoto, who Souza believes is the best Chief Official White House Photographer), it’s not an Obama book.

“The reason I wanted to use What I Saw Inside the Presidency as the subtitle is because I think most modern day presidencies will look like this, the inner workings of the West Wing,” Souza said. “Whether it would have been the Reagan administration or the Bush administration or the Clinton administration. I think people that worked in those administrations will see a lot of familiarity in the type of photographs that are in this book. I wanted this to be more of a timeless book.”



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