You might know the name Pete Souza from from his Instagram account that has amassed over 2.3 million followers with images of Barack Obama being presidential; showing human empathy, dignity, grace and a concern for others, traits rarely, if ever, evidenced by the current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Souza doesn’t need to mention the 45th President by name or the latest twitterstorm he’s referencing, the topical archive images of Obama along with a brief caption says it all, commentary by contrast; throwing shade in a way that follows the mantra of a certain former First Lady, “when they go low, we go high.” This week for instance when the excuse of rain was once again given by Trump for not visiting Aisne-Marne American Cemetery near Paris in 2018, Souza posted the below to his Instagram feed with a series of six photographs, making clear that “Presidenting in the rain” was indeed perfectly possible.
Souza doesn’t recycle news service images to make his point, these are all photographs, many of which have become iconic, that Souza himself took of the former President when he was serving as Chief Official White House Photographer during both Obama terms. And although the posts and captions are often humorous, he’s not sharing these images simply to amuse or amass likes, as he reveals in a new documentary The Way I See It which premiered at TIFF yesterday. Souza hopes that the images will remind the country, and the world, of the seriousness of the office of President and that there is another way to lead other than the chaos we’re currently seeing; it’s been done before and it can be done again. He’s particularly keen to impact young people,”I didn’t want them to think this is the way a president is supposed to behave”, Souza says of Trump at one point in the film.
John Lewis: Good Trouble director Dawn Porter’s latest stirring documentary, produced by Laura Dern, is inspired by two of Souza’s books, 2017’s Obama: An Intimate Portrait (one of the best-selling photography books ever) and 2018’s Shade: A Tale of Two Presidents. The latter book juxtaposes tweets, news headlines and quotes from the 45h President’s first five hundred days in office with Souza’s images from the Obama years. Souza had previously worked as a photographer for Senator Obama, and when he was inaugurated in January 2009 it was far from Souza’s first time in the White House, he’d spent five and half years there in the 1980s as an official photographer during the Reagan administration. As the former photojournalist for outlets like the Chicago Tribune details, it was under the Reagan, a man who’d been through the Hollywood machine, that the importance of capturing the right image to put out to the public became a crucial part of the presidency (an idea that the archival footage feature, The Reagan Show by Sierra Pettengill and Pacho Velez, makes a compelling doc out of). This meant Souza had almost continual intimate access to his subject. This fly-on-the-wall practice of documenting for the present day as well as creating a historical archive—albeit with government sanctioned images—is something that Souza doesn’t see happening in todays’ White House, with access often limited to posed photographs at ceremonial acts, like the signing of executive orders, rather than the human-behind-the-job images that Souza took of both the presidents he worked for. At one point we see Souza examine the official White House photograph released following the death of ISIL leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in October 2019, analysing it as someone who knows the Situation Room well, he comments on how it was clearly staged with Trump looking directly into the camera lens. A stark contrast to Souza’s fascinating far more candid image of the mission against Osama bin Laden in 2011.
It is Obama, the man Souza knew and captured on camera, who remains the focus for much of the documentary rather than Souza himself. The photographer tells us that Obama was never put off by the camera being there, enabling Souza to be present for many personal family moments as his daughters grew up in the White House, like making snow angels on the lawn (an image Souza says the former President used as his iPad lockscreen). While he was of course always there to document the public and historic occasions as well, such as the speech Obama gave on the day of the Supreme Court Obergefell v. Hodges decision on same sex marriage in June 2015. Upon seeing the White House lit up in rainbow colours that evening Souza recalls telephoning his wife to say that she must come to take in the atmosphere on that landmark day for LGBTQ rights.
Souza himself, both in interviews conducted specifically for the film, and in footage from his book tours, frequently gets emotional when talking about his time documenting the Obama presidency. It’s that emotion, holding off the tears that frequently makes The Way I See It a moving experience, particularly when dealing with the former President’s response to tragedies such as the massacre at Sandy Hook. We see footage of Obama wiping away a tear as his gives his first response to the death of those twenty first graders and six adults, before we see Souza’s image of him comforting one of the grieving mothers with her leaning into his chest. We’re given further insight into the photograph from an interview with the child’s father who describes his wife crying into the President’s lapel.
In this TikTok era when we constantly bombarded by video, The Way I See It reminds us of the power of a still image, how much it can convey, and how an image will often become ingrained in our minds in a way that video rarely does. At the heart of the film are over four hundred striking images, some of which have not previously been shown publicly, taken by Souza during his thirteen years in the room where it happened in the presence of two of the world’s most powerful men. Despite his job Souza has generally seen himself as fairly apolitical or nonpartisan, though looking back on the Reagan years he does criticise the former president for certain policy decisions and his inaction on AIDS, though he says he still views him as having been a fundamentally decent man. To the surprise of some of the people who know him best, Souza’s apolitical or at least nonpartisan stance is something that changed in January 2017 as a result of the conduct of Obama’s successor, leading to the social media posts and his book Shade.
In one of the more engaging sequences of the documentary, Souza tells us that he knew that one of his tasks was to convey the significance of Obama’s election and time in office to Black Americans, and he discusses in some detail the photograph he took of Obama bending over so that the then five-year-old Jacob Philadelphia could touch his hair. It’s in giving us background to familiar images such as this where the film excels, and I wish there had been more of these insights throughout. The film might also have benefited from more general analysis of what makes for a memorable image, and more day to day detail of life on the job for Souza. Although we hear from some of Souza’s family members, we get very little biographical detail or even much of sense of what it feels like to be in such close proximity to significant events. In one standout moment though we see a harried Souza apologise to Obama mid-shoot about needing to change cameras because his memory card is full. The former president playfully mocks him, and the scene becomes more about Obama’s humour and good grace that it is about the photographer himself. We do get to see the friendship between the two men though and there’s some beautiful and touching footage of Souza marrying his wife, after nearly two decades of being together, with Obama officiating the ceremony in the Rose Garden.
Although the pre-election timing of the film is clearly not coincidental, The Way I See It is not a polemic and, like Souza’s Instagram posts, largely allows the images to speak for themselves, reminding us of the human decency Obama brought to his job. There’s frequently commentary by omission, such as Souza recalling the closeness of Nancy and Ronald Reagan’s relationship, as well as the affection between Michelle and Barack, which we can clearly see in his images of these couples, in love and supporting one another. Which causes one to wonder, what the defining image of the current President and First Lady’s relationship might be? Not an official White House photograph of course, but one likely contender that comes to mind is Melania swatting away her husband’s hand as he attempted to holds hers. The film itself though leaves such comparisons up to us to make.
By James Kleinmann
The Way I See It premiered at TIFF on Friday September 11th 2020 and will be released in theaters September 18th 2020. Broadcast premiere on MSNBC October 9th 2020 at 10pm EDT.
The film, in partnership with HeadCount, seeks to engage eligible voters in the United States to register to vote and then get to the polls in November with the #VoteTheWayYouSeeIt social impact campaign. Together, they will support National Voter Registration Day on September 22nd, and share registration and voting resources through November 3, 2020 via VoteTheWayYouSeeIt.com.