Pete Souza brought photojournalism to the White House and in the process provided an intimate behind-the-scenes look at history throughout the presidency of Barack Obama.
We were thrilled to feature Souza as our April speaker (this event was not livestreamed or recorded). He served as Chief Official White House Photographer and the Director of the White House photo office during the Obama administration’s eight years, and as White House photographer for five of the years Ronald Reagan was president.
Souza was a trailblazer in documenting the presidency for history. In addition to his long career working in the White House, Souza is also a best-selling author, speaker and freelance photographer. He got his start working in newspapers.
He and his wife moved to Madison in 2019 to be close to family after a grueling eight years following President Obama all over the globe without a break.
Through his breathtaking photography, Souza shared incredible insights into the role of visuals in storytelling and his part in crafting history. His massive visual archive provided the public a behind-the-scenes glimpse into Obama’s time in office.
One of Souza’s main goals while documenting the president was to be able to capture the authenticity of every situation, personal, professional and otherwise. In doing so, Souza carefully considered his subjects, their story and the situation. Whether Obama was interacting as a husband, father or in his official duties as President and Commander-In-Chief, in the good times and bad, Souza was there, camera in hand. Through his unfettered access, he was able to show the cost of war, the hope for a bright future and the hardships of being president in ways the public had never before seen.
Souza explained to us — in depth — how he was able to capture emotions and convey the complex and intense feelings of his subjects through his photography. One example was using interactions, which tell a lot about a person and their relationships. Zeroing in on how Obama interacted with his family, colleagues and strangers gave insights into who he is as a person.
During his time in the Obama White House, social media platforms became a larger part of how images were made public. Souza took his first step into social media through a curated selection of his Obama images on Flickr. That was followed shortly by a White House Instagram account — also curated and managed by Souza. The account quickly gained momentum with scenes from around the White House, paired with brief captions that added insight to his unique behind-the-scenes view. It’s notable that Souza didn’t work with a social media team. His content was all his own, giving audiences a taste of his own personality and style through his photography.
Souza’s determination and persistence to tell the real story of Obama created a genuine and original narrative that the world would have otherwise missed.
His advice: Have confidence and search for authenticity as you navigate visual storytelling in the changing world of social media.
Interested in learning more about Pete Souza and his work? Find him on Instagram and check out his books, Obama: An Intimate Portrait, Shade: A Tale of Two Presidents, and his documentary, The Way I See It.
NONPROFIT SPOTLIGHT: Maydm
Maydm provides girls and youth of color in grades 6-12 with skill-based training for the technology sector. Maydm’s holistic approach prepares students from traditionally underrepresented populations to engage in and revolutionize the tech industries. The organization is currently recruiting professionals who are interested in serving as mentors. Mentors start during the summer program and then meet with their students throughout the school year. Learn more on their website or find them on Facebook or Twitter @maydmtech.
Thanks to SMBMad volunteer Grace Wilkie for writing this month’s event recap.