Obama’s White House Photographer Pete Souza on Trump’s Presidency: ‘It’s a Punch in the Gut’

President Barack Obama walks along the West Colonnade of the White House with Chief White House Photographer Pete Souza  Feb. 18, 2016. (Official White House Photo by Lawrence Jackson)
Lawrence Jackson / The White House

Wherever President Barack Obama went, Pete Souza was right there with him.

For eight years, the White House photographer was a fly-on-the-wall as the president and his team made consequential, world-altering decisions about bailing out the auto industry or raiding Osama Bin Laden’s compound. Souza and his camera also captured the quiet moments — taking photographs of the commander-in-chief relaxing with his wife and children. He played a similar role as official photographer to the Reagan White House.

Since Obama left the White House, Souza has had a second-act as a social media sensation. On Instagram and Twitter, Souza shares photos of his time shadowing the 44th president, offering up images of presidential behavior that’s far removed from President Donald Trump’s more free-wheeling approach to the office. Often those photos are accompanied by a caption that criticizes Trump. Souza’s career and time as a member of the opposition are chronicled in Dawn Porter’s new documentary “The Way I See It,” which had a theatrical run this fall and will debut on MSNBC on Oct. 16.

You’ve spent decades photographing powerful leaders and capturing historical events. What was it like to have the camera turned on you for this documentary?

That was the one reservation I had about participating in this project. I was trying to wrap my head around whether I wanted to lose more of my anonymity. Ultimately, I felt I was in good hands with the team that was making this film. I also thought there were a lot of people that do not follow me on social media and this film can reach people in a more visceral way.

What do you hope viewers will take away from this film?

Before I agreed to do the film, I asked the team to make every effort to get the film out before the election. My hope was that this film would give people a unique look at what the office of the presidency should be like. The decency and the respect that both President Obama and President Reagan brought to the office is what is sorely missing. Think about what kind of a person we want in the top leadership post in our country, and that’s somebody with character and empathy and compassion. We’ve lost that with the current administration and we’ve become numbed to the constant lies. We have a president who only thinks about himself and not all of us. I wanted to remind people about what it’s like to have a decent human being in the Oval Office.

As someone who once worked at the White House, what was it like for you to watch President Trump deliver his convention speech from the South Lawn or return from Walter Reed and stage a mask-less photo op on the balcony?

It’s a punch in the gut. All of us in the Obama Administration tried to do things legally, ethically and morally, and this president just does the opposite. It’s against the law for him to have his convention at the White House. It’s an outright violation of the Hatch Act and everybody knows it, but we’re numb to it. “Let’s break the law, nobody cares.” I sat through so many ethics briefings to make sure we were crossing the t’s and dotting the i’s, and to see it thrown out the window is really hard for me to watch and it’s hard for a lot of my colleagues to watch.

How do the official photos of the Trump administration compare to those of the Obama administration?

They’re reality show photos. It’s hard to find any authentic behind-the-scenes moments among the tens of thousands of photographs they’ve posted on Flickr.

Why is it important to capture those authentic moments?

Michelle Obama has the great quote where she says the presidency doesn’t change who you are, it reveals who you are. I think my photographs of both President Reagan and President Obama reveal who they are as human beings. They’re authentic. They’re not staged. They’re not posed.

Why did you decide to publicly criticize the president?

Trump is a guy who spent a year getting lots of attention saying Barack Obama was not born in the U.S. He knew that wasn’t true, but he did it because he got attention. That’s how he became a candidate for president by lying and telling falsehoods all the time. Once he was elected, it wasn’t difficult to follow the John Lewis thought that if you see something wrong, say something. What I saw starting on day one was wrong. It wasn’t difficult to make the decision to speak out, and I thought I had a unique way of doing it through my photographs.

What will you do if Trump gets reelected?

I’m going to hop on a charter flight to New Zealand.