Every four years, a few months before the presidential election, a batch of strategically timed movies materialize in hopes of engaging voters and influencing the outcome. Some are merely opportunistic, others downright propagandistic, but few have a shelf life past that first Tuesday in November. A warm, softball profile of Pete Souza, who had the unusual honor of serving as official White House photographer for two presidents of opposite parties, Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama, “The Way I See It” feels like it could carry on being relevant to audiences for decades to come.
Saving its political agenda for the end, the documentary — which is told through a mix of voiceover, video footage and iconic stills from Souza’s copious photo archives — opens with the image maker’s memories of Obama’s last hours in office. He explains how the transition of power and witnessing the inauguration felt from where he stood, just a few feet away from incoming president Donald Trump. Then the film cuts to a montage of the 2017 Women’s March the following day and a sign that says, “Not My President” — and from all that follows in the movie, one suspects that’s a message Souza and Porter can agree on.
That same day, Jan. 21, 2017, Souza posted a photo of Obama in the Oval Office to his Instagram. “I like these drapes better than the new ones. Don’t you think?” he typed, referring to the fact that Trump had replaced the red curtains with gaudy gold ones. But he was saying more than that, of course, and the commentary has continued for four solid years, as Souza (who has 2.3 million followers) has answered Trump’s most outrageous statements and behavior with images Souza himself took of a predecessor handling matters with dignity and respect.
“Throwing shade,” Souza calls it, and the strategy has been incredibly effective, serving to underscore the yuge difference in management style between these two bosses (to describe the job in purely Trumpian terms). Souza trolls Trump so Obama doesn’t have to, and “The Way I See It” will get to that dimension of his personality in due time, but most of the documentary chooses to be less overtly partisan, celebrating the career of a photographer who played eyewitness to history, twice.
The Reagan years are fascinating in that they marked a time when an administration led by a former Hollywood actor realized it had to control its own image. Porter includes a sound bite of David Gergen, White House communications director under Reagan, explaining, “The White House has become more and more the stage, a theater, and the question has become are the television networks going to manage that theater? Are they going to manage that stage? Or is the White House going to do that?”
Souza was no fan of Reagan’s policies, he explains, but the president did great work all the same, much of it held until after he left office. In some cases, one can sense the deliberate crafting by White House handlers of what might be called “photo opportunities,” as in an innocuous example where Ronald and wife Nancy water a tree (the clip rolls long enough to offer a charming glimpse into the leader’s fuddy-duddy sense of humor as well). But it’s the candid shots, the unselfconscious moments, that feel most vital, and Souza smartly sought to seek the same access under Obama.
Porter weaves aspects of Souza’s photojournalism career throughout the documentary, showing how he bore witness to major world events on multiple occasions (most notably by sneaking into Afghanistan in October 2001) before landing an assignment to cover Obama’s first year as senator. Souza says he’d never heard of Obama when he was first asked to photograph the politician at the Democratic National Convention in 2004 (many hadn’t), but when the charismatic orator was elected president four years later, Souza was invited back to the White House to document history.
And that’s just what he did, striving to capture the mood of pivotal moments as well as a fly-on-the-wall everyday intimacy with First Lady Michelle Obama and family. Ironically, Porter’s access to Souza is nothing like what the photographer achieved with the Obamas. As a result, much of “The Way I See It” feels as rehearsed as a keynote speech — which it often is, lifted from presentations on book tours for his anthologies “Obama: An Intimate Portrait” and “Shade.” Souza’s photographs became so popular with Obama’s staff that they began hanging them on the office walls and eventually, curating hundreds to share with the public in a step that made Obama — already a symbol, as the country’s first African American president, of what was now possible — feel even more down-to-earth.
“It breaks down the idea that these people are different from us,” historian Doris Kearns Goodwin tells Porter, explaining how photos by Souza and his peers humanize the men who have held the responsibility of commander in chief. Not a lot of skepticism is expressed in the film, although Porter includes one audience member asking, in light of Souza’s background as a reporter, “When you’re consciously or subconsciously building a public image of ‘brand Obama,’ was there ever a conflict?”
This idea of in-house, government-employed photographers “branding” a leader is a valid one, barely touched on in the doc, but it’s acknowledged enough for serious media critics to parse Souza’s work more closely. “The Way I See It” mostly feels like a love letter to Obama. He may not have been perfect, but one can’t help feeling a surge of nostalgia for a time, less than a decade ago, when the president responded to challenges with empathy for fallen soldiers and victims of disasters, and seemed to sincerely care about his constituents, whether or not they had voted for him. It was Obama, we learn, who persuaded Souza to marry his partner of many years, officiating the ceremony himself in the Rose Garden.
And then there is Trump. The film isn’t about him, but then again, it’s not not about him either. By the end, when Souza’s overtly political Instagramming comes up, Porter’s strategy clicks. This hasn’t really been a portrait of Souza, or even Obama. It’s an elaborate Rubin’s vase — one of those clever figure-ground tests when people look at a form, and some perceive a vase while others make out two faces staring at one another in the void on either side. After reminding viewers of all the positive aspects of Obama’s character, Porter expects them to discern Trump occupying the negative space in this picture, the embodiment of everything that Obama was not. It all depends on the way you see it.