'The Way I See It': Pete Souza Throwing Shade

The Way I See It is marketed as a look behind the curtain of two of the most iconic U.S. Presidencies in the last century, courtesy of White House Photographer Pete Souza. It's quite a bit more than that. To be upfront, if you don't believe in photojournalism or the importance of a historical record, if you're a Trump supporter with thin skin, or if you have an inability to think critically, this movie likely isn't for you. To be honest, neither is this article.

While you're getting started here, if you haven't read Alex Cooke's interview with Souza, check it out. There is a lot of information in there about Souza and his photography.

The Way I See It is full of observations that are critical to the success of any photojournalist. Embed yourself. Stay close, but give your subject space when they need it. Practice anticipating, as the quiet moment may be as important as the one under the bright lights. Make sure your memory cards have enough space on them or you might get mocked by POTUS.

I'm warning you again, though, I'm going to go in a slightly different direction. I'm hoping Souza would be proud.

The importance of remaining invisible as a photographer. Body language.

From the opening shots of the Washington Monument and a low-angle shot of the White House, the underlying intent of The Way I See It is to remind its viewers how important the job of president is. Souza and the filmmakers seem to take it upon themselves to ensure that each viewer understands the gravitas of voting and the power that results from those votes.  

Journalism, Editorial Opinion, and History

A review of The Way I See it requires a discussion of politics. There is no way around it; it's a photography documentary bathed in politics. However, setting politics aside for a few moments, it's important to understand where Souza is coming from. Souza is a staunch defender of journalism and journalism's role in history:

Journalism is the first draft of history.

Say what you will about current journalism and how it looks a bit more like editorial than news (you won't get an argument from me). However, I'm assuming anyone interested in history or staying abreast of current events will agree that it's important to break the story.

At one point in the film, Souza is asked about the conflict of interest between being a photojournalist on the one hand and a co-creator of the Obama brand on the other. Basically, is his job to provide editorial opinion and PR or create a record? From Souza's perspective, he is a historian with a camera. I know there are some of you still reading that want to jump right to the comments and complain that Souza was just part of Team Obama, capturing the moments designed to make the President come off as the good guy. I think it's important to remember that Souza also worked for the Reagan White House. Souza was instrumental in helping the American public get a glimpse of Reagan's life. Reagan, the real conservative antithesis to Obama. Not the current nihilist reflection sitting in the Oval today. 

Souza and his team were granted unprecedented access to the Obama White House. At times, they were taking tens of thousands of photographs a week. Frankly, there was nowhere for Obama to hide. What you see is what you get. Souza did not speak with his own voice while he was at the White House; he spoke with the language that was presented to him. To continue the metaphor, at best, he was a translator, not an author. For shorthand, let's call him a visual historian.

Access and Truth

According to Souza, access to create this kind of visual record is dependent on the president. For Souza, for historians, truth and authenticity come from access. If you want the truth, it's critical to see behind the scenes. As a voter, it's critical to understand the weight of the decisions being made on your behalf. This isn't a game. 

Obama's team, of which Souza was a key player, decided early on that it wanted the public to see Obama as a human being. To see the humanity, the frailty, the humility, and, ultimately, the growth. I found myself asking over and over: why would anyone want to expose themselves to this kind of all-seeing eye? We've all seen the agonizing photos from the Situation Room. Why look concerned and somewhat powerless if your role is to defeat the enemy?

A tense moment in the situation rooms. Almost no control despite the power.

We've seen the romantic moments between the President and the First Lady. Why show that you have a heart if the goal is to eschew love in favor of fear?

Love over fear.

Why allow space for an image of the most powerful man on Earth bending to allow a child to touch his hair? If the President should stand alone, why allow anyone to find common ground with him?

Common ground.

By the end of the film, I think I figured it out. Looking back to the first images of the Washington Monument, it dawned on me that America represents itself as a free and open society, where the government works for the people. The founding document of America (and for modern democracy for that matter), the Declaration of Independence, states:

...governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.

The Gettysburg Address adds to the language of democracy by stating the principle that government should be

...government of the people, by the people, for the people...

In light of this, why shouldn't the people be invited in? In fact, isn't it incumbent on government to be as open as possible? Isn't giving Souza this kind of access simply putting your money where your mouth is?

Back to Politics 

It's in these questions that today's politics comes back into play. Both implicitly and explicitly, Souza sets up his record of the Obama Presidency against that of President Trump. Souza and the documentary can't help but point out that Trump has not allowed the same access to photographers that Obama did. That Trump has kept the halls of power private. I can't help but think of The Wizard of Oz.

The all powerful Oz.

It seems to me that Trump continues to ask the public to 

[p]ay no attention to the man behind the curtain.

After all, it was important for Oz to maintain his image of power. Oz needed everyone to need Oz. Oz spent more time convincing the people that he was the only one who could solve the problems of Emerald City than actually solving them. Oz was important because he looked important.  

If you want something a bit more sophisticated, how about some Machiavelli:

Everyone sees what you appear to be, few experience what you really are. 

If democracy demands the inclusion of the public in government, if Souza and the critics are right and Trump's administration is not allowing sufficient access, what is being kept from the voters? I'm not American; I can't vote. However, make no mistake, the outcome of the U.S. election will affect billions. Most of whom may have an interest in the result but can't cast a vote.

I take solace in Souza's view of the role of photography in the White House. It should be a bright and democratic (small "d") light, frightening the Machiavellians and wizards alike.

All images are in the Public Domain. All photographs by Pete Souza.

Mark Dunsmuir's picture

Mark is a Toronto based commercial photographer and world traveller who gave up the glamorous life of big law to take pictures for a living.

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Great quote. Over and over again, we vote based on glimpses, no?

Trump has certainly been effective—at alienating all of the USAs allies.

Don't want to get into an extensive debate however you asked how do I quantify "many". I do that by looking at a number of surveys including the Pew Research referenced in that article.
Also I am curious about your comment that: "I want a CEO who keeps my company profitable and secure and I want the same things from the POTUS." So how do you align that with Trump's response to COVID?
Feel free to not respond to that if it bothers you.
I read the article simply because I thought Souza's photography was exceptional (Not just the Obama images but also some of the Reagan photos)

Well I think the Australian experience is interesting. By and large the politicians stepped aside and dealt with COVID as a health emergency rather than (except marginally) rating it as a political issue and dismissing the advice of the epidemiological experts. Trump labelled it a hoax and made other gestures to downplay the seriousness of the pandemic. He has to take some responsibility for that.

On the 9th Symphony performed with 10,000 singers—pure gold. A truly wonderful rendition. But, while you are not interested in how Beethoven came to write that I am. I have read his notebooks and his intention was political. Very strongly so. "Alle Menschen werden Brüder" translates as "All people become brothers" From his notebooks it is clear he was writing a protest song :-)

Actually he did many times. Here is a little fact check for you: https://www.nbcnews.com/politics/donald-trump/trump-calls-coronavirus-de...
According to the liar-in-chief it was supposed to magically disappear by April "when it gets warmer".
What scares me he actually knew it's not true, and Bob Woodward's recording is a proof.

Sure sounded that way on the news clip! As for Beethoven's motivations I'm sure the LoC has copies of his notebooks and you can read it for yourself. As for the general principle of determining people's motivations I would think their own statements are the guide. For example: Do you imagine that John Fogarty was not intending to have a go at entitled rich and privileged people avoiding service in "Fortunate Son"? Even when he says so? Really what constitutes appropriate evidence?

Beethoven: The Relentless Revolutionary, John Clubbe, WW Norton & Co

“Beethoven’s desire to compose great German music had its root in his belief in a free state.”

“The final movement of the Ninth famously sets passages from Schiller’s “Ode to Joy”, originally published in 1785 and a drinking song for German republicans.(i.e. revolutionaries)”

The Ode to Joy was also labelled as the Ode to Freedom (Academic speculation remains as to whether Schiller originally wrote an "Ode to Freedom" (Ode an die Freiheit) and changed it to an "Ode to Joy". Thayer wrote in his biography of Beethoven, "the thought lies near that it was the early form of the poem, when it was still an 'Ode to Freedom' (not 'to Joy'), which first aroused enthusiastic admiration for it in Beethoven's mind".

Over the years, Beethoven's "Ode to Joy" has remained a protest anthem and a celebration of music. Demonstrators in Chile sang the piece during demonstration against the Pinochet dictatorship, and Chinese students broadcast it at Tiananmen Square. It was performed (conducted by Leonard Bernstein) on Christmas Day after the fall of the Berlin Wall replacing "Freude" (joy) with "Freiheit" (freedom)

See also: https://www.bbc.co.uk/radio3/beethoven/Revolutionary_politics.shtml

Bit early for Marxism. I believe the Santa Claus persona is based on the 4th century Saint Nicholas of Myra (along with Odin the Giftbringer etc etc). Nicholas did however believe in the redistribution of wealth so you could call him a socialist?

People DO tend to see what they want to. I think the Snopes article does not entirely absolve Trump. I think it sophistry to argue that it does. Trump went on from dismissing the complaints to then downplaying and trivialising the covid coronavirus.

Things were/are quite different here. The Federal Government has certain responsibilities in relation to Public Health (and also Aged Care) while the States are responsible for State Health Emergencies. While there were some disputes about the details of who was responsible for what, in general and across all jurisdictions all the States and the Federal Government followed the procedure of deferring to the Chief Medical Officers. The messages from these were consistent. The only differences were in the extent and severity of so-called "lockdown" rules. There were very few disputes about the general tactics—i.e. social distancing, hand washing, masks and travel restrictions. (Most of our "outbreaks" were due to failures to apply the legislated procedures for travel restriction.) In the Australian context it is held, by all major political parties, that Governments are responsible for managing responses to pandemics. A position arrived at after observing (with SARS) that health services are not, on their own, capable of dealing with pandemics

Read this article? Good, now go vote!

I liked President Obama.

But to pretend there wasn't a PR element to the released pictures is absurd.

There’s certainly a PR aspect to what is released from the White House. Tens of thousands of photographs a week, that are accessible by request, are less likely to hide a truth.

Can you show me a single released photo that presents President Obama in a negative light?

My argument is that having so many available photographs shows what he was actually like.

I take your point. You can never REALLY know anyone. I also agree that a photo won’t push that understanding any further.
But, if you allow me to “watch” someone, I’m going to glean my own understanding of who they are. Certainly more so than if you bar me from watching.
If I’m going to vote for someone or be governed by someone, I’d like to know who they are, as much as that is ever possible.

Yes. Look for the photographs of him in the tan suit. The American people and the media lost their minds over this one. The photographs taken captured how unpresidential and unfit for office Pres. Barack Obama was on that day presenting himself to the world. I mean, there were talks of censure, so you have an idea of how bad it made him look.

“There’s no way, I don’t think, any of us can excuse what the president did yesterday. I mean, you have the world watching.” - Rep. Peter King, NY, US House of Representatives

Let’s not forget the mom jeans for first pitch!!

I would expect, then, that there would be pictures of President Trump playing golf with Barron.

When the BP oil spill happened in Louisiana, obama came down for a photo op. They bused in hundreds of people and put them in tyvek suits to "clean" the beach as obama walked through for a photo op. As soon as he left, they all got back on the busses and left. A boat captian I know told me they were all called to go offshore a few miles and all tie up to each other. It was for another photo op as obama flew by in AF1. Then they all went back into port. Sad they had to lie about what was going on.

Conspiracy theories? The stories I’ve read talk of a show for Obama, not by Obama.
Do we have any verifiable sources?

Sure do. This was told to me by one of the boat captains who was there and was told to mobilize his boat with all the other boats because Obama wanted a photo op.

Thanks for continuing to respond Tony!

I wouldn't count that as a verifiable source. Don't get me wrong, I don't mean your friend isn't verifiable. I mean that your friend likely doesn't have any knowledge as to why the 'photo op' was run or on whose orders.

"To be upfront, if you don't believe in photojournalism or the importance of a historical record, if you're a Trump supporter with thin skin, or if you have an inability to think critically, this movie likely isn't for you. To be honest, neither is this article."

Balls. I love it. Great article. Screw the haters.

We will see whos laughing on Tuesday.

I’m not entirely sure that I’m acknowledging he who has the laugh on the first Tuesday in November is the best, but sure. See you then.

This Canadian writer just trolling. Nobody cares what Canadians think about Geopolitics.

What’s your definition of trolling? I think I presented an explained argument and I’m available to discuss in a reasonable fashion.
As for being Canadian, what does that have to do with it?

The article points out that the whole world has a stake in US elections. We've traveled extensively and it's amazing how knowledgeable the rest of the world is about US politics. We stopped at a gas station on the fringe of the Namib desert a couple of years ago. Absolute middle of nowhere. The attendant asked where we were from. His first language was Nama, one of the amazing languages with all of the clicks, but he obviously also spoke english. I said the US. The next sentence out of his mouth was "What's with Trump?". The world watches. Closely. And the perspective(s) others living outside the US have of us can be enlightening and profound.

Pete Souza is a huge inspiration to the photojournalism community, his work is just amazing. But access is key to get those photos as he highly emphasizes. The reason why he's been speaking up about the current administration because he's seen both sides of the political spectrum and realizes Trump threatens the office and its integrity. While we all have our opinions on politics, we can all agree Souza's work has truly set a high bar.

Well put. I wonder what similar access today would bring to light?

Signatures on blank papers stained with grease from KFC fried chicken? ;)

Agreed Tammie! I think that that is what scares Souza so much that he decided to break his silence / role.

Sounds like he needs a safe space instead of jumping on the "Bash Trump Because I Say So and I'm Right" bandwagon...

I think he’s down on the Trump administration in part because they keep the shade drawn.
In the world’s most important democracy, I’m not sure how you justify that.

With that much shade thrown at him, can you blame him?

Yes. I certainly can. He’s not my President, but, as the leader of the world’s most important democracy, his day to day should be more accessible.
Not doing so leads me to inferences that he’s not and never has taken the job seriously. Why not avoid that?
And, one last comment: for someone who has spent so much time calling others snowflake (implied or not), he should be able to take the heat.

Pete treads really softly on what kind of access Shealah Craighead receives, he does state that in multiple interviews. However, my opinion is the administration missed the opportunity when it comes to humanizing Trump. If Trump is not re-elected we shall find out the true answer since the photos will be released later by Shealah or to the National Archives. However, speaking out means you cannot work in a news photojournalism capacity again.

Photojournalism died with the iphone. In the past you needed media to tap into the zeitgeist and publish their thoughts to the public. Now you can skip the media, and find video of events, live, and publish it directly around the world. No one wants a "first draft of history" full of sophistry, when you can just watch the video and tap into the zeitgeist yourself. That is why "fake news" resonates so much. If you look at the picture it may look like Obama was dominant over Putin, but Putin took Crimea and Obama didn't/couldn't do anything. So seeing that picture just feels like a sell. I'd rather have a low res video of that conversation than an artful photo. Maybe that means some artists don't get to add their flavor to history going forward, and that makes me sad as a photography fan, but happy as a content consumer. Once access is more accessible, and everyone is allowed to tap into events without the media filter, and think what they want for themselves, a political renaissance could happen.

So as a moderate/right-leaning content creator, I knew that I was going to have to watch this while putting politics aside. I thought it was well done and enjoyed watching it for what it was. If half of you would stop with the politics of it you'd find a great behind-the-scenes look at the job Pete had.

Agreed. I think there is something for photojournalists to learn, but the film is politics heavy.

Whoever you support, this film is still a must-watch as the job is demanding and it means your most of your personal life on hold. I work on the lower spectrum of government so I know how the job is.

Pete Souza's work is fascinating and his access was amazing. I love his work and the story that it tells. But I unfollowed him on instagram because of the constant shade he was throwing at Trump. Not that I disagree with the shade, but I'm just tired of the drama all the time. I wanted to follow Souza because of his great work and the story behind the photos. I get enough political drama from everyone else. Literally everyone. I'm so tired of it. I just want to see good photos.

But a lot of his posts lately are talking about Trump even though his photos aren't of Trump. They were taken before Trump was even a candidate. I want to know the story of the images and not the story of his dislikes and disagreements with Trump. There are thousands of places I can hear about trump's mess, but as good as a photojournalist as he is there will always be more story to hear about photos he took in the Obama White House. I can't get that from anyone else. I want him to focus on that.

For example, look at this post on instagram recently. https://www.instagram.com/p/CHK_JGtlAkC/

I have so many questions about it. Where is he? What are they doing? Why is he taking down that sign? That is the story of the image. Instead, Souza is just talking about how Trump needs to leave. I want to hear the story of the image. That is way more interesting to me than Souza wanting Trump to leave.

I can understand what you’re saying. And I think that Souza will share much of what you’re looking for in the coming years (he does have a book with his favourite Obama administration images available now).

But, right now, at this point in history, I’m assuming based on his actions, that Souza feels he needs to share this voice. That he thinks this voice comes from a perspective that might change someone’s mind about Trump.