By Kirsten Coachman
Pete Souza shot to social media stardom in 2017 with an Instagram post…sprinkled with a bit of shade.
The Way I See It, a new documentary from Dawn Porter (John Lewis: Good Trouble), looks back at Souza’s time in the White House, where he served as an official photographer under former president Ronald Reagan and later returned as Chief White House photographer under former president Barack Obama. Souza was granted the kind of access that only top administration officials were privy to, and he captured moments that provided the world an inside look at the daily life of an American president.
As someone who attended Souza’s book tour for Obama: An Intimate Portrait in 2017, the framing of The Way I See It, along with some of the stories he shares about the 44th president were familiar, but with how this year has been going, revisiting them once again was more than welcome. Among the many photographs shown from Obama’s eight-year presidency was one of five-year-old Jacob Philadelphia touching the president’s head in the Oval Office. Souza reveals that he was only able to get that one shot during the brief, yet moving moment between the two.
Along with Souza’s images, the documentary is fleshed out with accounts from colleagues who worked alongside of the photographer, as well as video footage–including one charming moment where Souza is directing President Reagan and First Lady Nancy Reagan during an outdoor shoot, which shows a lighter, very human side of the president.
What I appreciated about the documentary, aside from the well-curated selection of images and anecdotes, was how it called attention to the importance of documenting history. Souza was essentially a photo historian during his time at the White House, and his photographs will be referenced for years to come. He notes that the opportunity and access that was afforded to him during both Reagan and Obama’s respective presidential eras is not being granted to current White House photographers, outside of taking posed images. It’s a moment of realization that’s sure to give viewers pause.
The photographer does acknowledge that he’ll probably not be able to work as a photo journalist again following the attention that his biting commentary and Instagram posts about the White House’s current occupant has received. For Souza, his manner of throwing shade is his own form of activism–his way of standing up and sounding the alarm that things are not normal. And if anyone knows what normal looks like inside the White House, it would be him.