He was just a tourist.
And like so many others that day in Moscow in 2005, Barack Obama visited Red Square. Clad in khakis and a dark short-sleeve polo shirt, he slung his jacket over his shoulder as the iconic St. Basil’s Cathedral loomed behind him. Throngs of people strolled by, chatting, smiling, laughing, their eyes perhaps falling over the young senator as they passed, but only for a lost moment. For the last time in Russia, and soon the world at large, not a gaze lingered—Obama was completely and wholly anonymous.
Photographer Pete Souza raised his camera, and clicked the shutter.
Viewed today, the photograph fits in nicely with some of the others from that era—such as, say, the one of Obama working away, alone in his windowless basement Senate office.
“I was thinking, OK, if this guy ever becomes the president of the United States, it would be really nice to have a set of pictures that shows him as this freshman senator,” Souza told GQ. “So when we were in Russia, [I realized] that if he ever became president, this would never happen again ever. No matter where he went in the world, he would always be recognized.”
Like Obama, Souza was destined for the White House. And yet Souza grew up without the perpetual presence of a camera, the tool that would get him there. Rather, also like Obama, Souza’s childhood was characterized by an obsession with sports. The son of a nurse and a boat mechanic in South Dartmouth, MA, Souza played one sport or another every single day after school. Meanwhile, at home, he was always presciently drawn to the photographs within his books, sometimes finding greater weight in the stories they told than the text itself.
While Obama fantasized about a future in pro basketball, Souza envisioned himself in the sports realm as a writer. While attending Boston University and studying public communication, he figured he’d give a photography elective a go his junior year. And in that classroom, something amazing happened: For the first time in his life, he had come across a discipline that truly interested him in an electric way—he describes it as being like magic to him—and moreover, he wanted to keep studying it. To get better at it.
After graduating summa cum laude, he eventually left for the Midwest to pursue his master’s in journalism and mass communications at Kansas State University, and then found himself shooting for some small newspapers before landing at the Chicago Sun-Times. There, the opportunity of a lifetime arose: A friend of Souza’s was working in Ronald Reagan’s White House as a photo editor—and he wanted to know if Souza was interested in becoming a photographer there. Though Souza’s politics weren’t exactly in alignment with Reagan’s, he said yes. Soon he was in Washington, DC, where he remained, photographing and documenting Reagan’s presidency, from 1983–1989. His work from that era includes several now-iconic images, such as the black-and-white overhead shot of Reagan at work in the Oval Office; the president hosting Michael Jackson; John Travolta and Princess Diana dancing alongside the Reagans; Reagan working alongside his Soviet counterparts in a historic bid to end the Cold War.
Upon leaving the White House, Souza remained in DC and became a freelance photographer for the likes of National Geographic and Life, and also shot for the Chicago Tribune—which was about to give him an extraordinary assignment that would shape the rest of his life. The gig was simple enough on the surface: They wanted him to document the first year of their state’s new U.S. senator, who had emerged from the Illinois Senate. Souza met Barack Obama at his swearing-in in 2005. Struck by the man he was photographing and getting to know, Souza figured Obama would probably remain a senator for six years or so, then would run for Governor of Illinois, and then, eventually, president. He had no idea how fast his rise would actually be.
In 2009, after Obama had been elected president, Souza was about to start a new semester teaching photojournalism at Ohio University. His phone rang. Obama’s spokesman was on the line—they wanted Souza to be the new Chief White House Photographer. Souza pondered Lyndon Baines Johnson’s photographer, Yoichi Okamoto, who he considers the master of the form; Souza believes he was the first to truly document a president for the historical record. And he did so brilliantly, producing excellent images and commanding excellent access … which Souza did not fully enjoy in the Reagan administration. Souza told the Obama camp he would accept the position—on the condition that his primary job would be to document Obama for the sake of history.
They agreed. And soon enough, Souza found himself back in the Oval Office, waiting for Obama to walk in and begin his first official day on the job. On every subsequent day, Souza arrived at the White House at 8, and began documenting Obama when he came down from the residence around 9, accompany him everywhere he went until the president ascended the stairs to bed at night.
The images that exist as a result are indeed historic, and a testament to Souza’s mission, craft, trust with his subject and total devotion to his role: There’s the intense photo of Obama and his crew watching the Bin Laden raid unfold. There’s the photo of a black White House staffer’s son asking if he could feel Obama’s hair to see if it felt the same as his own. The image of Obama and Michelle, forehead to forehead in an elevator, following his inaugural ball. Obama playing basketball. Fist-bumping a soldier in Iraq. Running in the East Wing with his dog, Bo. Moving an Oval Office couch back into place himself after a photo shoot. Marching across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in commemoration of Bloody Sunday.
From the massive appearances to quiet backyard family play, Souza was there. (He has said he didn’t take a single vacation during the president’s first term because he was afraid he’d miss something.) Obama has said that aside from his family, the person he spent the most time with during his administration was Souza. Obama was also key in getting Souza to propose to his longtime partner, Patti Lease … and, naturally, he helped pick the ring out, and was present at Souza’s marriage in the White House Rose Garden.
After Obama left office, Souza released Obama: An Intimate Portrait, and it became one of the bestselling photo books of all time. President Trump’s tenure began, and has remained, as stark a contrast to Obama’s as it could possibly be. For many in the country, it was a brutal whiplash. It was written about. It was discussed at length on TV. But nobody really brought it to visual life with as much simplicity, poignancy and often hilarity as Pete Souza did on his Instagram account. The formula is simple: Trump does something in his Trumpian way and it makes news; Souza presents an image from his historical archive of the Obama era that illustrates the contrast. For instance: When Trump denied Russian election meddling and was photographed cozying up to Vladimir Putin, Souza posted an image of Obama confronting Putin on the international stage. When Trump trashed relations with Angela Merkel, Souza posted a photo of Obama embracing the key U.S. ally. When Trump enacted his travel ban, Souza shared an image of Obama visiting the Islamic Society of Baltimore mosque.
Over and over Souza was described as “throwing shade” … a phrase he had to research to decipher what everyone was talking about. And yes, he was indeed throwing shade—and he embraced it for his new book of presidential juxtapositions, Shade: A Tale of Two Presidents.
But it’s not just about the momentary laugh, the brief escape. (Yes, there is that.) Souza, who has lived and breathed two historic administrations day in and day out, is uniquely situated to spot the stark differences in the political theater of today—and present them back to us with simple images that speak volumes beyond words. By doing so, he offers visual affirmation that a better system existed only a couple short years ago that didn’t thrive on vitriol, dischord and division. He reminds us that what might increasingly seem, by way of exhausting repetition day in and day out, normal, is anything but.
In conjunction with his books, Souza partakes in the promotional events that all authors must, and they admittedly do not come easily to the lensman, who is much more comfortable behind the scenes with his camera. But at these gatherings, an interesting phenomena has cropped up. Rather than people simply listening to a dry lecture or reading and then quietly trudging along in line to get their tomes signed, the events are filled with emotion. With participation. With power. The New Yorker described them as a “group therapy session,” and Souza has been characterized as “a beacon of light” for his work.
In other words, of the parallels between Souza and Obama, perhaps the president himself has imbued Souza with the most important one: the ability to give hope.
—Zachary Petit, Design Matters Media Editor-in-Chief
By Pete Souza:
Shade: A Tale of Two Presidents
Obama: An Intimate Portrait
Dream Big Dreams: Photographs from Barack Obama's Inspiring and Historic Presidency
The Rise of Barack Obama
Unguarded Moments: Behind-The-Scenes Photographs of President Ronald Reagan
Debbie: Pete Souza has taken photographs for National Geographic, Life Magazine, and other dream outlets for any journalist. He's covered wars, and he shot covers for magazines, including Newsweek and Fortune. During the Obama years, he was the Chief Official White House Photographer, and his book, Obama: An Intimate Portrait, was an instant number one New York Times bestseller. In 2017, Pete Souza started posting images of the Obama presidency on Instagram with captions that indirectly comment on the current occupant of the White House. He now has over two million Instagram followers, and he's just published a new booked titled Shade: A Tale of Two Presidents. Pete Souza, welcome to Design Matters.
Pete: Thanks for having me on.
Debbie: Pete, is it true that President Obama not only badgered you into marrying your long time girlfriend, he actually also helped you pick out the ring?
Pete: This is a true story.
Debbie: Give us a little bit more. Tell us more about that.
Pete: Well, he got to know my wife a little bit, and there was a time we were on Air Force One on a long overseas trip, and we usually hung out in the conference room and occasionally played cards with him. And for whatever reason, he just started on me. Like, "Why haven't you gotten married?" And he said, "Look, we'll hold the wedding in the rose garden," and I was like, "No, no, no, no, no. I don't want you to do that." And he goes, "What? That's not good enough for you?"
So, yes. He actually ... It is true.
Debbie: Did he officiate?
Pete: He officiated, but the President of the United States was not allowed to legally marry someone in the District of Columbia, so we had the White House chaplain at the very end came and did the final few words.
Debbie: How wonderful.
You were born in New Bedford, and grew up in South Dartmouth, Massachusetts. Your mom was a nurse. Your dad was a boat mechanic. You have memories of playing sports every single day after school, and have described yourself as a sports fanatic. At that time in your life, did you have any artistic inclinations at all?
Pete: Not that I am aware of, and it is true, I will point out that I was a sports fanatic, but I was not a good sports fanatic in terms of my abilities playing sports.
Debbie: I understand that when you weren't good enough to play, or I guess when you didn't make the teams, you maintained a connection to the teams in some capacity. Can you talk about what that was?
Pete: Well, for the varsity basketball team, I was the statistician, so I'd keep track of points, and rebounds, and then there were a couple players on the team that I thought I was better than. And so it was oftentimes after practice I would play them one-on-one and beat them, which sort of made me feel good, but that was about it.
Debbie: After high school, you went to Boston University where you studied public communications, and I think you had aspirations to be a sports writer, is that correct?
Pete: Yes, because I thought because I liked sports so much, and I thought that would be a cool thing to do. I read the Boston Globe every day. The New Bedford Standard Times had a pretty good sports section. But then in my junior year, I took a photography class, Photojournalism One I think it was called. And then the bug hit me right away. I think the first time that I was making a print in a dark room under those red safe lights, and you've got your tray of Dektol developer, and as the image started to magically appear on the paper in that tray, I was sort of hooked right then and there.
Debbie: Was that when you decided I want to be a professional photographer?
Pete: Sort of like sports, I wasn't any good when I started out at photography, but I knew that I wanted to continue doing that right away.
Debbie: You graduated cum laude in 1976, and subsequently sought photography jobs at local newspapers. What made you decide to go into newspaper journalism versus focusing on fine art photography?
Pete: I was in the journalism school, and the way I was being taught photography was through journalism. I had an internship my senior year at the Associated Press in Boston, and covered news and sports events, so that was sort of like what I knew. If I had gone to this school, or the New England School of Photography, or something with more of an artistic curriculum, maybe I would've ended up doing landscape photography. Who knows. I just like photography, and I think journalism became the specific type of photography that I did because of the circumstance that I was in.
Debbie: I understand that, though you were applying to jobs at local newspapers, you had a pretty hard time finding one at that time, and you got rejected quite a bit. Do you have a sense of why at that time you were getting rejected so much?
Pete: Because my portfolio sucked is why.
Debbie: That simple, really? Was it that bad?
Pete: I mean, it wasn't that bad, but it wasn't that proficient either, and I remember I was stringing ... Well, I went to work for my uncle's business as a shipper, packaging stuff up to ship out for like a year, but at the same time, I was doing occasional freelance assignments for the local newspaper in New Bedford, and was hoping that they would hire me full time, which they didn't. Yes, so it took me awhile to get to the point where I was any good.
Debbie: You then decided to go to Kansas State University to get a master's degree in journalism and mass communications, and it was the first time you'd ever gone west of New York, and you said your family thought you were crazy. What made you decide to choose KSU?
Pete: Well, I started looking at ... There's a magazine called Editor and Publisher. I don't know if it still exists, and on the back of the magazine, they had these classified ads for jobs, and teaching jobs, and professional jobs, and I would look at that every ... I can't remember if it was a weekly or a monthly. And they had an advertisement in there for a teaching assistant in basic photography, and I thought, well, maybe this was a way that I could teach the basic skills of photography while I got a graduate degree. And I talked to the host professor on the phone, and he basically sold me on the idea of doing this. And so he kind of hired me on the phone, and I said, "Okay, I'll do it."
Debbie: One of your first big jobs was at the Chicago Sun Times. What did you imagine that you were working toward at that time of your life? What were your goals?
Pete: Well, before that, I had worked for two small daily newspapers in Kansas, and then I went right to the Sun Times. I went from a 6,000 circulation daily newspaper where I was the only photographer to a 600,000 circulation newspaper where I was one of 25 photographers. So it was great to have a seasoned staff that I learned so much from. [John White 00:10:50], [Richard Dirk 00:10:51], people that I had admired for a long time as photojournalists. And I was in a city where there was a lot of news, which I had not really experienced at small town Kansas newspapers. And there was major league sports, and so I was having a ball, and I had no intention of going anywhere anytime soon. Things were going really well. I was getting what I thought were good assignments. I was enjoying what I was doing. I loved Chicago, and I thought that was going to be a home for quite awhile.
Debbie: But the White House called.
Pete: But, yes ... So when I was in Kansas, I was trying to move up to the Kansas City Star as a photographer, and there was ... A photo editor at the Star was a woman named [Carol Greenwalt 00:11:45], and I interviewed for a job with her. She didn't hire me, but she sort of kept track of my career, and then she ended up becoming the White House photo editor under [Michael Evans 00:11:58], who was Reagan's Chief Official Photographer. And then in the middle of Reagan's first term, they had an opening for a White House photographer to work underneath Michael, and Carol called me one day out of the blue and said, "We want you to apply for this job."
And it was one of those things where ... You know, a phone call that had a lot to do with changing the rest of my life, so I ended up taking that job, and worked at the White House until the end of Reagan's term. My last day was January 20th, 1989. And so that was a great experience to the White House, to being an inside photographer, to understanding how to act and behave around national politicians, and so on, and so forth.
Debbie: You've said that your personal politics didn't exactly mesh with President Reagan's. Did that worry you when you first joined the White House team?
Pete: Well, when Carol first called me, I told her I wasn't interested because I thought things were going so well, and I didn't really think that highly of Reagan at the time. But I thought we all hoped that our pictures live in history, and I thought what better way to provide images for history than be inside at the White House, and what difference would it make whether the president was a Democrat or a Republican?
And so I sort of put those thoughts aside, and went to work there, and I actually admired President Reagan. He was a decent human being. He respected other people from all walks of life, and to me, the policy part of it was not that significant in terms of what I was doing, which was photographing for the historic archive.
Debbie: Did you have to develop a certain objectivity, or was that something that didn't really come up in the kind of work you were doing?
Pete: I approached it as a photo journalist would, which is you're trying to photograph and make authentic pictures that are true to what has taken place. I don't know how ... I guess if you, because you didn't like his policies, you maybe get a picture of him picking his nose. I mean, I never understood what that means. Objective or non-objective. You're documenting what's happening, and policies really don't affect the way you make a picture, I don't think.
Debbie: After your tenure with Reagan, you became one of the first photographers to cover the war in Afghanistan, which you did for the Chicago Tribune. While there you traversed the 15,000 foot Hindu Kush mountain pass on horseback in three feet of snow. You also saw the dark realities of war, death, destruction, devastation. How did that impact you?
Pete: The thing that was interesting that Afghanistan was that it was the first war really, were pictures, because of the advance of digital technology, you could transmit them back to the US hours later, after you made them with your satellite phone. So there was a immediate reaction from the readership of the Chicago Tribune. I went with a correspondent named Paul Salopek. Paul and I had a couple of close calls with rocket propelled grenades, and sniper bullets and things like that.
By the way, we were there before there were any US troops on the ground. The US had started their air campaign already, and we were usually hooked up with the local Northern Alliance, the soldiers that were fighting against the Taliban. A couple times are right there on the front line with them. I never considered myself a war photographer. I sort of ended up right on the front line almost by mistake. I realized that I was not that good at it, because it takes a certain kind of person to be able to keep their shit together while really bad things are happening around you. I realized that, that probably was not for me.
Debbie: I can't imagine how anybody could keep their shit together in that kind of condition.
Pete: Well, there are people that can.
Debbie: In 2004, you were shooting Washington DC for the Chicago Tribune and you were asked to cover the then Senator Barack Obama's first year in the Senate. What did you think about that assignment? Had you ever heard of the senator at that point? Or did you have a big impression of him?
Pete: You know, he had made this big speech in 2004 at the Democratic National Convention. At the time I was with the nominee John Kerry, traveling with him for the Tribune. The day that Barack Obama made that speech, Kerry was not yet at the convention. I think we were in Nantucket, as a matter of fact. So I didn't see the speech, but I heard about it after. Then when he was elected to the Senate, and Jeff's Zeleny, reporter said, "Hey, we should do this. Look at his first year in the Senate." I sort of read up on him a little more, and the New Yorker read published a long profile about him, which I read.
But, I hadn't seen him on video to see what he looked like or how he interacted with people, until the day I met him. Which was in early January-
Debbie: When he was sworn in.
Pete: Yes, it was a few hours before he was sworn... I met him at his hotel before he had gone up to the capital, which was the first time that I had met him.
Debbie: What was your first impression of him?
Pete: You know, the first day of your Senate career is a ceremonial day. You're sworn in, you get your office, you have some receptions, you meet with this person, with that person. Very ceremonial. His family, who stayed in Chicago, came to DC that day, both Sasha, and Malia and Michelle. And a couple things struck me. One, he was very at ease even though I was taking pictures throughout the day.
I've got this picture of him in his office with Sasha and Malia, and he's biting into a big sandwich, and he's got this big wad of food in his mouth. Sasha and Malia are just doing their thing. It as if I'm not even there, I mean it's such an intimate picture and I had only known him for like three hours. As a photo journalist, you always hope to have a subject like that. One who isn't suddenly startled by the presidents of a camera.
He sort of just went about his business as I went about my business. Which was, I thought unusual a new national politician. Then over the next few weeks to see the way he interacted with people, not only the way he spoke when he was giving a speech and seeing how people reacted to the spoken word. But then seeing he would interact with people directly, and was very respectful to every person he met. You could see the excitement in the faces of some of the young people, especially the young African American kids. All that was very noticeable just in the manner of the first few weeks I spent with him.
Debbie: Did you have any idea back then of what he was capable of and how far he might've send in politics?
Pete: Yes, I mean I think it came in with a lot of hype. Then you never know. People ask me who's going to be the Democratic nominee in 2020, and I say you never know who is going to do well under the glare of the national spotlight. But certainly ,I could see that he would at least someday run for a bigger position than senator. I didn't know if that would be Governor or President. I sort of tried to keep that in the back of my mind, having been in the White House with Reagan and noting what the presidential bubble is like.
Debbie: What do you mean by the presidential bubble?
Pete: There's this apparatus around you, secret service. Everything is kind of stage managed in terms of for security reasons. You can't just leave the White House and go for a walk and go to Starbucks, or Dunkin donuts or whatever. You can't do that when you're president. You could do that when your senator, especially you're a freshman senator. So I was trying to make pictures in my mind that I thought, if he ever became president, these would be cooler pictures in 20 years there would be timeless.
But as you look back on them you'd see, some of my favorite pictures of John Kennedy are ones when he was running for president and nobody really knew that much about him. There's nobody else around, he's the only one ad on the airport tarmac, things like that.
Debbie: Yes, you see the person.
Pete: Yes, so I was trying to keep that in the back of my mind. I've got this series of pictures of President Obama in Russia. We went to Russia with him and Senator Lugar from Indiana on a congressional delegation. I've got these pictures of him in Red Square, President Obama, where he's walking through the Red Square and nobody is looking at him, nobody knows who he is. I knew that those pictures, when you look at those now, they're really kind of cool to look at. Because here's this guy that became this president, national figure, everybody knows who is now. At the time, he's running around Moscow and not a soul recognizes him.
Debbie: When Obama did become president, his spokesman Robert Gibbs, asked you to be President Obama's official photographer. You accepted on the condition that you would have complete access. Had that not been the case prior in the White House, when photographers were covering the president.
Pete: So first, President Obama asked me through Robert Gibbs to become his photographer. Gibbs, we all know him as White House press secretary. But in reality, he was his closest aide. He was as much an advisor as he was a spokesman, and I did say that to him about the access. I remember Robert's reply was, "The president gets it." I think the amount of access that you get when you're the chief official White House photographer is totally dependent on the relationship that you have with the president. Ultimately the president decides how much access you get.
It was very beneficial to me to have had experience previously in the White House, as well as having had for four years of professional relationship with Barack Obama. So, he knew me. I was more or less from his generation, and he had a lot of young people around him. I think he liked having somebody from his generation around him. He saw how I worked. I always tell people, "I acknowledge and not the greatest photographer in the world. But I think I was absolutely the best photographer for this particular situation," because of all those things.
Debbie: You shot with a Canon 5D Mark II and Mark III at the White House, and estimated in 2009 that you shot around 1,000 to 1,500 photographs in an average day. Recent totals for both of Obama's terms coming in around 2 million images. I read that you sought to minimize your footprint at the White House, and President Obama himself has described you as having a remarkable talent for making yourself invisible. How did you go about doing that? 1,500 pictures a day hardly seems like you could be invisible doing it.
Pete: No, but by a small footprint, which, I mean at the time the Canon 5D was what I thought was the quietest professional digital camera that existed. So that's why I chose to use that camera, and I didn't use a flash. I would not use motor drive, rapid one picture after another. 1,500 pictures in a 12 or 13 hour day is really not that many, I don't think. I just had this ability to go about my job and not disturb what was taking place in front of me, knowing when to give him some space. These are all things that you can't write down as bullet points and say, "Here's how you do it."
A lot of it is intuition. I think physically, it would have been better if I had been 20 years younger. But I think I also had the advantage of being older in that, I sort of felt that I belonged there. I wasn't gonna have anybody telling me that I didn't belong there. I knew how to approach things, where I wouldn't get kicked out of the room.
Debbie: One of your most well known shots was President Obama and his team, including Secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, watching the bin Ladin raid. One thing you said about that image that's really stayed with me is this, "The most powerful people in the room were in that room, and they were essentially helpless, resigned to just watch something play out." Pete, what was it like to be there in that room when it was happening?
Pete: Yes, no, it was very tense. We were in there for about 40 minutes, 42 minutes I think it was. Yes, I mean this was a decision to launch this raid that was arguably the biggest decision of his presidency, because things could have gone really bad. If we go back to history when Carter sent in helicopters to Iran to try to rescue our hostages and helicopters crashed, some of our guys were killed. This was a risky mission, and this was a decision that could have ended his presidency if it not had ended well.
I was aware of all that in the back of my mind, as this day progressed. You just didn't know how it was going to end up. Well, he ultimately had made this decision and his staff supported him. But then once the mission itself was playing out, they had no role in it. It was out of their hands, and yet they were being able to monitor this raid is it happened. So I think that's what accounts for all the tension as it happened. So I think that's what accounts for all the tension, that you see in their faces.
Debbie: All told you said that the photos that stand out to you the most are the highly personal moments, such as when Washington, D.C. was buried in a snowstorm and President Obama went outside and played with his daughters. You were the only other person there. That's when you saw him as a human versus a president. Over the eight years you shot him in the White House, how did you see President Obama change over the course of his tenure?
Pete: His hair got a little grayer.
Debbie: That's true.
Pete: But the core character of the guy didn't change. I mean from the ... from that first day that I met him in January 2005 until we're flying away on a helicopter last January, the character of him didn't ... I didn't think changed at all. He grew as a person. There's some things you can't prepare for as president. For instance, the first tragedy that probably happened during his presidency were the shootings at Fort Hood. He had to go there and console all these families. You can't teach somebody how to do that. I could see the uneasiness in him, not knowing what people expected from him, when really all they wanted was a hug, or to be able to show him pictures of their loved one that had been killed.
I saw him have to do that too many times in his presidency, but he sort of got to the point where he understood why he needed to do it, and I think became more comfortable in doing it, which is kind of a sad thing to say, really, that he had to do that so many times, that he became comfortable. But I can't imagine anyone having to do that, time and time again, and how much that takes out of you emotionally, to meet these families, and those circumstances.
Debbie: After your tenure at the White House, you released the book, Obama, an Intimate Portrait, which soared to number one on the New York Times Bestseller List and is one of the best selling photography books of all time. You needed to be able to parse through the two million images you'd taken over the eight years of the Obama Administration, down to the three hundred that were included in the book. How were you able to do that?
Pete: Yes, no, that was a big challenge, because I wanted to try to include most of the historical things that had happened during his presidency, but then also show some of the small moments that really show what he was like as a person. And then also show some of the aesthetic pictures that I had made of the presidency, pictures of Air Force One, the helicopter, scenes like that, and try to just have a good narrative throughout the book. It was not easy to do and ultimately it just became a gut check on what I thought were the right set of pictures. I'm sure that if I wait another 10 years to try to put together the same book, it would be slightly different because I would be thinking about things, thinking back on things maybe differently. Things would have happened in the world that maybe effect what was important then, you don't realize that until 10 years later or something like that.
Debbie: Today you have two million followers on Instagram and your posts are incredibly telling. When our current President signed the executive order banning refugees from the country, you posted an image of President Obama smiling as he played with a refugee girl. When Melania Trump famously swatted away Donald's hand, you posted a photo of Michelle and Barack joining fingers. There could not be a more diametrically opposed juxtaposition. What made you decide to do this?
Pete: I thought it was my civic duty. I had worked for a guy for eight years that I respected, who respected the rule of law, who tried to make decisions based on facts, who was respectful to other people. The person that succeeded him was none of those things. I didn't feel that he was respecting, that President Trump wasn't respecting the Oval Office, the Office of the Presidency, I didn't think he understood what it meant to be an American, and I thought that it became my civic duty, in my little small way, to point this out.
Debbie: You've said that when your account was first described as throwing shade, you had to look the term up, especially since it was in reference to curtains in the White House. What was that like when you first discovered what throwing shade meant?
Pete: Well, the post that you're referring to is a couple days after the inauguration and I had seen a picture of the re-decorated Oval Office. There were these gold curtains. Instead of two flags in the Oval Office, there were like 20 flags or something and it looked like a Saudi palace, not the Oval Office. I was appalled. So I posted a picture of President Obama by the Resolute desk, with the red curtains in the background, and I think my caption was something like, kinda like the old curtains better.
I admit it was a double meaning and I didn't know if people would pick up on that. They did. The very first post, someone said that I was shading Trump. Over the subsequent weeks I would do my little snarky captions and responses to a Presidential tweet or story and I was getting all these calls from reporters wanting me to do an interview, and I turned them all down, 'cause I just said look, my Instagram feed speaks for itself. I thought it was more powerful, just let it stand.
But people started doing stories anyway, despite the fact that I wasn't being quoted and there were several headlines, Souza throws shade at Trump, or trolling was another word. So I sort of knew what trolling meant, but I didn't really know what throwing shade meant, so I did look it up.
Debbie: You have a brand new book now based on that work and it is called, Shade, a Tale of Two Presidents, and it takes its name from that experience. The book places images of President Obama and elements of President Trump alongside tweets, news pieces and quotes and as you write in the intro, "In this book I take a turn to full transparency and let it all hang out. You can call it shade. I just call it the truth." You then go on to state that, "With this book you are standing up and shouting out, as you can't be subtle any longer." Pete, after years of making impartial political statements through your official photographs, was it daunting to be putting yourself out there in this way?
Pete: It was only daunting in that I started this while I was putting together my other book. So I felt that I had two separate lives going on, two separate work lives. One, I was trying to do the best documentary, photography book on a president that had ever been done. So that was occupying most of my time. My side job was starting these shade comments on Instagram, and they were two completely different things. But now I sort of ... now that I have a book out, I mean I have to talk about it, and the book is actually ... the big difference between the book and the Instagram feed itself, is on the Instagram feed, I sort of leave people guessing what I'm referring to sometimes. They have to pay attention to the news. I often get comments from people that they see my post and they have to Google what Trump did that offended me or that I'm responding to.
Well in the book, it's very direct in that the left page is a Trump tweet or a news headline, or a series of news headlines and the right page is my response I gave on Instagram or a similar one. There's some actually new material that wasn't on Instagram, in the book, but I try to keep that sort of flow of here it is, here's the Trump craziness, on the right side here's my response.
Debbie: It's an interesting, political, cultural and somewhat satirical book and in a lot of ways it's not satire at all, it's just truth. Is it true that you blocked Kanye West from your Instagram feed?
Pete: I don't think he follows me on Instagram. I just did that as a ... I often ... sometimes I think people take what I say too seriously and that was just sort of like tongue in cheek. I don't think Kanye follows me on Instagram. I don't think Kanye knows who the hell I am.
Debbie: Well, he should. I have one last question for you, Pete. It's about another Instagram star you have a connection to. Charlotte the Tortoise?
Debbie: Tell us about Charlotte the Tortoise?
Pete: You know one thing that happens when you get kids, and they get pets as children, and they eventually grow up and leave the house, but they leave their pets with you. So, Charlotte, who we've had for 20 or 21 years ...
Debbie: Tortoises live a really long time.
Pete: Yes. Was not my pet, it was Patty's kids' pet. They grew up, they left the house and Charlotte stayed with us and Charlotte was named after Charlotte's Web and I had always been taking pictures with my iPhone of Charlotte all these years, but then I started posting a few on my Instagram feed and people started going crazy. So I thought it was time for Charlotte to get her own Instagram feed.
Debbie: And it's @charlottethetortoise on Instagram.
Debbie: Quite an entertaining feed as well. Very different feed, but wonderful to follow. Pete, thank you so much for being on Design Matters today and thank you for documenting the world with such significance and beauty.
Pete: Well, thanks for saying that and thanks for having me on, I really appreciate it.
Debbie: You can see more of Pete's work at PeteSouza.com. Pete Souza's latest book is Shade, a Tale of Two Presidents, and an exhibit of his work is being shown at the Steven Kasher Gallery in New York City. This is the 14th year I've been doing Design Matters and I'd like to thank you for listening. And remember, we can talk about making a difference, we can make a difference, or we can do both. I'm Debbie Millman and I look forward to talking with you again soon.