Pete Souza remembers the day he received the call to become the official White House photographer a couple of weeks before President Barack Obama’s inauguration. His only condition to do the job was to have access.
Without access, Souza would not be able to create the photos that he needed to properly document history.
Souza told the audience during his lecture at Zoellner Art Center’s Baker Hall that he recorded the end of this conversation. With that, he played, “The Room Where It Happens” from Hamilton, sending the crowd into laughter. His urge to cover all events of the eight-year presidency — big and small, historic and intimate — was underscored by his decision not to take a vacation for the first five full years of Obama’s time in office.
Access was a common theme throughout Souza’s lecture, “Obama: An Intimate Portrait.” From the moments before Obama’s inauguration to his last steps onto Air Force One leaving the White House, Souza was there to capture the best and worst of times during the presidency.
The event, which is connected to an exhibit of Souza’s work in the E.W. Fairchild Martindale Library, took place on Feb. 6. Originally in a smaller venue, the event was moved to Zoellner Arts Center to accommodate the large number of ticket requests.
“Obama: An Intimate Portrait” was published in 2017 and debuted at No. 1 on The New York Times bestseller list. Souza’s book is regarded as one of the best-selling photography books of all time.
Souza said he captured over 2 million images during Obama’s presidency. However, about only 300 were chosen to be included in the book. These carefully selected photos were the subject of the rest of his lecture.
Souza recalled his last day on the job — President Donald Trump’s inauguration. Souza captured Obama leaving a note, by tradition, in the Oval Office’s desk drawer for the incoming president.
“The day after the election, he (Obama) tried to be the adult in the room and console the staff — some were crying,” Souza said. “He was trying to take the high road.”
After the Obamas lifted off in the Air Force One helicopter for the last time, a staff member asked Souza, “How are you doing?”
“I’m really depressed,” he replied.
Souza had watched Obama in situation rooms, asking questions, listening to advice and making tough decisions. He had taken the famous photo of Obama, surrounded by Vice President Joe Biden and other national security officials, monitoring the raid that would eventually kill terrorist Osama bin Laden.
Souza was not shy in sharing opinions on Trump. He included images from his latest book, “Shade: A Tale of Two Presidents,” which also debuted at No. 1 on The New York Times bestseller list.
Souza said his purpose was to create the best photographic archive that had ever been done on a president to be the eyes of history.
“It was very helpful to see a more in-depth, personal representation of the presidency because it seems like something that’s so far away from us and so removed,” said Melissa Marcus, ‘20, who attended the event.
Souza shared intimate moments he captured of Obama with family, staff and ordinary citizens.
Souza also captured symbolism, one of his themes, throughout Obama’s presidency. One photo displayed Obama bending down to a young African-American boy so the boy could touch his hair, and another showed Obama sitting on the Rosa Parks Bus in the Henry Ford Museum.
National tragedy was revisited through photos of Obama visiting Newtown, Connecticut, after the Sandy Hook shooting that killed 26 individuals in an elementary school — mostly children. Souza played a clip from a press conference Obama gave in the aftermath of the shooting, his eyes wet from holding back tears. Souza said Obama refers to the day of the shooting as the worst of his presidency.
Nick Christy, an assistant director of for programming and student center facilities, said he has always appreciated being able to see the behind the scenes of presidencies.
“It was great to relive those moments — the joy, the tragedy, everything, it was powerful,” Christy said.
Over the past year, Souza has been the subject of a documentary film following him through his lectures, documenting his travels around the world and interviewing subjects of his photos.
Souza’s exhibit in the Library Study Gallery runs through Feb. 28.