No one had a better front-row seat to the historic presidency of Barack Obama than Pete Souza. The chief official White House photographer, Souza traveled everywhere Obama went to document both terms of America’s first black president. Given extensive access to the public and private lives of the Obamas, he captured photos of the president and his family standing in Nelson Mandela’s prison cell on Robben Island, an intimate exchange between the newly elected president and first lady on inauguration night 2009, and the now-iconic image of five-year-old Jacob Philadelphia touching Obama’s hair to see if it was like his own.
That unforgettable photo of Obama, then-Vice President Joe Biden, and other administration officials monitoring the raid that led to Osama bin Laden’s death? Souza took that one, too.
After the 2016 election, Souza began posting photos on Instagram from his vast trove of the Obama years with snarky captions as a way to throw shade on the norm-busting, chaotic, and corrupt presidency of Donald Trump. Souza fast became an internet celebrity and surely one of the best-known photographers in America. Today, he has 2.3 million followers on Instagram. His book of photos from the Obama years and a best-selling sequel with the best of his Trump-trolling photos and captions, Shade: A Tale of Two Presidents, are both best-sellers.
“My commentary has gone from humorous and subtle to being a lot more pointed and direct, because that’s what the times call for,” Souza tells Rolling Stone. “I don’t regret it at all. I would’ve regretted not saying anything.
And now, Souza is the subject of a new documentary, titled The Way I See It, that traces his evolution from a fly-on-the-wall photographer to an Instagram star and minor celebrity who, pre-Covid, routinely sold out book events and public speeches across the country. Souza talked to Rolling Stone about why he agreed to be the subject of a film after spending his life on the opposite side of the camera, how he compares photographing Ronald Reagan to Obama, and why the images put out by the Trump White House fall well short of authentic photography. “You don’t get any sense at all of, What is this guy like as a person?” he says.
This is the latest installment of Rolling Stone’s “RS Interview: Special Edition” video series, which features in-depth conversations with notable figures in music, entertainment, and politics. Episodes premiere every Thursday afternoon on Rolling Stone’s YouTube channel.