Amid the daily chaos of the Donald Trump presidency, it’s easy to forget the stability we gave up two years ago. Obama administration chief photographer Pete Souza’s new book, Shade: A Tale of Two Presidents, serves as a brutal reminder. Souza juxtaposes his iconic portraits of the Obama presidency with some of Trump’s most insane tweets and comments to highlight the differences between the 44th and 45th presidents. It’s a striking, at times even hilarious book, but by the end it leaves the reader with a profound sense of loss.
In its simplicity, Shade drives home Obama’s humanity and dignity and Trump’s petty mind and epic failings like few other documents. Where we now have a president who allegedly pays off porn stars to hide extramarital affairs, insults victims of sexual assault and calls the free press the “enemies of the people,” we once had a commander-in-chief who didn’t abdicate the presidency’s function as the moral anchor of the country, was a loving father and a devoted husband.
Souza’s work is some of the most intimate documentation of the Obama years, and when the photographer speaks of Obama there’s clearly a deep affection and reverence, but with Trump there’s scorn. “Trump’s conduct has been unbecoming of the office,” Souza says. “He’s been an embarrassment. The book is a record of the first 500 hundred days of the Trump administration, which is easy to forget, because of all the craziness.”
The genesis for Shade began on Souza’s Instagram account (2 million followers and growing). After Trump sent out a tweet in 2017 accusing Obama of tapping his phones, Souza started trolling the president, posting photos of Obama and adding withering captions. For instance, when Trump ranted to the Boy Scouts last summer about Hillary, the electoral college and fake news, Souza posted a photo of Obama shaking a young scout’s hand and wrote: “I can assure you, President Obama was not bragging to this Cub Scout, or the Boy Scouts who followed, about his electoral college victory.”
Souza says he felt driven to speak up. “At first, I was reluctant to talk about Trump; I thought my Instagram posts would speak for themselves,” Souza says. “Now, I feel it’s my civic duty to speak out.”
It’s important to note that Souza, 63, is no partisan Washington D.C., foot soldier — the veteran photographer documented the Reagan administration from 1983 to 1989. Years later, he photographed Reagan’s funeral, and his portrait of Nancy Reagan weeping over her husband’s casket is a tender and powerful study in grief. Ask Souza to compare Reagan and Obama and he says the word “dignity.”
“The main similarity was they both had an even-keeled disposition,” Souza continues. “It’s probably a good trait in a president of the United States to not lose your shit over every little thing.”
He says he hasn’t talked with anyone in the Trump White House but says former Obama staffers are still in “disbelief” over what’s happened to their former place of work. So what would he say to President Trump if he were in a room with him? “There’s so much,” Souza says. “One, stop lying all the time. Two, stop bullying people all the time. Three, I’ll bet Jared wrote the anonymous editorial.”
Despite the nation’s deep partisan divide, Souza remains an optimist. At the end of the book, he urges readers to participate in democracy and to vote in new leaders. “Because Trump does and says crazy shit every day, it’s difficult to take a broader view of whether this is the most divided the country has ever been,” Souza says. “The fact that the Republicans had all white men on the Judiciary Committee is an embarrassment. We need to elect some new leaders, especially more women, to really try to move the country forward.”