Photojournalist and former White House photographer Pete Souza has spent his career documenting presidents from behind a camera. Cutting his teeth as a White House staff photographer under Ronald Reagan, Souza also snapped photos of politicians for several news outlets, including for the Chicago Tribune, during Barack Obama’s term as Illinois senator. During Obama’s presidency, Souza served as chief official White House photographer, in which capacity he had full access to the leader of the free world.
In Shade, Souza shares his post-Trump journey. What started as some snarky Instagram posts snowballed into a thoughtful photo-essay rich with social commentary. Souza responds to Trump news and tweets using photos from Obama’s presidency, juxtaposing how each president handled the job.
Why did you decide to respond to Trump through images?
A couple of days after the inauguration, I saw a picture of the redecorated Oval Office with those ornate gold curtains. It looked like a Saudi palace. I posted a picture of President Obama seated at the desk with the red curtains in the background. I said I kind of like these curtains better. I was directly responding to the new curtains, but I was also slyly trying to make a point.
Did you always intend to make the posts into a book?
I was posting stuff on Instagram while I was putting together my first book, a straight documentary look at Obama’s two terms. I had no plan to do a book.
Then how did it come about?
I felt strongly that Trump was demeaning the office of the presidency. One day I sent an email to my book agent and I said, “I want to go all in on this. Let’s propose a book.”
In your opinion, how is Trump demeaning the job?
The fact that he accused President Obama of tapping his phones on social media. He accused the former president of a felony on Twitter. It is like going into a movie theater and yelling fire. There are certain things that shouldn’t be allowed. And just the way he has tweeted about the institutions of our democracy, calling the press the enemy of the people, calling our intelligence agencies liars, and telling the justice department what to do in terms of investigations.
How does the Instagram account differ from the book?
On Instagram, I am responding with a photo and a comment that is somewhat snarky or humorous, but I am not telling people what I am responding to. In the book, I lay it all out; I say, here is the tweet or news story that really bothered me.
Instagram comments and news stories said that you were throwing shade, a term you had to look up. How did Shade became the book title?
At first, I thought it should be Throwing Shade, but reading comments on my Instagram feed, I saw so many people just use the word shade, so it just became Shade.
When you photographed President Obama, you had access to everything. Was he conscious of being documented?
For anyone, having a guy following you around all day taking pictures takes some getting used to. I had this knack of being around and not really causing a nuisance. People forget I am there; I am just like part of the furniture.
How were the experiences of working with Reagan and with Obama similar?
They were similar in the sense that they were both fairly laid back. They both had very even-keeled dispositions. It would take a lot to get either of them really angry or very riled up.
How were the experiences different?
I was in my twenties when I was working for Reagan and he was in his seventies. I wasn’t the chief photographer, so my access wasn’t quite as good. The times were different; there was no such thing as social media. CNN was new.
With President Obama, I had already known him for four years before he was president. He is a couple of years younger than me and I knew how the White House worked. And the whole aspect of social media had changed things, not in terms of the kind of pictures I took but in terms of what the White House did with the photos, which was make a lot of them public.
How has your role transformed from documentarian to activist?
I’m a humorist-activist. I’ve gotten less subtle as time has gone on. With this book, I bring a little humor to the critique of the current administration. I think it is done much more respectfully than the way the current president uses his Twitter feed.