Obama photographer Pete Souza perfects the fine art of trolling Trump
The former Chief White House Photographer discusses his new book—Shade: A Tale of Two Presidents—ahead of his talk at Stanford this week.
Pete Souza, no longer chief, has been named king.
The “King of Instagram Shade,” to be precise.
Formerly the “Chief Official White House Photographer,” Souza documented history in the making by snapping nearly 2 million photos of President Barack Obama throughout his two terms.
Today, he’s revisiting those photos on Instagram to slowly and subtly (and sometimes not-so-subtly) troll President Donald Trump.
When news broke of Trump’s porn-star payoff, Souza posted a cloudy sky above the White House, captioned only: “Stormy.” When Trump called white nationalists very fine people, Souza shared a smiling Obama playing with a rainbow of racially-diverse children. When Trump called Kim Jong Un “Little Rocket Man?” Yep, you guessed it—Sir Elton John in the Oval Office.
It’s Souza’s latest namesake, “King of Instagram Shade,” (as bestowed by Politico) from which he derives the title of his new book. Shade: A Tale of Two Presidents was released this week (notably on the brink of midterm elections), and shines a light on his nuanced digs by presenting his posts next to the tweets, transcripts and headlines that inspired them.
It also illuminates his higher message.
“Throwing shade is one thing, but it’s time for us to take the next step,” he writes on the book’s last page. “Vote, for one thing. Help others get to the polls. March in the street for issues that are important to you. Write or call your congressperson about how you feel. It all matters.”
We spoke with Souza ahead of his upcoming talk this week at Stanford University, asking about life with Obama, his impressions of Trump and how a master of light became the king of shade.
Tell me a little about your background and the path you took to become Official Chief White House Photographer.
I went to Boston University with the hopes of becoming a sports writer. In my junior year, I took a photography class, and the bug hit me. I knew that’s what I wanted to do.
It took me four or five years to get to the point where I actually was any good. Eventually, I worked in the Reagan White House as an official photographer — not the Chief Photographer, but a photographer.
When I left the White House the first time, I freelanced for nine years. Then I took a job as the Washington-based photographer for the Chicago Tribune. In 2004, when Barack Obama was elected to the Senate, Jeff Zeleny (who was then a correspondent at the Tribune) and I did this four-part series on Obama’s first year. That’s how I came to know him.
We traveled to six countries, I think, while he was senator. He got to know me and saw how I worked. When he was elected president, he asked me to become his Chief Photographer.
What about that position was uniquely challenging?
If you’re going to do it the way I do it, which was to go all in, you give up a good chunk of your personal life.
It’s an all-consuming, 24/seven job, 52 weeks per year, for eight years.
But worth it, right?
It’s an honor and privilege to have a job in which you document national history every day.
It’s not always as exciting as some people think. Some days it’s sorta like watching paint dry. But that’s a necessary part of the job.
Looking at your photos, it strikes me that for every tense political moment, there’s also these intimate, touching, private moments that you managed to capture. Did you ever think to yourself, ‘okay, maybe I shouldn’t be here for this?” Or did you feel like an intruder in some sense?
I never felt that I was intruding when he was doing his duties as president, with the exception of when he was the ‘consoler in chief.’
After a national tragedy — whether it was the Newtown shooting or the devastating tornadoes in Oklahoma — he visited families who’d been affected. There’s some really private moments where he’s consoling people who’ve just lost someone. Those were difficult.
I think people understood why I was there, and I would always be cognizant of whether people were offended by my presence. If I sensed that I would step away.
The other exception is when he was with his daughters. Like, there’s this picture of him and Malia out on the swing set. I would take a couple pictures until I got a good one, then I would just back away and let them have their privacy.
That’s something that’s more intuitive. There’s no blueprint on how to do it. You just have to feel the situation out.
I guess part of it, too, is that you form a close relationship with the first family. You’re a constant presence.
Yeah, and that’s what made it….I don’t know if ‘easier’ is the right word. It helped me having known him for four years before he was president.
There were times that you received criticism for not allowing pool reporters in the room, then releasing your own photos. What would you say to those who accused you of using the office like a publicity arm?
I guess the first thing I would say is, I didn’t get to decide when the press got access to the president or the Oval Office. That was not my job. That was the job of the Press Office. I think people blame it on me to make a point.
My job was different than the press covering the White House. In every instance, the Official White House Photographers have access to things that the press doesn’t have. It’s always been that way. For one, the press doesn’t have security clearance.
Rather than counter-pointing everything that’s been said, I’ll just leave it at that.
In terms of “throwing shade” and what you’ve done with your Instagram account — You initially shied away from admitting the Trump connection. It feels like that shifted in the past year, and you’ve been more open about what you’re doing. What changed?
I don’t know if it’s been a full year, but I will say that most of my last year was spent putting together what I hoped would be the best photography book ever done on a president. It took a lot — choosing what pictures to use, working with a designer, touring for press.
And all the time that I was doing this, I had this other side job, which was posting shade pictures on Instagram. It made for an interesting year.
I don’t know that there was any one tweet or news story, but I was getting more and more…I was just sort of getting numb to the constant lies and bullying. I thought that people were becoming too accustomed to it.
I woke up one day and wrote out my book proposal for Shade in about fifteen minutes. I could see how it could come together. And I knew that the only way this could make a book was not just to base it on what I was posting on Instagram but to show what was inspiring my posts in the first place.
So it wasn’t until the first book was out of the way that you had the strongest reaction — was that because you were still attached to the office in a sense? Did you feel obligated to appear objective?
I’ve worked with two presidents, and they both respected the office of the presidency. And, politics aside, they both were decent human beings.
I don’t feel that way about the current president. I think he disrespects the office. I don’t think he’s a good person.
And I don’t think that’s the kind of person we should send around the world as the leader of our country.
Do you worry that your response — throwing shade — is contributing to this moment of unprecedented tribalism?
No, I think what I do on Instagram is humorous.
And it’s so much more respectful to the situation than the president is on Twitter. He calls the press the enemy of the people. He bullies his attorney general. He trashes our intelligence agencies. He disrespects our allies, and says he has a love affair with a brutal dictator in North Korea.
Compared to that, what I do is pretty minimal.
The photos that you took as Chief Official White House Photographer are government-owned, right? Do you make a profit off the books?
Actually, they’re people owned. We the people own them.
So I — and you — can use any pictures that we had made public during the administration. They’re all public domain.
There’s a guy who has a photography book out and it’s all my pictures, which is totally okay for him to do. Just, you know, I would’ve appreciated it if he’d let me know.
Have you shown Shade to Obama?
I saw him two weeks ago, and I told him I was doing it. I hadn’t told him because I wanted him to have some distance. I didn’t want people to think he was in cahoots with me or something.
So I mailed it to him. He should have gotten it by now.
You haven’t heard from him?
No, I haven’t heard from him.
What do you think his reaction will be?
I hope he finds it humorous. But I don’t know.
Follow Pete Souza on Instagram @ petesouza
Souza’s new book of photographs, Shade: A Tale of Two Presidents, is available now via Little Brown and Co. publishing.
To view and download some of Souza’s images, check out the Obama White House page on Flickr.
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