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.

President Barack Obama takes aim with a photographer’s camera backstage prior to remarks about providing mortgage payment relief for responsible homeowners. Dobson High School. Mesa, Arizona 2/18/09. (Photo by Pete Souza via the Obama White House Page on Flickr)

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.

A couple of prime examples of Souza’s trolling of President Trump via Instagram: “There’s only one Rocket Man — Sir Elton John” and “Stormy.” (Images by Pete Souza courtesy of Little Brown and Company publishing)

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.

Just a few of the two million photos Chief White House Photographer Pete Souza took during the eight years of the Obama administration: (Clockwise from top left) President Barack Obama bids farewell to Pope Francis following a private audience at the Vatican, March 27, 2014; President Barack Obama boards Marine One at Joint Base Andrews, Md., en route to the White House following a trip to New Jersey, Dec. 15, 2014; President Barack Obama and President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan conclude their joint press conference in the East Room of the White House, Jan. 11, 2013; South Africans cheer as President Obama waits in a tunnel at the soccer stadium before taking the stage to speak at Nelson Mandela’s memorial service. It was a long overnight flight to Johannesburg, a few hours on the ground in the pouring rain, and then a long flight back to Washington. (Photos by Pete Souza via the Obama White House Page on Flickr)

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.

A collage of images Pete Souza posted on Instagram under the caption—”Say what?” (Image by Pete Souza courtesy of Little Brown and Company publishing)

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.

A few photos from Souza’s Instagram that are featured in his new book—”Shade: A Tale of Two Presidents”; (Clockwise from top) Souza ran this image of President Obama reading the morning papers under the caption—”Back when we had a President who read a newspaper and didn’t call it fake news even when he was criticized.”; a high-level meeting with then-FBI director Robert Mueller after the Boston Marathon bombing; a meeting with female staff members under the caption—”Respect for women. President Obama strategizes with aides Kathy Ruemmler, Jennifer Palmieri, Katie Beirne Fallon, and Cecilia Muñoz in 2013.” (Images by Pete Souza courtesy of Little Brown and Company publishing)

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.

President Obama with his daughter Malia on the White House swing set, in 2010. (Photo by Pete Souza)

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.

President Barack Obama and daughter Sasha steer the “Bay Point Lady” during a tour of St. Andrews Bay off Panama City Beach, Fla., Aug. 15, 2010. (Photo by Pete Souza via the Obama White House Page on Flickr)

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.

A 2010 image by Souza recently posted on Instagram with the caption—”A different kind of witch hunt.” (Image by Pete Souza courtesy of Little Brown and Company publishing)

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.

Last year Souza ran this image on Instagram with the caption—”Despite what some say, the White House is definitely not ‘a dump.’ What a shameful thing to say, or even think. It belittles the honorable men and women who make the White House the exemplary historical place it is, opening its doors to thousands of people every day.” (Image by Pete Souza courtesy of Little Brown and Company publishing)

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.

Obama with kids: (clockwise from top left) President Barack Obama walks with Lincoln Rose Pierce Smith, the daughter of former Deputy Press Secretary Jamie Smith, in the Oval Office, April 4, 2014; President Barack Obama poses for a photo with children following his remarks at the White House Tribal Nations Conference in Washington, D.C., Dec. 3, 2014; President Barack Obama runs along the Colonnade of the White House with Deputy National Security Advisor Denis McDonough’s children, Jan. 25, 2013. The President announced McDonough will become Chief of Staff, replacing Jack Lew, the nominee for Treasury Secretary; ”At the President’s insistence, Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes brought his daughter Ella by for a visit. As she was crawling around the Oval Office, the President got down on his hands and knees to look her in the eye.”; President Barack Obama stops by the Chief of Staff’s office in the West Wing of the White House to visit with children of staff dressed up for the annual Halloween Party in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, Oct. 24, 2014. (Photo by Pete Souza via the Obama White House Page on Flickr)

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.

President Barack Obama laughs during a meeting in the Roosevelt Room of the White House, Nov. 17, 2014. (Photo by Pete Souza via the Obama White House Page on Flickr)

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.

The President’s wave aligns with a rainbow as he boards Air Force One at Norman Manley International Airport prior to departure from Kingston, Jamaica. April 9, 2015. (Photos by Pete Souza via the Obama White House Page on Flickr)

Pete Souza will be discussing his time as Chief White House Photographer, as well as his new book, at Stanford University, this Thursday, October 18

(Image via Amazon)

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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