For eight years, Pete Souza served as White House Chief Photographer for President Barack Obama. During that time, not only did he take arguably the most complete photographic record of a president, he also played a role in rolling out the White House Flickr feed (now archived) and Instagram account (@obamawhitehouse). A number of end-of-term retrospectives helped boost awareness of Souza’s work, and he now boasts 1.4 million followers on Instagram (@petesouza), where he regularly
trolls uses his images to provide photographic commentary of, um, current events. His upcoming book, Obama: An Intimate Portrait: The Historic Presidency in Photographs, will be released this November.
Most recently, Souza was hired to shoot some promotional images for Netflix’s acclaimed series House of Cards with fictional President Frank Underwood played by Kevin Spacey. The series has its Season 5 premiere on May 30, 2017.
We spoke to Souza via email.
How did this gig come about? Were you surprised to be approached by the production company?
Kevin Spacey’s publicist called me out of the blue. She told me her idea and asked if I’d be interested. I said I would.
Was there a shot list? Or did they want you to approach the shoot like you would with President Obama?
There was no shot list. I suggested some locations but there were several people involved in the final location choices. The idea was to just show up at these locations and document whatever happened. I suggested going to the National Mall so we could have the U.S. Capitol in the background. Kevin encountered some high school kids throwing a football around and tossing a Frisbee, and he just joined in.
How did shooting a movie star pretending to be the president compare to shooting a real president?
Kevin stayed in character the entire day as did Michael Kelly, who plays his chief of staff, and two “Secret Service agents” from the show. I tried to capture their interactions with real people at each location. It was funny because many of the people called him “Mr. President”, especially when we showed up in front of the White House.
You were the first White House photographer in the age of social media, and have become somewhat of a rockstar. Have you been surprised at the reaction your photos received both before and after the presidency?
I try not to take the attention that seriously. I’m the same person and same photographer that I was before I photographed President Obama’s two terms.
You are working on a retrospective book of the Obama presidency. What has been the most challenging part of editing down all the images you took to 300 or so?
It was a lot more challenging than I thought it would be. I kept asking myself these questions: Does the photograph stand on its own? Does the photograph tell you something about his presidency? Does the photograph tell you something about him as a person? Will the book be hurt if I leave out this or that photograph?
I was also trying to balance the narrative versus the aesthetic, and that’s not an easy thing to do when so much happened in eight years. In the end, I trusted my gut instincts on which photographs to include. But it was very painful to leave out some of my favorites.