An UpNorthNews Exclusive with the man behind some of America’s most iconic images.
From John Travolta twirling Princess Diana on the White House dance floor to 5-year-old Jacob touching the hair atop President Obama’s head in the Oval Office, even if you don’t recognize Pete Souza by name, you likely know his work.
As chief photographer for both Presidents Reagan and Obama, Souza spent years capturing every moment of every day in the lives of the most powerful men in the world, before trading Washington for Wisconsin and moving west.
But the passionate photographer hasn’t shaken politics completely, returning to the campaign trail this summer to photograph Wisconsin Senate-hopeful Mandela Barnes, before heading on tour himself this fall, in anticipation of his new book, “The West Wing and Beyond: What I Saw Inside the Presidency.”
We caught up with the relatively-new Madisonian ahead of publishing day to learn more about his latest release, what life was really like inside the White House, and what he’s loving most about living in the Badger State. Spoiler alert: We also found out which White House dog was Pete’s favorite.
Christina Lorey, UpNorthNews Editor: Your latest book takes readers inside the “presidential bubble,” focusing on some of the people most often overlooked in the White House. How and when did you come up with the idea to focus on them?
Pete Souza, Chief White House Photographer: When I was doing the first Obama book, which essentially was about him, there are a few pictures in there that I tried to show away from the main action Obama. When I was putting that book together, I was remembering that I had made a conscious effort to photograph the things I saw “inside the bubble” that weren’t of him, but they were part of the presidency. As I was putting the Obama book together, I thought, “Maybe that’s my second book.”
Christina: Do you give President Obama a heads up when you’re working on a new book?
Pete: I emailed him a digital proof sheet of about 12 photos that were going to be in the book and told him I was working on a book about life “inside the bubble.” And he got it. He said, “This is going to be great. I love those kind of pictures the best.” So I think he appreciated it.
Christina: I wanted to ask you about what day-to-day life was like inside that “bubble,” since most of us have never and will never experience it. First, the former president was famously a night owl, but what was his demeanor like in the morning?
Pete: He didn’t drink coffee actually, which I don’t know how any adult can survive the morning without it. He worked out every day. Literally, every day of the year, even on Christmas morning. That was his cup of coffee, if you will.
95% of the time, when he came to the office, he was in a good mood. Much more chipper than I ever was.
Christina: What time would those “mornings” start, on a quote-on-quote “normal day” in the White House?
Pete: I remember the first day, the day after the inauguration, when he had been up until 3 o clock in the morning, he walked in the Oval around 9 a.m., and that was his intention: to start at 9, go home at 6:30 for dinner, and if need be, come back.
As the eight years went by, the start of the day got later and later, and the end of the day got later and later: 9:30, sometimes even 10 o clock. Then, he’d end up going home at 7 or 7:30, especially if the girls were out with friends and he didn’t have to rush home to be with them for family dinner.
On average, I’d say two or three times a week, he’d have some formal function at night where he’d be there for multiple hours. And then, the rest of the nights, he’d work in his office in the residence after dinner until the wee hours.
Christina: Speaking of food, I wanted to ask about lunch, since you mentioned in your book that was the one time of day you’ break away from the president and eat in your office. Would you ever eat lunch with the president? Could you ever order something from the White House kitchen?
Pete: There was a White House mess that was open to the senior staff. They had a small dining room, but I never ate in that. I’d take something to-go and eat it at my desk: tuna fish salad, or something like that.
I think maybe twice those of us that worked in the outer Oval Office ate lunch with him. We had pizza a couple of times.
Christina: So did the president usually eat alone?
Pete: I’d say, on average, three of the five days a week, he had lunch by himself. Twice a week, he’d have a guest come in. Once a week, it was the Vice President. The other time, it was various other people.
He had Colin Powell come in a couple times, Congressional leaders, it just depends. He had lunch with Michael Jordan one time.
Christina: How many days a week were you on the road?
Pete: It’s hard to say. I know we circled the globe the equivalent of 58 times aboard Air Force One. It was just crazy. We were on the road a lot.
Christina: What was the most enjoyable trip for you?
Pete: There were a lot of good trips. It’s hard to pinpoint. President Obama just narrated a series on the world’s great National Parks (for Netflix.) As a promo for that, he and I sat down to talk about the US National Parks that we had visited together.
I remember him saying the Alaska trip was one of his favorites domestically. We also did a trip to Yosemite, which he liked.
That was actually true for me, too. I mentioned Ansel Adams. A lot of the great Ansel Adams work was done at Yosemite National Park. And then Alaska was just this open wilderness. And when we were there (summer), the weather was just perfect.
Christina: How about international trips?
Pete: For me, it was the places I had never been before. I had been to Russia, China, a lot of places before. So going back to those places wasn’t as special.
So for me, it was going to Egypt for the first time. Going to Prague in the Czech Republic. Going to Stonehenge. Even Saudi Arabia. What a… well, I won’t say…
Christina: No, go ahead!
Pete: Saudi Arabia reminds me of a place I’d never want to live, let’s put it that way.
Christina: What is the most impressive feature onboard Air Force One?
Pete: I think it’s the space. It’s unlike any other 747. The maximum number of passengers is 80. You can imagine what that means: there’s a lot of space. And the chairs are very comfortable.
Christina: You explain the difference between the Beast and the Spare (the second armored limo) in your book. Who rides in the Beast besides the president, if it isn’t you?
Pete: It was Obama, a Secret Service driver, and the head of the Secret Service detail. Those guys were always there.
And then, riding with him, was whoever he invited. It could be Valerie Jarrett, a governor, a special guest, his press secretary, whoever he wanted. Or sometimes it would just be him or Michelle.
Christina: Did the former president ever invite you?
Pete: I rode with him about a dozen or two dozen times, but there would have to be a purpose, like if he was going to call a head of state as he was driving to the airport and we needed to document that. Or if he was riding with a governor or some noted guest.
I actually rode in the Beast with him two or three times when he was with another head of state, which was very usual for another head of state to ride with him.
I remember I did that with the prime minister of Japan. I did that with the then-president of Russia, but it was before Putin, with Medvedev.
Christina: What is the most dangerous situation you found yourself in with the president? In your book, you focused a lot on the Secret Service and explained that every trip home, you could sense some relief from them that you made it throughout without a security incident. Were there ever any precarious situations for you?
Pete: I had confidence in the Secret Service. The events that led to other presidents having incidents, most recently, when Reagan was shot, had changed the protocols enough that I never worried much.
But, it turns out, I can talk about this now–I couldn’t talk about it before–there was a major threat on Inauguration Day.
The Secret Service had gotten intelligence someone was going to cause an incident inside the crowd at the inauguration. They had precautions on how they’d respond to that if it did happen.
Christina: Pretty startling for day one, no?
Pete: That makes you a little wary.
The other time I was aware of potential danger was one time when Obama walked out of the White House without telling anybody to go to a coffee shop. Obviously, there’s always Secret Service with him. But usually, if he’d ever walk anywhere, they’d shut down streets. They’d have people out looking at rooftops.
This time, he just left.
Christina: For a reason?
Pete: I think he was feeling trapped inside the White House. He hadn’t traveled in awhile. He just needed to get out. And he thought this was a really good idea.
I think he went to Starbucks and, of course, got tea, not coffee.
Christina: And who reprimands the president?
Pete: The Head Secret Service guy.
That makes you aware all of a sudden, even with Secret Service around him, it makes you aware.
The other times were the over-enthusiasm as some events, where no one was going to intentionally hurt him, but the crowd was crushing forward. That made it dangerous for them, but not for him.There’s a picture in my first book from Kenya where you can see the anxiety on the face of the Secret Service because everybody’s crushing forward.
Christina: Both you and the president are big Sox fans, although different kinds (Red Sox for Souza, White Sox for Obama.) Did you ever watch a Sox-on-Sox series together?
Pete: No. The only time we would’ve was if they had been playing while we were on Air Force One. [Obama] might’ve pumped it in.
But he’s actually not that big of a baseball fan, to be honest with you. He’s definitely a Sox fan, but he’s more of a basketball first, then football, then probably tennis.
Christina: Bo or Sunny? Who was the most photogenic Obama dog?
Pete: Bo was my buddy.
But neither one of them was that photogenic. The thing that was hard was they had such a black coat, black dogs and white dogs are so hard to photograph. It’s hard to get the detail in their fur and still get their eyes.
Bo was definitely my favorite dog.
Christina: You’ve taken so many iconic photos. Do you have a favorite?
Pete: I get asked this a lot, and I always punt. For me, it was always about creating the best body of work.
Christina: In your book, you mentioned that Colin Powell had one of your jumbo prints hanging above his hot tub. Is there anyone else you were surprised or simply flattered to learn has one of your pictures in their home?
Pete: I’ll say the pictures that I get the most requests for are the Situation Room photograph during the Bin Laden raid. That’s not really one of my favorite photos. I think it’s important historically, but it’s not one I’d hang on the wall in my house.
The other one is the Jacob Philadelphia photo where the little boy is touching the president’s head. As a matter of fact, I made notecards up with that picture on the front. In some ways, it’s a symbol of what the presidency meant to so many people.
I guess I was flattered that Jay-Z, of all people, was talking about that photograph. And Michelle has talked about it, too.
Christina: A lot of people take pictures, but you’re always very clear–you make pictures. Can you explain the difference?
Pete: I picked that up from Ansel Adams, although his kind of photography is so different than mine. He inspired me when I was starting out by his attention to detail. I paid attention to the way he composed and framed his pictures and the way he printed, matted, and framed them. It’s creating a photograph. That’s what he used to call it.
I think it’s more of my way of saying there’s thought behind every picture that I do.
Christina: I have to ask a little bit about Wisconsin, since that’s where we both live now. What’s the best picture you’ve made since moving here (in 2019)?
Pete: Probably one of my granddaughter. She’s my number one photographed subject these days.
Christina: You included a picture from Dane County Regional in your new book…
Pete: What picture did I include? I don’t even remember that…
Christina: I actually wrote it down, page 200.
Pete: It was?
Christina: Right here… (flips open the book)
Pete: That’s at Dane County? Wow, I forgot!
Christina: That’s how memorable Madison is to you, Pete?
Pete: Yeah, that’s funny.
In the first book, there’s a photo from Madison when Obama spoke at the University, with thousands of people in the crowd on Bascom Hill.
There’s another one that’s not in any of my books– he did an event on Martin Luther King, Jr. Blvd. where people were lined up all the way to the Capitol. Bruce Springsteen was actually the special guest. It was a 2012 campaign event.
I never thought Madison was in my future.
Christina: A little foreshadowing! Last question: Five years from now, let’s say the Obamas are planning a wedding for one of their daughters. You’ve said you are pretty much retired from political photography, but if the Obamas asked, would you be the wedding photographer?
Pete: If the Obamas asked me to do anything, I would do it.
Here’s how I look at it: When Malia graduated from high school, Obama was still the president. He, as a result, he has a lot of great pictures of Malia from her high school graduation. After he left office, Sasha graduated from high school. I told him that I was going to come and photograph Sasha’s high school graduation because I thought, if I didn’t, all they would have is a bunch of sh!##y iPhone pictures.
So, on my own, I volunteered so they would have some decent pictures. And I would do the same for either of the girls’ weddings, if they asked.
My guess is Malia and Sasha will be smart enough to hire someone younger and hipper than me.
Christina: That leads to one quick, natural followup. Since you just slammed the Obamas’ photography skills, if you had to trust someone in the immediate Obama family to take a picture, who would you pass that iPhone to?
Pete: Malia. Absolutely Malia. She actually took a photography class and would occasionally carry a camera around.
He’s not that bad of a photographer, I have to say. He went on one of his trips post-presidency to some beautiful beach somewhere, and he had to show me his photographs when he got back. He’s not really that bad of a photographer.
Christina: I gather he’s not that bad at anything. He’s a talented man.
Pete: He’s not that good of a photographer. But he’s not that bad, either.
The West Wing and Beyond is available wherever books are sold on September 27. If you want to support a local small business with your purchase, consider buying from an indie bookstore in-person or online here.