Lecturing a photojournalism class at a local community college, Pete Souza asks one of his students to draw an eye, a brain, and a rectangular box on the blackboard. The student scribbles the items onto the board and sits down. Souza points to the three symbols and says, “This is what photojournalism is all about: how to see, how to think, and how to frame.”
A photojournalist for over two decades, Souza has certainly seen, thought, and framed a lot in his bountiful career as an official White House photographer for President Ronald Reagan, a national photographer for the Chicago Tribune’s Washington bureau, and a freelancer for National Geographic and Life. His work has been published in two books: Unguarded Moments: Behind-the-Scenes Photographs of President Reagan and Images of Greatness: An Intimate Look at the Presidency of Ronald Reagan.
Since joining the Chicago Tribune in 1998 after nine years as a freelancer, Souza has covered a range of assignments. After 9/11, he was one of the first journalists to cover the fall of Kabul, Afghanistan, after crossing the snowy Hindu Kush Mountains by horseback.
He might be adding another President to his tony assignment portfolio if the 2008 primaries and elections bode well for Senator Barack Obama. Souza has been following Obama’s career since before he made his first bid for the U.S. Senate in 2005. He accompanied Obama on several international trips, including those to Kenya, South Africa, and Russia.
Trust and Access
When asked what has played a key role in his success as a photojournalist, Souza answers with a single word: trust. “My forte is being able to develop relationships where my subjects trust me,” he explains. “My continuing coverage of the Reagans long after I was an official White House photographer is an example of my ability to build lasting relationships that earn me trust and access.”
Indeed, trust and access are the name of the game when it comes to photographing political figures. Even as a representative for the Tribune, Souza still runs into obstacles trying to gain admission into photo-worthy events.
“In terms of being an official White House photographer, the access was extraordinary,” he explains. “I was photographing behind-the-scenes situations that nobody else had access to. It was exhilarating to know that history was being made. It’s a lot different because now I am not working for the White House. I am working for a big newspaper, and the access is not nearly what it was before.”
Because politics is oftentimes a dog-eat-dog game, politicians, in general, place the utmost importance on their image and the way they are viewed by the public. To nurture trust with his subjects, Souza likes to sit down and talk with political handlers, as well as the politicians themselves. Using his experience with Obama as an example, Souza explains the process.
“I met Obama’s communications director over lunch and told him what we at the Tribune wanted to do. Once we resolved our differences about access, it was just a matter of staying in contact with them. Subsequently, the day Obama was going to be sworn into the U.S. Senate, I had my first conversation with him. It took a month or two for Obama to be comfortable with me. The access didn’t come right away, but it did come.”
Nonetheless, it is still quite difficult to get through screaming supporters, an extravagant security team—sometimes even the Secret Service—and an entourage of campaign handlers to capture a candid moment.
“My pictures don’t suffer because of my limited access, but I think if a politician isn’t letting me in to capture those moments, then they essentially suffer, because it presents them in a more town hall, staged format that seems contrived and less honest,” Souza explains.
The Right Moment
In sync with his classroom blackboard demo, Souza waits for the perfect moment, then frames and captures the picture. “I am always looking for a moment that embodies the essence of the scene,” he says. “Sometimes it’s a shot zoomed in on Barack Obama and his daughter. Sometimes it’s a shot where he’s not even noticing the camera. I try to be aware of everything that is going on.”
Souza waits for the moment that characterizes who the subject really is, behind the handshakes and the posing.
“More than 50 percent of my favorite pictures taken at the White House were from situations not on the schedule. For instance, Reagan was at a hotel in Los Angeles, and he was with one of his speech writers. He was folding a paper airplane and then went up to the balcony and threw it off the 30th floor. It showed a lot about this person, that there was still a little kid inside of him, even though he was President of the United States,” Souza explains.