This Week’s Podcast Interview: New White House Photographer Pete Souza

Jan 15, 2009 5:18pm

You can listen to the ABC News Shuffle Podcast HERE.

When you saw pictures of President-elect Barack Obama and Vice President-elect Joe Biden meeting with the Supreme Court yesterday, you were looking at the work of Pete Souza.

Souza also took the new official portrait of President-elect Obama, which will be hung in federal buildings around the country and embassies around the world.

Souza has been taking pictures for a long time. The former Chicago Tribune and Chicago Sun-Times photog got his start in the 1970s in Kansas at the Chanute Tribune and the Hutchinson News.

By the late 1980s, Souza had become an official White House photographer for President Ronald Reagan during his second term. 

Souza met President-elect Obama on his first day in Senate in January 2005 and he shadowed the lanky Illinoisan for his first year, a task that led to his book "The Rise of Barack Obama."

This week, Souza was officially named the official chief White House photographer. We spoke with him for the ABC News Shuffle podcast, which you can hear on and iTunes. The podcast was produced by Sunlen Miller and Huma Khan.

Souza and I talked about a number of topics, including Nancy Reagan asking him to photograph her late husband’s funeral, whether an official photographer censors pictures that a photojournalist might not, and whether photo selection can ever be evidence of political bias.

Some excerpts from the interview.

On how he’s approaching photographing the Obama girls, Malia, 10, and Sasha, 7:

"Very sensitively, very carefully. I’ll be talking to Michelle and the president-elect about this and I’m obviously very sensitive and I don’t think you’re going to see, you know, a lot of pictures of the girls released by me or my staff. I think I will be taking some but I’m also going to be very concerned about, you know, my — sort of — presence with the two girls. … And again, I need to have this conversation with the Obamas and I haven’t yet just because of the way things have happened but I probably will on Saturday because I want to make sure that they’re comfortable with me in certain situations. … Some things I’ll record for history and you might never see them."

On whether he’ll take pictures of President-elect Obama smoking (should he light up):

"Jake, you’re trying to get me into trouble. It’s funny, back when I worked at the Chicago Sun-Times — back in like 1982, when I was 12 (laughs) — I had covered the gubernatorial campaign of Adlai Stevenson III and on election night, you know, he had a big stogie in his mouth and was smoking away in his office. He didn’t care. I think the times have changed. It’s just a different era. President Reagan told me a funny story one time. … I had seen this poster of him, it was an advertisement for Chesterfield cigarettes and he had a cigarette in his mouth in a Western-like pose with a cigarette coming out of his mouth. He said ‘I didn’t smoke cigarettes but what happened is back in the day you were property of a studio.’ They could do anything they wanted to with his image. So they had this photo and they just airbrushed the cigarette in."

On whether White House photographers try to maintain some emotional distance from the president:

"My relationship with the president-elect is a professional relationship. I’m not his friend, I don’t look at myself as his friend. I’m there to document for history and I think he understands that role , but I do think you make a good point and it’s something that I have to be conscious of and I’ll probably be explaining to his aides over the years the importance of documenting things even when they’re not going well. That in the long run is good for the American people — to see pictures in all kinds of situations involving the president. And again — maybe not right away, maybe 10 years from now, maybe 50 years from now — but I really want to impress upon them the need to document the presidency for history with photographs."

We touched on a lot of other interesting topics. Check it out. You can listen to the ABC News Shuffle Podcast HERE.

– jpt

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