Pete Souza on trolling Trump and taking pictures of Obama, Reagan

When Barack and Michelle Obama returned to the White House this month to unveil their official portraits. It was a reunion of sorts for the alumni of the 44th president. Cabinet secretaries and high hands mingled in the East Room. The permanent professional staff of the mansion reconnected with some of their favorite political operatives. The staff, who had once managed such events on stage for years, were able to take a seat and simply enjoy the theatrical elements of the White House.

And of course, lurking in the doorways at just the right angle was a familiar silhouette: Pete Souza, who first chronicled the Chicago pol’s rise from backbencher to commander-in-chief to The Chicago newspaper. Tribune and later as the official government photographer. Souza was the official White House photographer for all of Obama’s eight years after serving in a similar role for most of Ronald Reagan’s term. With that unique resume, few people alive have spent more time in the Oval Office than Souza.

Some of the most iconic images of the Obama era are thanks to Souza’s eye, honed over decades as a news photographer.

After Obama left office, Souza became an accidental celebrity. His first collection of photographs from this era became a must-have coffee table book in the city, and a children’s version followed. Through social media, he became a well-known voice in The Resistance during the Trump era. His Instagram account reacted in real time to events that unfolded during Trump’s time in power. Souza often offered a retort to the troll and revealed how many norms Trump broke. This commentary eventually turned into another book called shade, that humorously juxtaposes photos of Obama with his successor. It too became a must-have item on DC shelves.

Below is a conversation with Souza about his role in documenting history, lessons learned, and his upcoming book, The West Wing and Beyond: What I Saw in the Presidency.

Elliott: Congratulations. The book is, of course, stunning. Am I wrong to read this as a more personal work than your first two major books?

Souza: Definitely. The first book was my look at the president, both as the president of the United States and as a person. And that was really my experience in the presidency. I tried to highlight some of the people who make the presidency work. The book purposely doesn’t have any pictures of Obama, although it’s kind of like a Where’s Waldo? in a couple of them, where you can see him as if in the background.

Elliott: I like that you’re giving them your due by making the presidency work in a big way. And it seems that you became a real family. Was this unique to the Obama team or did it happen in the Reagan administration as well?

Souza: I don’t know if that’s entirely unique to the Obama administration. When President George W. Bush came to the White House to unveil his portrait, President Obama had a photo lineup in the Blue Room, and even then it felt like a family reunion. I don’t know how else to describe it.

I was one of the few people who was there for all eight years. For me, the connection is with everyone, whether they were there for two years, three years, four years or whatever. And I forget when they were there. When I saw people at the White House a few weeks ago, I hadn’t seen most of them since January 20, 2017, but some of them even longer because they left the administration in 2014. I couldn’t remember who served what years, but I still knew them.

Elliott: I loved the flashbacks to your photo shoot of President Reagan. There are some work constants in this bubble, aren’t there? Things that just don’t change no matter who the president is, right?

Souza: Oh, sure. The inner workings of the White House remained relatively the same. To enter the oval, workers always enter through the outer oval. You know, the route to the situation room, the cabinet room, they’re the same. For me, there are 20 years between two presidencies, the end of Reagan, the beginning of Obama. And it is so that when you go home to visit your hometown just once every 10 years, you remember all the roads that got you where you need to go. And so it was for me during the Obama administration; everything was familiar, not just the logistics, but how things worked. Just knowing that was priceless.

Elliott: There aren’t that many of you who have done that job. There have been more chiefs of staff than chief photographers.

Souza: A lot more HR than photographers.

Elliott: How did you manage for eight years? Just being selfish, how did you get over it?

Souza: During the transition, I went to Eric Draper, who was George W. Bush’s photographer, who had served all eight years. I remember telling him: Eric, I don’t know how the hell you did it. I said, I plan to do four years. You know, I think what happens is there’s so much going into documenting the presidency, why don’t you do all eight years? After I started doing it, it seemed well i can’t leave.

It was physically and mentally exhausting. I essentially gave up my personal life for eight years. I don’t want people to feel sorry for me because I knew what I was getting myself into. I wanted to dedicate myself to the work of documenting the Presidency. You just never know when history will happen. You can’t know in advance when things will happen in the world that affect the president. That’s why I’ve always wanted to be there.

Elliott: Correct me if I’m wrong, but you’ve had a very close relationship with the president, and he trusted you to be in the room when things were going on.

Souza: I think part of it was because I knew him for four years. When he became a US Senator, I was working in Chicago Tribune and Jeff Zeleny and I did this project documenting his first few years in the Senate. This gave me access that other people didn’t, which meant I was in his intimate space a lot. He had to see how I work. We had what I would call a very professional relationship, but when you’re shooting up close and personal, you get to know someone pretty well, both ways. I was also what I consider a seasoned photojournalist who came on board. I knew how to do this job. And I was determined to do it in the best way possible. And I had the confidence to tell him: I need access to everything. And he got it. He understood the importance of having a visual archive of his presidency. Without that access, you wouldn’t be talking to me today.

Elliott: There aren’t that many of you who have. What is the relationship with other presidential photographers who have really created an immediate version of history in the post-WWII era?

Souza: It depends on the particular photographer and the president. Eric Draper had a very close relationship with President Bush. I think David Kennerly had a very close personal relationship with Gerald Ford. The jury is still out on Shealah Craighead and Donald Trump. I really don’t know how much access he had. It seems he didn’t have much access. For example, there is no footage of Trump watching the uprising on television in his private dining room, even though we knew he was there for hours. It does not bode well for history that there are no photographs of it.

Even with Reagan, even though I wasn’t the chief photographer, I have pictures of him in some of Reagan’s worst moments during the Iran-Contra crisis that I think are historically important. A White House photographer’s job is to be there when things happen, whether negative or positive.

Elliott: How has our approach to work changed? I have to imagine that the photographers of the Kennedy era were much more open to sensitive moments than you or Eric are with your presidents.

Souza: Kennedy had two military photographers assigned to the White House. He didn’t know they were coming, so that’s a red flag. Two Kennedy photographers were called in when Kennedy wanted to document something. For example, there aren’t many pictures of the Cuban Missile Crisis, and it’s historically very bad. It really wasn’t until Yoichi Okamoto, who was LBJ’s photographer, who was really involved in documenting history.

Elliott: I’ve got to love the pride that you’ve spent more time in the Oval Office than probably anyone other than a two-term president. What lessons did you learn from this leadership?

Souza: One thing I learned from President Obama is his ability to listen to different points of view. For example, he took office during a near economic disaster, a recession. And they had to find a way out of this economic hole. He was surrounded by economic advisers who disagreed with each other, so he could hear different points of view. Ultimately, he has to make the decisions, but I think the thing I learned about leadership is that you can’t just have ‘yes’ people around you. You have to have people who come and tell you the hard, cold truth. I saw it in almost every question in the Oval Office and in the Situation Room.

Elliott: What are we doing wrong when we think about the White House?

Souza: You cover politics like it’s a game. President Obama joked about being in a barrel, which means the barrel goes round and round. As soon as cable TV receives something, e.g Obama has no female economic aides or something like that, then it will be a story of two weeks. I remember the second term when a bunch of cabinet secretaries left and new ones came in. And of course the first one he appointed was someone to replace Hillary Clinton. And it was John Kerry. This started the whole gender problem again. Or Oh my god, this a tan suit now. You laugh because you remember it. I could see the reporters doing it like a baseball game.

I know that during the Reagan and Obama administrations, they both tried to do what was best for the American people. You can simply disagree with their decisions. But I think reporters in Washington too often get caught up in this baseball game.

Elliott: Your second big book, which came out in the Obama era, was pretty boring. Your Instagram was truly one of them favourite Resistance vehicles. Any regrets there?

Souza: None. I received a lot of criticism from my former photography colleagues for speaking my mind and speaking up. I no longer cover the White House. I don’t cover politics. I am not doing assignments for your magazine or the New York Times. I am a citizen first and foremost, and someone with a unique insight into the presidency, having served as both a Republican and a Democratic president. And I think people mistakenly thought I was trolling Trump because he was a Republican. It’s not that at all. I trolled Trump because I thought he had no respect for the presidency. He thought that the presidency was about him, which was best for him. And it’s not the best for us. I felt obligated to have an opinion and not everyone agreed with what I did, but I absolutely feel I did the right thing.

Elliott: Should we wait more until 2024?

Souza: God, I hope not. I hope he doesn’t run. But if he runs, I will definitely speak out.

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