Behind Pete Souza’s camera lens

Pete Souza’s photographs have captured two presidencies and countless iconic moments.
Pete Souza in the capitol building
Photo by Darren Hauck
Pete Souza

When word arrived in Madison last year that he was being inducted into the International Photography Hall of Fame, Pete Souza, White House photographer for presidents Barack Obama and Ronald Reagan, was honored — and surprised.

He hadn’t realized there was a hall of fame for photographers.

“I didn’t know,” Souza says. “I was surprised to get the letter telling me I’d been inducted.”

Souza, 67, moved to Madison in 2019 with his wife, Patti, whom he married in 2013 in a Rose Garden ceremony hosted by Obama. “A family connection brought us here,” Souza says.

The Photography Hall of Fame is in St. Louis, but the Oct. 29, 2021, induction ceremony was held virtually. Souza was introduced by filmmaker Dawn Porter, director of “The Way I See It,” a 2020 documentary about Souza and his work.

“His photographs,” Porter said in her introduction, “capture beauty, strength [and] courage in moments that are large and moments that are very, very small.”

Souza says he sent 12 photographs to the hall for an exhibit that ran from Oct. 30 to Feb. 12. He included presidential photos of Reagan and Obama, along with some of his earliest newspaper work (in Kansas and Chicago) and a photograph taken in Madison in November 2020 of a woman screaming about election fraud into the face of a Black Lives Matter protester outside the state Capitol building.

Souza has been a consistent critic of Donald Trump — (“I wouldn’t characterize it as being a critic. I’ve just stated facts about him,” Souza says) — since Trump’s election in 2016, publishing a 2018 book, “Shade: A Tale of Two Presidents,” which compares Trump to his predecessor. That book followed Souza’s hugely successful “Obama: An Intimate Portrait,” published in 2017.

For Souza, one of the biggest kicks of his hall induction is how it places him alongside his heroes — literally, in the case of Life magazine photojournalist W. Eugene Smith, who Souza now follows in the alphabetical gallery of hall inductees.

“That’s pretty incredible,” he says.

Smith’s work, and that of Smith’s Life colleague Gordon Parks, were among Souza’s inspirations after a photography class his junior year at Boston University signaled his calling.

In the years since, Souza has had a varied career. One photo he sent the hall of fame was from 2001 when he covered the fall of the Taliban in Afghanistan, crossing the snow-covered Hindu Kush Mountains on horseback to reach Kabul.

He was working for the Chicago Tribune at the time. Three years later, when he was still with the Tribune, the opportunity that would come to define Souza presented itself.

Obama had just been elected to the U.S. Senate from Illinois, and Tribune reporter Jeff Zeleny proposed a series of stories on Obama’s first year. The plan was to get up close and personal — Zeleny knew that photographs would be key.

Souza, then working in the Tribune’s Washington bureau, didn’t really know Obama. But when Zeleny asked, Souza accepted the project and asked the Obama team for access where needed.

Obama’s communications director agreed to the access, then pretty much stopped taking Souza’s calls. The night before Obama’s Senate swearing-in, Souza finally got through. OK, he was told, show up in the morning.

Pete Souza In Capitol

Photo by Darren Hauck

The resulting photos, when published in the Tribune, included family shots that got Obama’s attention. He made a point of telling Souza how much he liked them. Souza made prints. A nascent friendship was stirring.

Later, given the opportunity to be White House photographer, Souza again made a pitch for access. That it was provided can be gleaned from numerous iconic photos from Obama’s presidency, including a shot inside the Situation Room during the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound, and one of Obama in the Oval Office bending over so a young boy could touch his hair.

Asked about other favorites, Souza says, “At the end of the first term, Time magazine asked me to submit my 10 favorite photos for an online slideshow. I couldn’t get it down to less than 100.”

Souza says the Oval Office photo of the boy was literally one frame, one shot. “There was no preparation. The moment happened and I captured the moment,” he says.

However, “I sort of knew things that made him tick,” Souza adds, recalling a trip to Rhode Island in which the photographer was in a helicopter that landed just prior to Obama’s helicopter setting down.

Souza glanced around and walked past a waiting motorcade — and quizzical Secret Service agents — down to the ocean shore. Sure enough, when Obama landed, he did the same.

“I knew he’d walk down to look out and watch the sun setting over the ocean,” Souza says.

He loves Madison, winter’s bitter cold notwithstanding. He’s a regular visitor to the Arboretum and has long been interested in nature photography as well (eagle-eyed snowy owl spotters may have also spotted Souza out on the frozen lake this winter). Souza’s favorite photographic subject these days? His 2-year-old granddaughter.

He has a new book slated for fall 2022 publication — a return to the White House images, albeit with a new and unusual slant: photos without the president in the frame, small moments away from the main stage.

The tentative title: “Inside the Presidential Bubble.”

Doug Moe is a Madison writer and a former editor of Madison Magazine. Read his blog, “Doug Moe’s Madison,” at madisonmagazine.com/dougmoe.