The Picture Show

Obama Photographer Uses 'Shade' To Contrast Presidents, Political Landscapes


"A different kind of Witch Hunt."
Pete Souza

"A different kind of Witch Hunt."

The images of official White House photographers have always been shared widely. What made Pete Souza's tenure with the Obama White House different was that social media — and especially Instagram, founded in 2010 — gave him a popular new platform that previous photographers in the role didn't have.

During the Obama years, Souza posted current and archival photographs of the president's daily life and amassed several hundred thousand followers. Although Souza left the White House in 2017, he remained on Instagram as a private citizen. But his choice of photos — and the captions he wrote — changed.

Some of these Instagram posts have been collected in Souza's latest photo book, Shade: A Tale of Two Presidents. It juxtaposes 500 days of headlines and tweets from the Trump administration with adapted versions of Souza's Instagram posts, which feature his photographs from the Obama years and thinly veiled criticisms of President Trump.

"With my Instagram feed now, and with Shade, I've become obviously opinionated in my response to the current president, and I didn't take that decision lightly," Souza tells NPR.

It started when Souza saw a photo of Trump's Oval Office, redesigned after the inauguration, replete with gold curtains.

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Souza posted a photograph of President Barack Obama in his Oval Office: "I like these drapes better than the gaudy new gold ones," he wrote in the caption.

Someone remarked that he was throwing shade at Trump; Souza had to look up what it meant.

Now he relishes the challenge of finding a perfect Obama-era counterpoint to today's headlines.

"I crack myself up sometimes when I come up with just the right picture and the right comment," he says.

Souza believes the political climate is extreme enough to warrant this change.

"I wouldn't be doing this if any of the other people that were running for president on the Republican side had become president," he says. "They respected the office of the presidency, and respected other people. And I just don't think that's true with Trump."

While working for the White House, making the photographs that would one day make up Shade, Souza focused on the same elements that he did while working as a photographer at the Chicago Tribune: moment, light, color and mood.

He also paid attention to context, including iconography, art or historical objects — things that would make an otherwise banal photo of the president more interesting and imbued with meaning.

Souza was a White House photographer for President Ronald Reagan as well, but it was a different era.

"[President Obama] gave me essentially unfettered access to his administration, which I didn't necessarily have during the Reagan years," he says.

Another change during Souza's second stint at the White House was his philosophy on image-making; he calls this practice "documenting for history." Instead of making pictures for the next day's front page, Souza set out to make images that were intended to be archival from the outset.

"You think differently when you shoot for a newspaper," Souza says. "When you have a deadline and the story is going to appear the next day, you want a certain kind of photo, whereas when you're shooting for history, that stuff doesn't really matter. You try to make more timeless pictures."

Souza was no longer as interested in photographing press briefings; he instead chased intimate moments that helped illustrate the president's character.

Many of the photos Souza includes in Shade have that sense of timelessness and are inextricably linked to the our collective memory of the Obama administration. We viewed the inauguration, meetings with world leaders, trips overseas and the first family, all through Souza's lens.

As such, when his images are presented alongside a tweet from Trump, or a controversial headline, the combination is often striking.

Juxtaposing "The Situation Room," arguably Souza's most famous photograph, with a tweet from Trump about airstrikes in Syria is a fitting example. The photograph — depicting Obama and his Cabinet watching the mission that led to the killing of Osama bin Laden — has proven staying power, immediately drawing comparisons to "Dewey Defeats Truman" and other historic photographs of presidents.

Compare that to Trump's tweet, and the controversy surrounding it, which got swept up in the news cycle in a matter of days, largely vanishing from our memory.

These juxtapositions of permanence and transience are ultimately what make Shade a compelling read; powerful, memorable portraits of an eight-year presidency stand beside headlines and tweets that surface on Twitter feeds for a few days at most and then are brushed aside amid new ones. The book is not just a tale of two presidents, but a tale of two political and media landscapes.

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