“Obama: An Intimate Portrait” is a hand-picked collection of 50 photos taken by Dartmouth native and former White House photographer Pete Souza. The exhibit is presented at the New Bedford Art Museum in conjunction with the New Bedford Historical Society.
The New York Times captured my first impression of Pete Souza — it was spot on! “Life as a headliner makes him uneasy. For decades, Mr. Souza’s life has been about observation.” I met Mr. Souza during a private preview opening for the donors who made his current exhibit at the New Bedford Art Museum possible. I was on assignment; I was told to interview him.
How many of the same boilerplate and cliched questions had he been asked over and over again? I hoped my single question would challenge him a bit. He seemed a bit standoffish at first. “You both had to walk a narrow path, while at the same time each of you had a power that no one else had. How did President Obama navigate that path and how did he manage his power?” I asked.
Souza seemed taken aback, but responded; “I think he handled it fine. He didn’t concern himself with what people were saying on cable TV or social media.” As for President Barack Obama managing his power, he said, “As for me, one of the things about putting an exhibit together, a book together, it’s not a single image, but it’s the entire visual body of work. It’s the same thing for him. It’s not about a single decision he made, policy, a discussion he had; it’s everything he did in those eight years that defined him.”
I asked Souza how he managed his power as a photographer: when to step in, when to step out, especially during very private moments. “I always recorded the situation. There was never a time where I would step back. My job was to document him and his presidency for history. That’s what I did. I didn’t step back.”
He juggled his successful career as a photojournalist and a White House photographer. He developed his craft and his innate ability to capture both the moment and the details that few are aware of. I asked him about those very human moments. “Those were the best times to be there. Those were the most important times,” Souza said. As for having some power in being there to record those moments, he responded, “Power isn’t the word that comes to mind. It’s sort of more being aware of what was going on.