RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Of the countless photos we'll see of Barack Obama in the coming years, some of the most intimate will come from the official White House photographer. That's the person, or really, a staff of people, who follow the president everywhere. President-elect Obama's White House photographer is a man who already captured memorable images of Senator Barack Obama, like a black-and-white image of the senator on his way to work.
Mr. PETE SOUZA (White House Photographer, Barack Obama Administration): And this is a photo as he is running up the steps of the U.S. Senate. He's so recognizable from behind.
MONTAGNE: That's the next White House photographer, Pete Souza. He's a former photo journalist. He was also the official photographer for a different president, with different political views, as he told Steve Inskeep.
STEVE INSKEEP: So, in your conversations with senator and then presidential candidate and now President-elect Barack Obama, when did it first come up that you'd been a photographer for Ronald Reagan?
Mr. SOUZA: I believe it was when I went to Russia with him, and he did a tour of Red Square. And I remember telling him a story about the last time I had been in that very spot, you know, had been 20 years before with President Reagan, and I was sort of describing the scene then for him.
INSKEEP: What was it like going through that square with Reagan?
Mr. SOUZA: Well, he was being escorted by Mikhail Gorbachev, and there were these different groups of, you know, quote/unquote, "tourists," set up around Red Square, and Gorbachev would escort him over, and they would ask President Reagan questions, you know, human rights in the U.S. And I remember saying to the Secret Service agent, I said, I can't believe these tourists in the Soviet Union are asking these pointed questions. And the Secret Service agent said to me, oh, these are all KGB families.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. SOUZA: Now, what's really interesting is I have a picture in my Reagan book, and off to the left is this - one of these tourists with a camera around his shoulder, and it's been pointed out to me and verified that that was Putin.
INSKEEP: Vladimir Putin?
Mr. SOUZA: Yeah.
INSKEEP: Showed up to see Ronald Reagan in Red Square.
Mr. SOUZA: He was a tourist.
INSKEEP: He was a KGB guy.
Mr. SOUZA: There you go.
INSKEEP: A quote/unquote "tourist."
Mr. SOUZA: Right. And as soon as you see the photo you go, oh, my gosh, it really is him.
INSKEEP: What is it ultimately that we get from the White House photographer, from years and years of photographs, that we don't get from years of years of press photographs of the same guy?
Mr. SOUZA: I think it's pictures that are going to be timeless. It's going to be pictures that were taken in sensitive meetings in the Oval Office, Cabinet room, Situation Room, the kind of pictures that the press photographers don't get. I'm also quite interested in making sure that my support staff are photographing events in a different way, showing the scene. For instance, you know, if the president has an event in the Rose Garden, you know, I might put one of my photographers on the roof of the West Wing, so that 50 years from now, people will be able to see what that scene looks like. I think there's only one picture that I've ever seen of the Gettysburg Address, and you know, Lincoln, you can barely see him, but it gives you an idea of what that scene was like. I want people to look at these pictures in 50 and 100 years and learn something from that time.
INSKEEP: Can you think of a photograph, either of Ronald Reagan or of Barack Obama, that you had a different emotion when you saw the image than you did when you were there?
Mr. SOUZA: You know, there's a photograph in the book, and I think it's on your Web site, of the - just the moment before Senator Obama is to walk out and announce that he's running for president. And he's standing inside the old State Capitol in Springfield, Illinois, with his wife Michelle and his two kids, Sasha and Malia. And Michelle is brushing specs of dirt from the back of his coat. And he's got this look on his face; it's subtle, and there's anxiety, I think, in Michelle face and maybe even in the kids' faces. And I look at that photograph now, and I say to myself, you know, he's about to walk out that door, and his life will never be the same. And I look at that photograph now, and now, that photograph captures that sort of feeling, and maybe at the time that I took that photograph, I really wasn't aware of the magnitude of what he must be experiencing.
INSKEEP: One of those moments that became larger as time went on.
Mr. SOUZA: To me it has, yeah.
INSKEEP: Pete Souza, thanks for coming by.
INSKEEP: Thanks for having me, Steve.
MONTAGNE: From Capitol Hill to Kenya, Pete Souza has photographed Mr. Obama and his family, and you can see that photograph he was talking about and a gallery of other images at npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.
White House photographers may take images of the president, but it's the public who interprets them. As the official photographer for the Obama White House, Pete Souza will play a key role in chronicling history as it unfolds — and shaping how posterity remembers it.
It's often said that a picture says a thousand words; sometimes, it can also change the opinions of millions.
Take, for example, a photo of President Bush that appeared during the early days of media coverage of Hurricane Katrina. The photograph shows Bush staring out of a dimly lit cabin aboard Air Force One, looking down on the wreckage of New Orleans.
Bush appears somber and respectful, perhaps even stunned by what he sees. But many interpreted the image as an example of a leader who was out of touch and detached. In the end, the photograph did serious damage to his public image.
According to photographer Pete Souza, circumstances often play a big role in how the public reads and reacts to a presidential photograph.
"People were criticizing him for his slow response to Hurricane Katrina," Souza tells Steve Inskeep. "And if the administration had responded quickly and things hadn't turned out the way they had and that same photograph was taken, then we probably wouldn't be thinking of it in those terms."
Souza will soon have plenty of reasons to hope for ideal circumstances for presidential photography. President-elect Barack Obama has named him as the official chief White House photographer. It's a familiar post for Souza: He also served as an official White House photographer during Ronald Reagan's administration.
Souza recounts a story from a trip to Russia with Reagan. He shot photos of Reagan as the president toured Moscow's Red Square with then-Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. Gorbachev introduced Reagan to various tourists, who asked the American president pointed questions about subjects such as human rights in the United States. Souza says he remembers turning to one of the Secret Service agents standing nearby. "I can't believe these tourists in the Soviet Union are asking these pointed questions." The agent replied, "Oh, these are all KGB families."
Souza also shared that story with Obama in 2005, when the then-senator was visiting Red Square. Souza says Obama loves a good story, and this was a firsthand account of history. Obama has said that he admires Reagan's political success and even agreed with some of his policies.
But Souza doesn't think his Reagan connection was a factor in Obama's decision to tap him for the role of White House photographer. "It had everything to do with the fact that [Obama] trusted me; that I'm not a nuisance; that I can move around in a sensitive meeting and not trip over the furniture," he says.
In working for the Reagan White House, Souza witnessed a lot of history in the making. He traveled extensively with the president and photographed several summits between Reagan and Gorbachev.
But the job could be tedious, too. At those high-level meetings, Souza found himself photographing the same people in the same chairs in the same room. Says Souza, "You've got to motivate yourself to know that any meeting that you photograph might someday be important. You've got to try to make interesting photographs at every meeting, even if they're in the same room that they were the day before and the day before and the day before."
The president, of course, is a very popular subject for photojournalists. But the official White House photographer has access to places that press photographers don't, such as the Oval Office and sensitive meetings.
Souza also hopes to photograph events in a way that will set White House photos apart from those of press photographers. He'd like for the images coming out of his office to convey a sense of scene and historical significance. "I think there's only one picture I've ever seen of the Gettysburg Address and, you know, Lincoln, you can barely see him, but it gives you an idea of what that scene was like."
Sometimes, the significance of a particular photo becomes apparent only after the moment has passed. Souza once shot a photo of Obama and his family just before the then-senator from Illinois was to publicly announce his decision to run for president.
In the photograph, Obama looks off into the distance, his face calm and inscrutable; his wife and daughters look on, their expressions hinting at anxiety. Says Souza, "I look at that photograph now and I say to myself, 'He's about to walk out that door, and his life will never be the same.' "