On Jan. 22, 2017, two days after President Donald Trump was inaugurated into office, former White House photographer Pete Souza posted a picture on Instagram of President Barack Obama sitting on his desk with red curtains in the background with the caption “I like these drapes better than the new ones. Don’t you think?”
This photo came shortly after Trump redecorated his office with gold ornate drapes. After posting the picture, Souza recalls someone commented he was “dropping shade” at Trump.
After looking “shade” up in the dictionary, he agreed.
“Yep,” Souza said. “That’s exactly what I’m doing.”
Souza’s series of “Shady” Instagram posts have since been compiled into a book titled “Shade: A Tale of Two Presidents,” which he discussed before a packed Rackham Auditorium Monday night at the University of Michigan. The photobook he presented consists of headlines referencing the Trump administration on the right side, juxtaposed by a photograph of the Obama Administration on the left.
Over the course of the night, Souza highlighted several of his most pertinent moments with the Obama administration, ranging from iconic photographs of the former president with children to the worst day in Obama’s presidency to his hopes for the future.
Souza’s report in photojournalism spans decades before being Obama’s White House photographer. In the early 1980s, he worked for the Chicago-Sun Times and in 1983 became a junior White House photographer at the request of the Ronald Reagan administration’s senior photo editor.
While Souza noted he wasn’t initially sure if he should take the position, he decided it would be an incredible opportunity to pass up.
“I was not politically aligned with Reagan,” he said. “I was essentially being hired by the White House photo editor, but I thought it would be a once in a lifetime opportunity to document a president for history, because that's the primary function of that job is to create an archive that lives in perpetuity.”
While many of the circumstances were different when he was working for the Reagan administration compared to when he was working for the Obama administration, Souza acknowledged how vital the experience was for his career.
“It taught me the inner workings of the White House,” he said. “I never thought that (I would) have another chance to be at the White House. But I said to myself if I did ever get a chance to go back, I would only go back as the chief photographer and I (would) make sure to get the best access that anyone has ever gotten and that I would try to create the best photographic archive that anybody have ever done.”
Ensuring he received all-access to the president was incredibly important to Souza, and it was the pre-condition he gave to Obama upon accepting the position. This meant Souza received top-security clearance, allowing him to document historic moments like the Osama Bin-Laden raid in the Situation Room.
However, he noted gaining this trust was not easy at first, despite his four years of previous experience with Obama when he photographed him for the Sun-Times.
“You can have the president-elect say you have access to everything but then as soon as you step in the Oval Office, things change,” Souza said. “So I had to earn the trust of the staff and the president. It took a few months but I think people understood that the president trusted me and was willing to give me access to these top secret meetings. It's just something that you develop relationships with the people you're photographing which is like a family type atmosphere.”
When reminiscing on his favorite photographs, Souza highlighted the smaller moments that revealed more about Obama as a human being.
"One thing you can tell about a person is how they interact with other people,” Souza said. “(Obama) genuinely respects people from all walks of life. Whether it was the White House custodian or, you know, the chief of staff. And I think that that respect shows through in my photographs.”
LSA junior Catharine Greenberg said she was excited to see hear more about working intimately with Obama.
“What I appreciated most was the change to gain such an inside and intimate look into a presidency that meant so much to me and played such a crucial role in my life when I was growing up,” Greenberg said.
This sentiment was echoed by LSA junior Sydney Eisenberg, who lauded the genuine nature of Souza’s work.
“Souza made such a point to show the authenticity of every single photograph that he showed in his presentation or showed in his book. And he was so funny and it was a breath of fresh air from the Trump presidency, like getting this little kick-back on Obama’s term,” Eisenberg said.
Souza also discussed that as chief White House photographer, he held the power of final review for all photographs released to the public. He wanted to ensure that if the wrong photo was released, the responsibility would fall solely on him.
When asked if Souza released any pictures he wished he hadn’t, Souza chuckled and responded that “there were many.”
Specifically, he recalls a picture he released toward the end of Obama’s first term when the government was nearing a shutdown. The picture he took featured Obama surrounded by 10 to 12 advisers who were all male. This coincided with a story that there weren’t going to be enough women in the White House because Hillary Clinton was replaced with John Kerry as secretary of state.
“The most prominent woman was being replaced by a man, so this was a very tone-deaf photo to put out. When in fact, as I like to point out to people, his top three national security advisers in the second term — the National Security adviser, the deputy National Security Adviser and the Homeland Security adviser — were all women,” Souza said. “But it was sort of a tone-deaf picture and it fed into this misconception of how he was staffing the second term.”
Toward the end of the presentation, Souza argued his Instagram posts serve as a form of resistance against Trump’s presidency.
“I think I'm part of the ‘Truth Squad,’ you know, that we have a president that disrespects the Office of the Presidency the way he constantly lies to the American people, bullies people that disagrees with him, doesn't believe his own intelligence agency, has love affairs with dictators instead of our allies, makes racist comments, treats women with reckless disregard at times and I could go on and on,” Souza said. “And for me, politics aside, I worked for both Reagan and Obama (and) both of them respected the Office of the Presidency and respected other people. If John McCain, Mitt Romney, Jeb Bush, John Kasich or Hillary Clinton had been elected, I wouldn't be doing what I'm doing now. I just think that this particular individual is, I feel that it's my civic duty to continue to speak out.”
LSA junior Zoe Duncan-Doroff said she viewed important Souza as a member of the “resistance.”
“I appreciated how Souza was able to both bring Obama to us here at Rackham, but at the same time bring a really critical perspective on the current presidency because that was kind of an amazing intersection,” Duncan-Doroff said. “He is a great ambassador of everything we are missing.”
Souza ended the presentation with a photograph of Obama saying goodbye while boarding Air Force One with a rainbow in the background.
“Things may be a little ‘stormy’ right now … which has a double meaning,” Souza said. “But usually what comes after a storm is you get a rainbow.”