‘The Way I See It’: Pete Souza Throwing Shade

The Way I See It is marketed as a look behind the curtain of two of the most iconic U.S. Presidencies in the last century, courtesy of White House Photographer Pete Souza. It’s quite a bit more than that. To be upfront, if you don’t believe in photojournalism or the importance of a historical record, if you’re a Trump supporter with thin skin, or if you have an inability to think critically, this movie likely isn’t for you. To be honest, neither is this article.

While you’re getting started here, if you haven’t read Alex Cooke’s interview with Souza, check it out. There is a lot of information in there about Souza and his photography.

The Way I See It is full of observations that are critical to the success of any photojournalist. Embed yourself. Stay close, but give your subject space when they need it. Practice anticipating, as the quiet moment may be as important as the one under the bright lights. Make sure your memory cards have enough space on them or you might get mocked by POTUS.

I’m warning you again, though, I’m going to go in a slightly different direction. I’m hoping Souza would be proud.

From the opening shots of the Washington Monument and a low-angle shot of the White House, the underlying intent of The Way I See It is to remind its viewers how important the job of president is. Souza and the filmmakers seem to take it upon themselves to ensure that each viewer understands the gravitas of voting and the power that results from those votes.  

Journalism, Editorial Opinion, and History

A review of The Way I See it requires a discussion of politics. There is no way around it; it’s a photography documentary bathed in politics. However, setting politics aside for a few moments, it’s important to understand where Souza is coming from. Souza is a staunch defender of journalism and journalism’s role in history:

Journalism is the first draft of history.

Say what you will about current journalism and how it looks a bit more like editorial than news (you won’t get an argument from me). However, I’m assuming anyone interested in history or staying abreast of current events will agree that it’s important to break the story.

At one point in the film, Souza is asked about the conflict of interest between being a photojournalist on the one hand and a co-creator of the Obama brand on the other. Basically, is his job to provide editorial opinion and PR or create a record? From Souza’s perspective, he is a historian with a camera. I know there are some of you still reading that want to jump right to the comments and complain that Souza was just part of Team Obama, capturing the moments designed to make the President come off as the good guy. I think it’s important to remember that Souza also worked for the Reagan White House. Souza was instrumental in helping the American public get a glimpse of Reagan’s life. Reagan, the real conservative antithesis to Obama. Not the current nihilist reflection sitting in the Oval today. 

Souza and his team were granted unprecedented access to the Obama White House. At times, they were taking tens of thousands of photographs a week. Frankly, there was nowhere for Obama to hide. What you see is what you get. Souza did not speak with his own voice while he was at the White House; he spoke with the language that was presented to him. To continue the metaphor, at best, he was a translator, not an author. For shorthand, let’s call him a visual historian.

Access and Truth

According to Souza, access to create this kind of visual record is dependent on the president. For Souza, for historians, truth and authenticity come from access. If you want the truth, it’s critical to see behind the scenes. As a voter, it’s critical to understand the weight of the decisions being made on your behalf. This isn’t a game. 

Obama’s team, of which Souza was a key player, decided early on that it wanted the public to see Obama as a human being. To see the humanity, the frailty, the humility, and, ultimately, the growth. I found myself asking over and over: why would anyone want to expose themselves to this kind of all-seeing eye? We’ve all seen the agonizing photos from the Situation Room. Why look concerned and somewhat powerless if your role is to defeat the enemy?

We’ve seen the romantic moments between the President and the First Lady. Why show that you have a heart if the goal is to eschew love in favor of fear?

Why allow space for an image of the most powerful man on Earth bending to allow a child to touch his hair? If the President should stand alone, why allow anyone to find common ground with him?

By the end of the film, I think I figured it out. Looking back to the first images of the Washington Monument, it dawned on me that America represents itself as a free and open society, where the government works for the people. The founding document of America (and for modern democracy for that matter), the Declaration of Independence, states:

…governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.

The Gettysburg Address adds to the language of democracy by stating the principle that government should be

…government of the people, by the people, for the people…

In light of this, why shouldn’t the people be invited in? In fact, isn’t it incumbent on government to be as open as possible? Isn’t giving Souza this kind of access simply putting your money where your mouth is?

Back to Politics 

It’s in these questions that today’s politics comes back into play. Both implicitly and explicitly, Souza sets up his record of the Obama Presidency against that of President Trump. Souza and the documentary can’t help but point out that Trump has not allowed the same access to photographers that Obama did. That Trump has kept the halls of power private. I can’t help but think of The Wizard of Oz.

It seems to me that Trump continues to ask the public to 

[p]ay no attention to the man behind the curtain.

After all, it was important for Oz to maintain his image of power. Oz needed everyone to need Oz. Oz spent more time convincing the people that he was the only one who could solve the problems of Emerald City than actually solving them. Oz was important because he looked important.  

If you want something a bit more sophisticated, how about some Machiavelli:

Everyone sees what you appear to be, few experience what you really are. 

If democracy demands the inclusion of the public in government, if Souza and the critics are right and Trump’s administration is not allowing sufficient access, what is being kept from the voters? I’m not American; I can’t vote. However, make no mistake, the outcome of the U.S. election will affect billions. Most of whom may have an interest in the result but can’t cast a vote.

I take solace in Souza’s view of the role of photography in the White House. It should be a bright and democratic (small “d”) light, frightening the Machiavellians and wizards alike.

All images are in the Public Domain. All photographs by Pete Souza.



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