‘Telling Visual Stories is Vitally Important’ – An Interview With Former White House Photographer Pete Souza

Boston University alumnus Pete Souza sits down with BU News Service editors to discuss his career as a photojournalist. Feb. 2, 2018. Photo by Gaelen Morse.

By AnnMarie Barenchi & Gaelen Morse
BU News Service

Boston University alumnus Pete Souza leaned back in his chair and rested one foot on his knee. He had a long day ahead of him.

Souza received the Hugo Shong Award for Lifetime Achievement in Communication for his work as a photojournalist while in Boston on Friday, Feb. 2.

As the former Chief Official White House Photographer, the Massachusetts native is best known for his photos of President Barack Obama, some of which have been included in his new book, “Obama: An Intimate Portrait.”  His Instagram has also gained nearly 2 million followers.

In addition to accepting the award, Souza signed copies of his book during a reception and gave a master class at BU’s Morse Auditorium. That is on top of multiple interviews with local publications, so Souza spent the day shuttling from one group of eager, curious journalists to another.

Among that group was BU News Service. Souza sat down for an interview with Photo Editor Gaelen Morse and Managing Editor AnnMarie Barenchi a few hours prior to receiving the award.

How does it feel to be back on campus and receiving the Lifetime Achievement Award?

Well, I guess it means I’m getting old. It’s great to be back on campus, and it’s bringing back a lot of memories about my time in Boston in the 70s.

Do any in particular stick out to you? 

I’m doing my presentation at the Morse Auditorium tonight, and I remember seeing B.B. King play there in like 1974. I used to ride my bike to school a lot, so just riding, navigating Commonwealth Avenue with all the traffic and no helmet. Stuff like that.

How did your studies at BU and Kansas State prepare you for the field of photojournalism? 

Well, I actually came to BU because I wanted to become a sportswriter. I didn’t take a photography class until my junior year. As soon as I took a photography class, I knew that’s what what I wanted to do. I was a slow learner in a lot of ways, and I think the different experiences of living in a big city like Boston and then in Kansas, living in the Midwest, having those two different experiences was just helpful. I think it just exposed me to all kinds of different people.

You’ve received a lot of attention for your work as the Chief Official White House Photographer for President Barack Obama and now for your new book. What is it like getting all this attention? 

Well, it’s different. It’s not something I’m entirely comfortable with. When I was at the White House, I was still pretty anonymous, but once I started promoting this book after I left the White House, I’ve become more well known. So just trying to navigate being on sort of the other side of the camera where there’s a lot of attention focused on me and sort of being recognized at airports and things like that is a little unsettling sometimes. I don’t take it that seriously so I guess it’s my 15 minutes of fame.

You have also photographed in conflict areas like Kabul, Afghanistan. How do you deal with that contrast, being in a violent environment then coming back to photograph the White House?

Well, when you’re at the White House, there’s nobody shooting bullets over your head and there’s no grenades coming towards you. There’s not the same kind of pressure because of that. It’s an entirely safe environment. If you’re in a war zone, safety is probably the chiefest concern because you don’t want to get killed and you don’t want to get hit by a bullet, so it’s a little nerve-racking. No one’s shooting bullets at you when you’re in the situation room.

You probably had to see a lot of unsettling things in Afghanistan. Did you ever have a moment where you wanted to set the camera down and do something about the situation? 

Yeah, I’m sure I probably did that a couple times, but often times the best help you can give someone is to tell their story and in order to tell that story, you have to take those pictures. That’s why you’re there. If there’s a certain circumstance where your involvement could mean life or death for someone, obviously you’re going to try to help them, but I don’t think I was ever in that circumstance where there weren’t already other people helping. I don’t know if I would have made any difference at all by putting my camera down and helping out.

Do you find that fear played an important role? 

Fear played a really important role in Afghanistan. I think I became aware that it was not my thing. War photography was not something that I chose to do again. I don’t think I was that good at it because of the fear factor. There’s people that do that kind of photography for a living. They were better at it than I was I think because they were able to better control their fear.

Why do you think photojournalism is important?

I think telling visual stories is vitally important. A writer or reporter can have somebody recount what happened without actually being there whereas a photojournalist has to be there when it’s happening. If you’re not there when it’s happening, then you’re not going to be able to tell the story. And oftentimes a photograph or a series of photographs can be more accurate and show the emotion of what’s taking place than words can.

It touches people in a different way. 

I think everybody looks at a photograph in a different way based on your own instincts and background and maybe prejudices. Photography can be subjective. When you are able to make a good storytelling photograph, I think people from all different walks of life can identify in similar ways. It’s kind of a universal language. It doesn’t matter if you speak Russian or Chinese or French or English, you can understand a photograph when you look at it.

Have you ever felt like you were seeing the world through a lens, not actually experiencing those moments? 

I guess literally that’s true, although I think to best understand what’s taking place, you have to experience it as well. If you’re just haphazardly taking photographs without paying attention or understanding what it is you’re photographing, then I don’t think you’re going to create good photographs. You have to be in the moment and understand what’s taking place.

If you weren’t a photographer and didn’t follow through with sportswriting, what would you be doing? 

I think I might say I’d like to produce records.

You’ve also spent some time teaching and giving lectures. What is the most important thing you try to teach students? 

I taught for a year and a half at Ohio University as a professor of visual communication. I took the hard-knocks approach, meaning I think it was better to try to kick people in the ass than try to tell them how great they were because it’s such a difficult profession to make a living in. People needed to know that just doing mediocre work was not good enough. If you wanted to have a career in photojournalism, you really had to do better than mediocre. I tried to get students to elevate their game and to think about what they’re doing and not blindly take pictures that don’t have any relevance.

Do you have a favorite photograph that you’ve taken? 

I always say that hopefully it will be the photograph that I take tomorrow.

You just finished up a book tour. What’s next for you? 

I don’t know. That’s the thing, I’m still trying to figure it out. I need to take some time off. I really haven’t taken a long vacation in almost 10 years. That’s hopefully what I’m going to be doing this summer and then figure out what my next big project is going to be, but I don’t really know what that is right now.

 

 

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