The official photographs of former President Barack Obama’s presidency were mostly unplanned documentations of everyday moments during the president’s day, former Chief Official White House Photographer Pete Souza said at the 10th annual Michael E. Jurist Memorial Lecture on Thursday.
The event featured a selection of images that Souza captured during his time documenting the presidency. The photos Souza displayed at the event included an image of Obama visiting Walter Reed Hospital to see wounded veterans, the president playing with his daughters Sasha and Malia in the snow on the White House lawn and a scene of him bodysurfing while on vacation in his home state of Hawaii.
Souza is a photojournalist who documented Obama’s time in politics, from his days as a senator from Illinois to his presidency. Of the more than one million photos of Obama and his family, all of them revealed different aspects of the presidency. Souza followed Obama throughout his day, he said, providing a glimpse into Obama’s daily activities.
“The CliffsNotes version of what I did everyday was that I would show up to the White House, be there when he came down to the Oval Office in the morning, and I would just tag along with him all day long until he went home at night,” Souza said. “The reason I did that was so that I would be around when these little moments happened that told you so much about him.”
As an installment of the Michael E. Jurist Memorial Lecture Series, the event honored the legacy of late Lecture Fund chair Michael Jurist (SFS ’07). Jurist served as chair from 2006 to 2007. Previous speakers for the event have included Vox CEO Ezra Klein in 2016 and sports commentator Stephen Smith in 2014. The dialogue was sponsored by the Georgetown Lecture Fund, the Institute of Politics and Public Service at the McCourt School of Public Policy, the Office of Public Affairs, the Georgetown University Student Association Fund, the department of film and media studies, Students of Georgetown, Inc., and club tennis.
Obama prioritized spending time with his daughters despite the demands of the presidency, Souza said after he witnessed the everyday occurrences of the White House.
“I really admired that even though he was, let’s face it, the busiest man on the planet, he would still make time with his girls,” Souza said. “Even if it was for only five or 10 minutes, when he was with them, he was all in.”
According to Souza, he used particular cameras with a quiet shutter to be able to capture Obama’s daily life candidly and to minimize distractions for the White House.
“I use very quiet cameras, so that I can occasionally go right behind him, to show things from his perspective,” Souza said.
The Sandy Hook shooting on Dec. 14, 2012, in which 20 children were killed at school in Newtown, Conn., stands out as the hardest day of Obama’s presidency, Souza said, referring to an image he took of Obama visiting the victims’ families.
“Trying to imagine the horror of sending your six-year-old off to school, kissing them goodbye, putting them on the school bus, sending them off to what we all consider a safety zone, and the next time you see your child, they’ve been shot to death … I think all those thoughts are going through his head,” Souza said.
Though most photos Souza took were spontaneous and candid, Souza planned how he wanted to capture Obama leaving the Oval Office for the last time, he said.
“That picture was taken with forethought in mind,” he said. “But that’s probably one of the few times. The other times, everything’s just kind of on the fly.”
Out of the more than one million photos taken, Souza said that he could not choose a favorite, as he is more focused on the overall depiction of Obama through the photographs rather than the individual images.
“Each picture is only one compartment of his life,” Souza said. “The difficulty I have answering a question like that is that I sort of always looked at it as creating the best body of work and not saying, ‘This is the picture that is, you know, the best picture, my favorite picture.’”