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Pete Souza: From DHS to the White House

Pete Souza

Pete Souza

DHS alumnus Pete Souza’s photo of the White House Situation Room during the Osama Bin Laden raid. Classified documents in front of then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton were blurred before the photo was released to the public.

Mary Bancroft, Dartmouth High School

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Pete Souza has two million photos of President Obama. He has been to all 50 states and 60-70 countries, including Afghanistan where he and a reporter rode over a 15,000 foot mountain pass on horseback, in the snow. Souza witnessed President Reagan toss paper airplanes over hotel balconies and exchange tense words with President Grobachev. In 2011, The New Republic listed him as one of Washington’s most-powerful, least-famous people.

Oh, and he graduated from DHS in the year 1972.

Before becoming the Chief Official White House Photographer for President Reagan from 1983-1989 and President Obama from 2008-2017, Souza was born in New Bedford and raised in Dartmouth, attending Dartmouth Middle School and Dartmouth High. He described himself as socially awkward and an average student, with a love for sports.  “I was a sports fanatic,” he said. “I wasn’t good enough to play, but I usually had a connection to the teams in some capacity.”

His passion for photography did not begin to fester until he was a junior at Boston University studying public communication. He selected a photography elective and was soon hooked. “I didn’t know if I could do it as a career, but it was the first thing in my life when I was really interested in it and wanted to get better,” he said. “I thought it was just magic, being able to take a picture on a piece of film, develop it, and make a print in the darkroom. I just loved every part of it.”

After graduating, he applied for photography positions at The Standard-Times and another local newspaper, but was rejected.

Souza took a year off, working for his uncle’s business in New Bedford before attending a graduate journalism program at Kansas State University. While in school, he began working for a daily campus newspaper where he learned more about photojournalism. Upon graduation, he worked for newspapers in Kansas before landing a job as a photographer for The Chicago Sun-Times in the early 1980’s.

From there, thanks to a friend who was working as the White House photo editor, he became an official White House photographer for the Reagan administration.

Since Kennedy, presidents have had personal photographers with the exception of Jimmy Carter. The purpose of the job is to follow the president throughout his work day and create images to document the administration. Souza held this position from June of 1983 until the end of Reagan’s second term. He described his role as supplementing the chief photographer’s work.

In regards to his relationship with the president, he said. “I didn’t know Reagan at all when I got to the White House, so it took a while to establish a relationship with him. I was in my twenties and Reagan was in his seventies, so he was, in some ways, a grandfatherly figure.”

Despite Souza’s political philosophies not being aligned with Reagan’s, Souza was glad to have served under him. “He respected the job of the presidency,” he said. “I respect him as a human being, and I think you have to have at least that in order to do this job. Under no circumstances would I be able to work for the current administration. I wouldn’t event try.”

The two kept up a correspondence until Reagan’s Alzeheimer’s manifested around 1993. Souza served as the official photographer for Reagan’s funeral services and published two books, Unguarded Moments: Behind-the-Scenes Photographs of President Reagan and Images of Greatness:An Intimate Look at the Presidency of Ronald Reagan, to exhibit his photos of the president.

After the Reagan administration, Souza freelanced in Washington, D.C. for nine years, his work being published in National Geographic and Life magazines. In 1998, he began working for the Chicago Tribune’s Washington Bureau, for which he was one of the first journalists to cover the war in Afghanistan. The only way to get to Kabul, the capital and center of the fighting, was through a 15,000 foot mountain pass on the border with Uzebekistan, which he traveled on horseback with another reporter in the snow.

What made the war special was that it was one of the first where digital cameras were advanced enough to send photos back to the United States in real time. “You were able to send pictures back right away. It was at times scary for me, but it was also pretty interesting,” he said. “I saw people get killed. I was there before we had any US troops on the ground, so I saw the hand to hand combat between different factions in Afghanistan but also the US air campaign. I saw a lot of big bombs being dropped from the air. It was very much the start of the war.”

Souza was still working for the Tribune in 2005, when he first met Barack Obama. He was taking part in a series covering Obama’s first year in the US Senate for the newspaper starting from the day he was inaugurated.

Souza said, “My first impression of him was that he was extremely intelligent, very low-key and was a great photographic subject.”

Although he was unsure of whether or not Obama would be elected, Souza began to think he would run for president. The photos Souza took during Obama’s senate tenure were compiled to create the book The Rise of Barack Obama.

After Obama’s election, he hired Souza to be his Chief Official White House Photographer. As to why he was selected, Souza said, “We actually struck up a special relationship where he got to know me a little bit. He knew what it was like to have me around taking pictures while he was in the Senate, and I think he appreciated the way I went about my work, not trying to be a nuisance or interfere with anything he was doing.”

Souza would arrive at the White House each day and wait for the president to arrive in the Oval Office from his residence and would then be his near constant companion until the president returned home.

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