There are some who have a front-row seat to history, yet we never know their names and rarely notice them in the photos that depict such moments. And that’s for the plain and simple fact that those people are the ones taking the photos, including photojournalist Pete Souza, who had top-secret clearance and total access to two of the most popular and influential presidents in recent history: Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama. As the White House staff photographer, the list of memorable moments Souza captured seem endless, but in the documentary The Way I See It, he gets to add a few verbal captions to the photos he took. It’s an exceptional look behind his process and often the way in which presidents make decisions.
With an official title of Chief Official White House Photographer, Souza’s first job was capturing the essence of his subject as well as significant happenings, whether they were historic or something more personal, such as Obama bending down to let a young Black visitor touch his hair because the kid couldn’t believe a Black man held the office of president. Of course, the photographer was also in the situation room during the tense and harrowing raid that resulted in Osama bin Laden’s execution in 2011. But Souza attempted to stay apolitical, so he was just as comfortable working for the Reagan White House, especially at key events like his 1987 speech at the Berlin Wall. He was even called in years later by Nancy Reagan to accompany and photograph Reagan’s casket being transported to its final resting place in California. His friendships with these presidents was so deep that Obama officiated Souza’s wedding.
Directed by Dawn Porter (who’s having a tremendous year, having also directed John Lewis: Good Trouble, released earlier this year), the filmmaker accompanies Souza on the book and lecture tour that accompanied his two books, the coffee-table release Obama: An Intimate Portrait, and Shade: A Tale of Two Presidents. The latter gloriously reproduces his Instagram account where he posts a particularly un-presidential Tweet from our current Commander-in-Chief about a domestic or foreign issue alongside a photo of Obama handling the same issue like an actual leader. Souza finds it disturbing that Donald Trump gives the White House photographer almost no access outside of designated photo ops because he’s afraid to let the public see what lurks behind the smiles and handshakes of posed images.
During The Way I See It, you never get a sense that the subject is talking out of school or spilling any personal details they’d rather not have out in the world, but that doesn’t stop the movie from feeling intimate, deeply focused, and emotionally fulfilling. There are few people in a better position to judge these two men and the people with whom they were surrounded. Souza got to not only watch the big moments, but was often in the position to see the thought process behind each major decision, and as he reminds us, the way one makes decision is a reliable way by which to judge someone’s character. Because of the books he’s released, it’s unlikely Souza will ever be invited to work in the White House again, and he seems fine with this in his mid-60s.
The film covers a bit of Souza career before working in the Reagan White House, including stints at both the Chicago Tribune and Chicago Sun-Times, and National Geographic and Life magazines. After September 11, 2001, he was among the first journalists to cover the war in Afghanistan. The film gives us views of more than 400 of his photographs from all phases of his work, and they say as much about him as an artist and human being as they do about their subjects. The film is part history lesson, part character study, and the result is something quite unique and beautiful.
The film opens theatrically, including at the Landmark Century Centre Cinema, on Friday. Please follow venue, state and CDC health and safety guidelines if attending indoor screenings. The film will also air on MSNBC on October 9.
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