Pete Souza speaking in front of a photo he took of President Barack Obama and a rainbow

Pete Souza speaking to a packed Baker Hall with a photo he took of President Barack Obama displayed behind him.

Obama Photographer Pete Souza Shares Intimate Perspective of Presidency With Lehigh Community

The White House photographer for Presidents Barack Obama and Ronald Reagan met with Lehigh students, participated in a book signing and spoke in Baker Hall for nearly two hours.

Story by

Stephen Gross

Photography by

Christa Neu

The first time President Barack Obama traveled to the United Nations in 2009, he ended up with just over an hour of free time. He was getting “antsy,” according to Pete Souza, and wondered if there was a nearby gym to play basketball.

The Secret Service was able to gain access to a gym across the street, and Obama played one-on-one with his personal aide Reggie Love, who is 20 years younger, a few inches taller and a former member of Duke University’s 2001 National Championship basketball team.

Obama held his own, even though he hadn’t even started for his high school basketball team, and at one point, blocked one of Love’s shots. When Obama, drenched in sweat, retreated from the court, Souza said, he walked right over to his chief official photographer. “Did you get that block?” he asked Souza proudly.

Souza did. Obama asked him to make it a “jumbo,” the term used for photos that are enlarged, hung on the walls of the lower floor of the West Wing and periodically switched out—a tradition since at least the Nixon Administration.

The audience for Pete Souza's talk in Baker Hall

A full house at Baker Hall listens to Pete Souza's lecture Obama: An Intimate Portrait.

It was one of the many tales Souza, chief official White House photographer for Obama, relayed Thursday night inside a packed Baker Hall at Lehigh’s Zoellner Arts Center. Using both words and photographs, he gave insight into Obama’s presidency.

The best-selling author, speaker and freelance photographer, who was also a White House photographer for President Ronald Reagan, spoke for 90 minutes on “Obama: An Intimate Portrait,” and took questions from audience members for another 25 minutes. Over 650 tickets were reserved for the free talk supported by Friends of the Lehigh Libraries.

Souza spent the first 15 minutes of his lecture detailing Obama’s departure from the White House on the day of President Donald Trump’s inauguration. His remarks followed the theme of his newest book “Shade: A Tale of Two Presidents” and many of his Instagram posts to his more than 2.1 million followers.

The remainder of his presentation focused on Obama, showing the private and public sides of the 44th President of the United States, starting with Obama’s inauguration.

“My goal was to create the best photographic archive that had ever been done on a president,” Souza said. “I wanted to make lasting images for history. So I was looking for all of these little behind-the-scenes moments.”

Pete Souza speaking with students

Pete Souza met with Lehigh student leaders for two different question and answer sessions.

One of many photos displayed throughout the night that showed those private moments flashed on the screen at that moment. Souza had captured Obama and his wife, Michelle, heads touching, in a freight elevator traveling from one inaugural ball to another. In the photo, the First Lady is holding up the bottom of her dress up from the elevator floor, with Obama’s tuxedo jacket over her shoulders, as Secret Service members in the background attempt to give the couple as much privacy as possible.

When Souza received the call offering him the job a few weeks before Obama’s 2009 inauguration, he said he had one condition: access. As someone who worked for the Chicago Tribune, freelanced for National Geographic and worked in the Reagan White House, he saw himself as a seasoned photographer and one who knew how the job should be done. To do the job correctly, he said, he needed total access.

“When Inauguration Day rolled around…the main thing I had in the back of my head was to make authentic photographs,” Souza said. “To think about the mood, the emotion and the context. To be ready for the fleeting behind-the-scenes moments from both big historic events and really everyday situations.”

Souza showed images that highlighted a range of Obama’s emotionst. He divided the presentation into a number of sections, including Family, Interactions, The bin Laden Raid, The Worst Day, #ObamaAndKids and Election Week 2016, among other topics.

Pete Souza signing books

Pete Souza signed copies of his books at Fairchild-Martindale Library on Thursday afternoon.

While discussing images that showed the weight on Obama’s shoulders during his presidency—a close up of Obama contemplating his next move during the financial crisis, a day’s worth of photos chronicling the Osama bin Laden raid and the emotional toll of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting—Souza made sure to balance his presentation between serious and more lighthearted moments. One photo was taken from behind the Easter Bunny and Obama, with the Washington Monument in between them.

“[Obama] said, ‘Look at that, the two most famous sets of ears in Washington,’” Souza said to laughter from the audience.

He also showed a photo that revealed “Obama the prankster.” After an event at the University of Texas and while walking back to the motorcade through the women’s volleyball locker room, White House trip director Marvin Nicholson jumped on a scale, as he was trying to lose weight and was in the midst of doing P90X. Souza’s image captured Obama, unbeknownst to Nicholson, stepping on the scale with more and more force as Nicholson adjusts the scale to check his weight.

Many of the photos Souza discussed in the “Family” portion of his talk included Obama’s daughters Malia and Sasha. One, taken during 2010’s Snowmageddon on the White House lawn, when Obama played with his daughters and made snow angels, is still the lock screen on Obama’s iPad today, according to Souza.

Pete Souza and Lehigh student Sara Jewel '23

Pete Souza and Sara Jewel '23 pose with one of Souza's books, Obama: An Intimate Portrait: The Historic Presidency in Photographs, which contains a photo of Jewel as a child when she played on a basketball team with Sasha Obama. (Courtesy of Sara Jewel)

Another showed Obama coaching the Sidwell Friends School’s Vipers basketball team on which Sasha played. Souza noted something special for the Lehigh community—one of the team’s other members in the photo is a first-year at Lehigh. The student, Sara Jewel ’23, said following Souza’s lecture that she saw the photographer at her games every Sunday and had to go through security screenings each week with Obama in attendance and helping to coach. Maisy Biden, Vice President Joe Biden’s granddaughter, was also on the team, she said.

Following Souza’s talk, many of those in attendance made their way to a reception in the Fairchild-Martindale’s Study Gallery, where they were able to chat with Souza and view a solo exhibition of his photography, which runs through Feb. 28.

Earlier in the day, Souza met with student leaders from BALANCE, the Pride Center and Center for Equality for an hour-long question-and-answer in the University Center before another Q&A with just over 20 students from TRAC, SLAB and the Student Senate in Fairchild-Martindale. In the second Q&A, Souza responded to questions that touched upon his start in photography, the differences between documenting Reagan and Obama and major setbacks in his life.

Souza told students he went to Boston University for journalism because he wanted to be a sportswriter and first picked up a camera in a photography class at 19. While the mission was the same for both presidents, Souza said, the Obama Administration provided more access.  Both presidents were “good people,” he said, but since Reagan was older, he wasn’t as active, which made things different. When Souza left the Reagan White House, he told students, he was freelancing and he wasn’t a great businessman or self-promoter, which you need to be to support yourself as a freelancer.

“There were times during my freelance years, I did that for nine years, where I was broke, and had no assignments on the horizon and just didn't know how to survive,” Souza said.

He also signed copies of his books for members of the Lehigh and local communities.

Kathy Frederick contributed to this article.

Story by

Stephen Gross

Photography by

Christa Neu

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