As the official White House photographer, Pete Souza had an unprecedented view of President Reagan and President Obama. Souza was everywhere, but it wasn’t until 2017 that he started sharing his work through Instagram and providing a window into the Oval Office and how Obama led the country. He provided perspective.
In a new documentary, “The Way I See It,” (airing on MSNBC on Oct. 16.) filmmaker Dawn Porter brings Souza’s work to life, drawing a line from his days capturing Reagan to following Obama, reminding us of the dignity and grace that once served 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
Porter was still working on “John Lewis: Good Trouble” as the call for the Souza doc came. With John Lewis’ death earlier this year, she notes how her work and the subjects are tied together, “John’s message was, “Speak up, speak out and say something,” and that’s what Pete is doing [as a citizen].” Souza went from an observer through his lens to speaking up, and Porter’s new doc allows him to speak up about following Obama to capturing Souza’s comments on Trump.
Pete Souza’s Instagram gave us such an insight into President Obama, was it something you were aware of before making this doc?
I didn’t because I am not a big Instagram person. My kids are always telling me how much I would love Instagram. I’d rather chisel out a letter and send it by pigeon, but Laura Dern and my producing partner Jayme Lemons were superfans, and it was Jayme’s idea. She went to see his one-man-show and thought it would make a great movie.
I did not know Pete, and now, I’m a super fan like everybody else. His posts give you so much lightness. So many times he’s saying what we’re thinking, but he has receipts.
As you were doing this, you were doing “John Lewis: Good Trouble” and you’re giving this incredible insight into history. What was that like looking back on working on both of the docs?
I feel like the films speak to each other. I was maybe three quarters into John Lewis when we started this movie. John’s message was, “Speak up, speak out and say something,” and that’s what Pete is doing [as a citizen].
There were so many ways that these movies related. Pete was a huge fan of the congressman and was in awe of him and all that he had achieved. He would talk about being influenced by him and by his bravery.
I think the significance of John Lewis, his struggle, and the election of Barack Obama are inextricably intertwined. President Obama will say the activism of John Lewis is part of the reason why he’s president. And so to have those bookends to a story where you have what John Lewis is fighting for and this is what we got was beautiful.
As a Black person, you see how activism and political engagement overlaps in both their stories, and you see that in the films.
The beauty of Pete’s photography is how he captures the emotion, the stress, the fun and everything in his work, how did you navigate with Pete through the million photos he has, the story and which ones you were going to highlight?
He has 1.9 million photos and that was a little daunting. My editor Jessica Congdon had worked with me on the John Lewis documentary. We moved from that movie to this, and that was creatively inspiring for both of us because we didn’t want to do the same thing. We wanted to evolve.
We chose themes that we wanted to lean into; empathy, crisis, family and leadership. We had this spectacular second junior editor. He had all of Pete’s books, a biography of President Obama and books on Reagan and the White House.
We started this giant spreadsheet of photos that we all loved, and we went through thousands. Once we got it down to the photos that we wanted to lean into, that’s when we brought Pete in, and he guided us to his favorites.
He took so many photos that it’s almost like a moving image. What that gave me as a documentary person, is a confidence in their authenticity, and they were not staged, which is what you see in photos with this president. When you see a series of ten photos, and you see the movements, you know that it’s an accurate representation of what was happening in the room.
This all came together in the pandemic as far as editing and post. How then did you decide upon your ending for the film showing the Black Lives Matter movement as an ending?
When we started, never in a million years would we have imagined that this is what it would lead up to.
While we were making it, we thought it was going to end with Trump’s impeachment and that would be a big moment, but the moments kept getting eclipsed, and if you notice, that’s not even in it.
We had a pretty good idea of the sketch of the arc. We had begun to do interviews with David Wheeler, the father of Ben who was murdered in Sandy Hook, and we had several other moments planned, but when we shut down in March, we couldn’t do anymore.
The other thing that happened was that we couldn’t be with Pete anymore. He was under very strict quarantine in Wisconsin. So, we had to take a good long look at what we had and dig into what the story was. It’s a story about leadership. It’s a story about compassion and humanity. It’s not a story about a particular president or a particular issue. It’s not an issue movie, and that was liberating.
We needed to film more with Pete. We tried everything from Zoom to self-tape, but we ended up with our directors of photography Clair Popkin and Keith Walker sending him a camera package and I was on Zoom asking him the questions.
To the deeper point about the feelings of being isolated — I felt anxious. We had a pandemic and George Floyd’s murder. It made us pivot to a more pointed story that we all need to speak up and say something.
I do believe, as John Lewis believed, and told me so many times, in the goodness of most people. Goodness alone isn’t going to do it, we need leaders to help us get us to where we need to be.