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'The Way I See It' filters the Obama presidency through Pete Souza's lens

The documentary looks at Pete Souza, White House photographer for Presidents Reagan and Obama. David Daniel talked with Souza and producer Laura Dern.

Posted: Sep 23, 2020 3:10 PM
Updated: Sep 23, 2020 3:10 PM

Pete Souza became an unlikely political figure, stepping out from his behind-the-scenes role as official White House photographer and into the spotlight with Instagram posts jabbing President Trump, which became the book "Shade: A Tale of Two Presidents." That provides the foundation for a documentary, "The Way I See It," which offers an insider's view of Barack Obama presidency through Souza's unerring lens.

Souza served as a photographer in the Reagan White House before he was approached about chronicling Obama's terms -- a job with its own fascinating background that he approached, Souza says here, as "a historian with a camera," constantly thinking of "mood, emotion, context."

For Souza, that spanned the gamut of experiences, from the killing of Osama bin Laden to wrenching moments with families of the children killed at Sandy Hook, from the exultation surrounding the Supreme Court's gay marriage ruling to Obama and his daughters happily playing in the snow.

Director Dawn Porter takes those raw images -- which yielded the book "Obama: An Intimate Portrait" -- and wrings an additional magic from them by wedding the still photos with video of events, in a way that underscores what the photographer captured, then animates and enhances it. That's especially true with something like his portfolio from Ronald Reagan's funeral, juxtaposing pictures of Nancy Reagan standing over his coffin with footage of her.

Souza's new-found fame, however, stemmed from an unexpected -- and to friends and associates, surprising -- departure once Trump took over, as his growing exasperation prompted him to begin contrasting flattering images of Obama with actions of the Oval Office's current inhabitant. Those shots of Obama, he says, illustrate "how the job as president should be done."

Porter augments the interviews with Souza and glimpses of his work with other voices, such as former United Nations ambassador Samantha Power, who suggest that Souza helped create "a window into the man that was occupying the office."

The documentary will surely be moving for those nostalgic about Obama's presidency, from his humorously competitive streak on the basketball court to the heartbreaking visit to Newtown, as David Wheeler describes the president's interactions with his grief-stricken family by saying, "There's no substitute for empathy. It is a foundational relationship between human beings."

"The Way I See It" thus straddles an interesting line, looking back at the last administration through Souza's lens, while drawing a direct line from those photos -- and what he took from his two White House stints -- to his public trolling of Trump, and the sense of outrage that inspired it.

As the title suggests, how viewers respond to that, like everything else in partisan times, will surely be in the eye of the beholder. But simply in terms of presenting a draft of history through his earlier work and scalding commentary via his more recent endeavors, Souza's aim has been true.

"The Way I See It" premieres in select theaters on Sept. 18, and will air Oct. 9 on MSNBC.

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