Pete Souza’s best photograph: Obama lays into Putin
I wasn’t supposed to be here for this picture. It was taken on the 70th anniversary of the Normandy landings – all the heads of state had gathered there and were coming out of an impromptu luncheon.
The official photographers from each country had been kicked out – we were all supposed to leave the building. But I have a knack of making myself small and sticking around.
The shot shows the kind of interaction President Obama had with President Putin during his tenure. It was 2014, a particularly tense time between the two countries. You can see in the facial expressions and gestures that this was a very serious conversation. There are interpreters stood behind them, but I get the impression from Putin’s face that he understood exactly what was being said in English.
I was within earshot. I can’t recount specifically what they said, but I knew the subject matter. Can I say what it was? It was about … some of Russia’s actions in the world. Let’s leave it at that.
This conversation went on for a while: they weren’t thinking about me. To them, I was just one of many people in the room, coming and going in different directions. I started out shooting horizontally and tighter, and then switched to vertical, backing up to show their entire bodies. Compositionally, that seemed to show the body language better.
I took 1.9 million photos during my time as White House photographer. I had my cameras on me every day for eight years
I first met Obama on his very first day in the US senate in 2005. I was impressed by the way he interacted with people, not just on the podium but on a one-to-one level. And from a photographer’s standpoint, I saw right away how comfortable he was in the presence of a camera. I could be in some pretty intimate situations with him and me being there with a camera didn’t seem to bother him at all.
I would tell friends that I was photographing a senator who was going to become the president of the United States. But on other occasions I’d see him deliver these long-winded answers during town hall meetings and wonder if he really had it in him. He was so policy-oriented that he would sometimes give 10- or 15-minute answers when people wanted a quicker response. I sensed he was losing some people, but he got better at that over time.
I call our relationship a professional friendship. I don’t go to his house for dinner with him and Michelle, but I would get invited to the holiday party that he has for his office. How would I describe him? I’d say he was intelligent and very disciplined – about work, exercise, diet. And he’s very competitive in all aspects of his life. We’d do these long flights on Air Force One where we would play the card game Spades and he would be really competitive. That’s just his nature.
I took 1.9m photos in my time as White House photographer. I was with my cameras at the White House every day for essentially eight years. I wasn’t photographing every second of every day, but I was always ready to. The stressful aspect was not the job but its effect on my personal life, because I felt I always needed to be with Obama. You never know when history is going to take place. So for eight years my personal life was on hold. By the time his presidency ended I was worn out.
What you see with Trump is the reality show, with the whole press corps there. You don’t get any unguarded moments
I also worked as White House photographer for Ronald Reagan. That was a different era. I was a young man, Reagan was in his 70s and I didn’t know him that well. I didn’t have the same sort of access that I had with Obama. We were shooting film and there was no such thing as social media. And Reagan was just a different type of person – very formal, didn’t do nearly as much – and so my coverage wasn’t nearly as exhaustive.
I’ve noticed how you don’t see any behind-the-scenes photographs of Trump. What you see is the reality show – a cabinet meeting or oval office meeting where the entire press corps is there the whole time. I don’t feel like there are any unguarded moments.
Obviously the investigations into Russian collusion gives this picture an extra layer of meaning. It shows the way you should interact with the president of Russia. It should be tense. Trump still does not acknowledge that Putin is the guy who directed people to meddle with our election. Instead, he interacts with him as if they’re best friends. This is our adversary, and this is the way you should talk to an adversary.