In it provided by the White House, US President Barack Obama (right) kisses First Lady Michelle Obama in the Red Room while Senior Advisor Valerie Jarrett (left) smiles before the National Newspaper Publishers Association (NNPA) at the White House on March 20, 2009 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Pete Souza / White House via Getty Images / TNS)
Photo: Pete Souza / White House, HO / TNS
Pete Souza has been the official White House photographer for two two-term presidents, one a Republican hero, Ronald Reagan, and a Democratic hero: Barack Obama.
Son of Portuguese emigrants, nurse and boat mechanic, Souza worked as a photographer for the Chicago Tribune (1998-2007) and, before that, photojournalist for the Chicago Sun-Times (one of 25 – 25! – in 1982-1983). ). His lavish tale from the Obama years, “Obama: An Intimate Portrait”, became a bestseller, and Souza followed it up with “Shade: A Tale of Two Presidents”. The new documentary “The Way I See It” grew out of these two books and Souza’s subsequent tours and addresses on the subject of the nearly two million separate photos he took during the Obama years.
Once Donald Trump took office, Souza said in the documentary, he couldn’t ignore the human disrespect for the office, for the rule of law, for so many people around the world. He said he could no longer remain neutral on anything political. “It’s not a partisan thing for me,” he says in director Dawn Porter’s portrayal of the old fly on the wall turned visual activist. “This is about the dignity of the office of the presidency.”
The results pack an emotional blow if you miss the Obama era. And, probably, nothing like this if you don’t.
With a lot of input from Souza, Porter’s film tells the stories behind the photos. Many have become famous and deeply moving emblems of a politician’s humanity, like the 2009 image “Hair Like Mine”. You probably know it: he captures the moment when five-year-old Jacob Philadelphiat touched the president’s head to see if Obama’s hair looked like his own.
Souza has enjoyed unprecedented access to the inner workings, private meetings and unsupervised times of the Obama administration. His work under Reagan and, later, Obama, meant constant, albeit quiet, pressure for more of this access. Trump shut it all down, confining White House photographers to a few canned photos.
“The Way I See It” introduces us to Souza’s family; his life, now in Madison, Wisc. (he’s seen buying kale at the weekend farmer’s market near the Capitol building, which is the most Madison thing imaginable); and generous excerpts from various public lectures and presentations in the United States and abroad. Touring footage dependent documentaries like this have a built-in limitation; we have an idea of how the subject and the work work in a friendly public sphere, but sometimes it comes at the cost of more difficult or ambiguous alleys.
Souza presents himself as an authentic and truly humble talent. There is, however, an element of intentional or inadvertent image wrapping that goes with the pace of any White House photographer. We want Souza to be heard about the fine and delicate line between the authenticity of the report and visual flattery.
Note: PG-13 (short strong language)
Execution time: 100 minutes
Or: Opens September 18 at Landmark River Oaks, Houston; Alamo Drafthouse LaCenterra, Katy; Airs at 9 p.m. Oct. 9 on MSNBC.
**** (out of 5)
Just as Souza’s book “Shade” presented stark and demoralizing contrasts between Obama’s management of the presidency and that of Trump, so does the film. “Not having a competent and honest person in the presidency really matters,” Souza said at one point. His best everyday photos said the same thing without words.
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