What Do We See in the White House?

For some time now, I have been following Pete Souza, the former chief official White House photographer for President Barack Obama, on Instagram. Souza’s photography captures the fleeting moments of Obama’s presidential life, as a leader and decision-maker, but also as a dad, a husband and an empathizer of the issues facing the American people. In Souza’s snapshots of Obama holding hands and embracing children and adults of all races, genders, religions and socioeconomic statuses, the authenticity of his presidency is extremely apparent. 

With the November election coming to a peak this week, scrolling through these photos made me reflect on how hopeful I felt having someone as human as Obama representing our country. It reminds me of the America I once knew and loved.

In 2008, when Obama first ran for the presidential office, I was in first grade. My elementary school held a simulated election for us to vote for our favorite presidential candidate. As a six-year-old, I didn’t know much about the responsibilities of the president or the nuances of the election, but what I did know was how much Obama meant to my immigrant parents. I remember seeing them in front of our television, their eyes lit up by the images of Obama displayed on CBS News, a man who would represent people like them and the diversity of America as a whole. His mere welcoming presence radiated from the screen and filled their hearts with hope — I knew there was something different about him. And so I “cast” my ballot for Barack Obama at school with pride, right into the cardboard box plastered with “VOTE” stickers.

Though he may not have had a perfect presidency, I think it’s safe to say that Obama lived up to the vision my parents had when he was just a 47-year-old presidential candidate — a person in power representing those who have been historically ignored. 

The documentary  “The Way I See It” chronicles Souza’s experiences as the White House photographer for the Obama administration and his reflections on that experience of hopefulness. Obama encouraged him to photograph freely, from the big moments to the small, intimate ones. Souza explains that it was his mission to document history through these photographs, and how he sought to authentically capture the Obama presidency. 

Sifting through Souza’s work, I noticed that Obama didn’t often pose for pictures. The goal of the White House photographer, Souza says, is to be nearly invisible so that you can, as truthfully as possible, capture the reality of a moment as it unfolds. 

In some of the featured pictures of the documentary, I could feel the true weight of the presidency on Obama’s shoulders when making a tough decision that would affect millions. For example, one photo captures Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and other members of the National Security Council in the Situation Room, receiving an update on the mission against Osama bin Laden. Souza captures the intense, foreboding mood of the moment very well, the stress on their faces almost visceral as they look expectantly at the screen. 

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

These Obama-era photos do not hide the distress of these intense presidential moments, which starkly contrasts with photos taken of President Donald Trump, who is much stricter about when photographers are and aren’t allowed to photograph. 

Consider the photo below, taken in 2019 with Trump and his staff in the Situation Room after United States special forces killed ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Everyone pictured in the room glaringly stares directly into the camera with stoic faces, giving the impression of a posed picture as the photographer blocks the Situation Room screen — all the more evidence that they’re not really looking at anything other than the staged camera. There’s a sense of artificiality, a lack of authenticity. 

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The differences in photography go beyond just aesthetic preference — they reveal important contrasts in leadership style. We need a president who allows for real, candid recordings of history rather than staged strongman propaganda pieces. We need an honest, genuine leader, rather than someone who tries to hide his faults and manufacture history. 

Souza’s photos succeed in capturing Obama’s empathetic nature. In an array of photos, Souza captures Obama’s outward and genuine expressions of empathy towards the parents of the victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary school shooting. Although his staff tried to rush him through the process, Obama took all the time the families needed to talk and grieve, which is depicted in a particularly touching photo of a mother who lost her son crying in his arms. Through this one picture, his overwhelming empathy is translated to the viewer, demonstrating his true care for the American people.

In another photo, called “Hair Like Mine,” a young Black boy, Jacob Philadelphia, touches Obama’s bent head with an arm outstretched because, he said, Obama’s haircut is the same as his own. Here’s a little boy who is patting a figure of leadership who looks like him, emblematic of the racial inclusivity that defined Obama’s presidency, all encapsulated in one snapshot. 

The dichotomy of Obama’s presidential photography and that of Trump symbolizes two vastly different approaches to American leadership: one of humility and inclusivity, and the other of haughty minority rule.

So when I mailed in my official ballot at the campus post office two weeks ago as a first-time voter, I was struck by how much our country has changed since that time in elementary school when I cast my ballot for Obama. This realization, rather than taking away my hope, furthered my sense of purpose as a citizen of the United States. We must look to the future and ask ourselves: How do we want our country to be recorded in history? 

Souza’s photos provide us with a window into what the presidency once represented — kindness, honesty and empathy — and what it can be again. We already voted based on what we currently see in the White House: the Trump administration has shown us a very different presidency, more artificial and less caring than before. Now is our chance to reclaim the America we once saw, where empathy — the cornerstone of human relationships that connects citizens to their leader — is tangible enough to permeate through a mere photograph.