Documentary shows Obama years through photographer’s lens

Pete Souza served as the official White House photographer for a pair of two-term presidents, one a Republican hero, Ronald Reagan, and a Democratic hero: Barack Obama.

The son of Portuguese emigres, a nurse and a boat mechanic, Souza earned his master’s degree at Kansas State University and got his start in photojournalism at newspapers in Chanute and Hutchinson.

His lavish account of the Obama years, “Obama: An Intimate Portrait,” became a best-seller, and Souza followed it up with “Shade: A Tale of Two Presidents.” The new documentary “The Way I See It” grew out of those two books, and Souza’s subsequent tours and speaking engagements on the subject of the approximately 2 million photos he took during the Obama years.

The movie, which played at theaters in some cities, airs at 9 p.m. Friday, Oct. 16, on MSNBC.

Once Donald Trump took office, Souza says in the documentary, he couldn’t ignore the man’s disrespect for the office, for the rule of law, for so many people around the world. He says he couldn’t remain neutral about anything political anymore. “This is not a partisan thing to me,” he says in director Dawn Porter’s portrait of the onetime fly on the wall turned visual activist. “It’s about the dignity of the office of the presidency.”

The results pack a serious emotional wallop if you miss the Obama era. And, probably, nothing of the sort if you don’t.

One of Pete Souza’s most famous photos shows Jacob Philadelphia, 5, the son of a White House staff member, touching President Barack Obama’s hair to see if it feels like his. PETE SOUZA White House

With a lot of input from Souza, Porter’s film tells the stories behind the photos. Many have become famous, profoundly moving emblems of one politician’s humanity, such as the 2009 image “Hair Like Mine.” You probably know it: It captures the moment when 5-year-old Jacob Philadelphia touched the head of the president to see if Obama’s hair felt like his own.

Souza enjoyed an unprecedented degree of access to the inner workings, private meetings and unguarded moments of the Obama administration. His job under Reagan and, later, Obama, meant a constant if low-key push for more of that access. Trump shut all that 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, Wisconsin (he’s seen buying kale at the weekend farmers market by the capitol building, which is the most Madison thing imaginable); and generous excerpts from various public talks and presentations in the U.S. and abroad. Tour footage-dependent documentaries such as this one carry a built-in limitation; we get a sense of how the subject and the work operate in a friendly public sphere, but it’s sometimes at the expense of more difficult or ambiguous alleyways.

Pete Souza, shown at the White House in 2013, was the official photographer for Presidents Ronald Regan and Barack Obama. Charles Dharapak, File AP Photo

Souza comes off as a genuine and genuinely humble talent. There is, however, an element of intentional or inadvertent image-packaging that goes with any White House photographer’s beat. One wishes Souza were heard on the subject of the fine, tricky line between reportorial authenticity and visual flattery.

Just as Souza’s “Shade” book presented stark, demoralizing contrasts between Obama’s handling of the presidency and Trump’s, the film does the same. “Not having a competent, honest person in the presidency really does matter,” Souza says at one point. His best, everyday photos said the same thing without words.

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