Few individuals are privileged to get a front row seat to transformative presidencies that have shaped America. Former White House photographer Pete Souza got to do it twice. In The Way I See It, documentary filmmaker Dawn Porter charts Souza’s journey from a photojournalist to being in the room for all of the iconic moments of Barack Obama’s presidency to becoming an unlikely Instagram star.
While Souza’s post White House life has seen him become an online sensation, thanks in part to his vocal objection to the actions of the Trump administration, it was his time with Obama that is the most revealing. On call 24/7, Souza viewed himself as a “historian with a camera”, a person whose responsibility it was to show the many facets of the president that few rarely see. Through his powerful photos, he not only captured the mood and emotion of key moments, but also conveyed the sense of empathy that made Obama such an influential president.
As Porter’s film notes, Obama’s empathy helped guide a nation through difficult times, including the financial crisis and the shooting at Sandy Hook, and joyous times such as the passing of marriage equality and the Affordable Care Act. Like a fly on the wall, Souza’s images offered a candid look at Obama as president and as a man. Some of the most touching moments in the film arrive when Souza explains how he captured photos of Obama’s interactions with regular Americans who have endured devasting hardships, and his tender interactions his family.
Seeing the genuine emotion that Souza displays when talking about Obama’s humanity, one understands the deep impression the president left on him. Observing Obama provided Souza with a better understanding of what having a Black president truly meant for millions of African Americans. It also opened his eyes to the wave of racism that such an achievement inevitably sparked in the nation. While Porter’s film misses the opportunity to delve into the racism that Souza casually mentions, it does a solid job contrasting the Reagan and Obama administrations, and the professional techniques he used to photograph both. Of course, The Way I See It saves its most scathing commentary is reserved for the Trump era.
Touching on COVID-19 pandemic and the racial protest erupting under Donald Trump’s administration, the film effectively shows how Souza has evolved from objective observer into a vocal activist. While it can be argued that Porter’s film is as much a love letter to the Obama era as it is an examination of an extraordinary photographer, Souza’s love of photography remains at the forefront. The film conveys the importance of documenting history as it is, and not constructing images to fit a preconceived narrative. The Way I See It is a celebration of a time when change in America, as captured by Souza’s lens, was about lifting up a country rather than ripping it apart.