NYT’s Big Story: Obama’s Photographer Selling Souvenir of Beloved Presidency

November 10th, 2017 7:06 PM

New York Times Katie Rogers, a political reporter who specializes in anti-journalistic fan notes to prominent Democrats like Hillary and Chelsea Clinton, had former President Barack Obama in her sights in a long piece in Friday’s paper. It's a tribute to a new liberal icon, the former president’s official photographer, Pete Souza, who is selling a coffee-table book of photos of the president: “He Captured Obama’s Presidency. Now He Helps People Remember It.” This is news?

No surprise here: Pete Souza is big in Brooklyn.

On the anniversary of Donald J. Trump’s election victory, in a college auditorium steps from Hillary Clinton’s former campaign headquarters, hundreds of New Yorkers lined up to meet Mr. Souza, the chief White House photographer who captured many of the waking moments of President Barack Obama, the president who came before.

As emotional Brooklynites streamed in to hear him speak -- and to collectively reminisce about life before the Trump era -- Mr. Souza, 62, sucked on a lozenge and fretted about the projector’s ability to perfectly display his photos.


He is still not quite sure why his Instagram feed has ballooned into a nostalgic haven for millions mourning the end of the 44th presidency, or why his book, “Obama: An Intimate Portrait,” which was released this week, has rocketed to the top of Amazon’s best-seller list and sold out speaking events from this corner of New York to the Tate Modern in London.


Here are a few hunches: With Mr. Obama giving few public statements since leaving office, Mr. Souza’s words and images will have to work as a conduit for now. Since posting a photo from a military helicopter as Mr. Obama left the White House on Inauguration Day -- “We used to live there,” Mr. Souza heard the departing president remark on that ride to no one in particular -- Mr. Souza has been constructing a virtual timeline that juxtaposes events of Mr. Obama’s presidency with Mr. Trump’s, one that has so far been defined by defying norms, bucking expectations and attempts to reverse the legacy of his predecessor.

Rogers found random social media comments from Obama worshippers to be newsworthy.

Mr. Souza’s photo retrospectives, often laced with tongue-in-cheek captions and commentary, began during Mr. Trump’s first week in the White House. In the midst of an immigration restriction order issued by the Trump administration in January, a follower commented on a photo of Mr. Obama visiting with a young refugee: “He is such a decent man. How did we fall so far?”

In August, Mr. Souza posted a photo of Mr. Obama visiting with honorees at the Kennedy Center Honors, an event Mr. Trump skipped: “Those were the days my friend,” an observer wrote.

And in late October, in response to a photo of Mr. Obama cuddling a baby in an elephant outfit, the group therapy continued. “He is still my president,” a man in Pennsylvania wrote. “I miss him so much.”

Rogers really poured on the pathos.

It is one thing, Mr. Souza said, to read Instagram comments and absorb the feeling that people are collectively mourning. It is quite another to see a real-life crowd react to different lenses that he has placed on the 44th president’s legacy.

At one point in time, the New York Times took a more hard-nosed approach to Souza’s unlimited access to the president. But apparently absence makes the heart grow even fonder:

The constant access to Mr. Obama became an issue for many of Mr. Souza’s former photojournalism colleagues. In 2013, the White House Correspondents’ Association and 37 news organizations, including The New York Times, lodged a formal complaint with the White House over what the group said was preferential treatment that excluded journalists from documenting history.