The Way I See It, Dawn Porter’s documentary about former White House photographer Pete Souza and his somewhat surprising Instagram crusade against Donald Trump, was basically a two-hour tear-fest for me. That’s why Joanna wrote the more critical, objective review. Part of my brain kind of shut down while I was watching The Way I See It because it made me TOO SAD, so I ended up thinking a lot about shot selection. I studied photography in college, and I still practice it using a forty-year-old Canon SLR that winds actual, 35mm film. Besides learning the technical stuff, most of learning photography is learning shot selection: the ability to recognize which particular image, out of dozens or hundreds on camera roll, to use for commercial or artistic work. In photography, whether it’s an art practice or photojournalism, shot selection IS the story. It’s not just about the images the photographer records, it’s about which images get printed and circulated. This is what Pete Souza knows, and it’s the foundation of his repudiation of Trump’s staged photo ops and propaganda.
Using his Instagram as a shot-for-shot rebuttal of Trump’s presidency, Souza has curated a story in photos that speak to presence, not politics. The record Souza is creating is not about Barack Obama’s presidency as a political machine, but about Barack Obama’s presidency as humanitarian engagement. This is what presidents are supposed to look like, Souza says with every new image published to his Insta feed. Not that thing happening now. THAT is aberration, THIS is the norm. Even invoking Ronald Reagan at the beginning of the documentary goes to this point. Sure, it establishes Souza’s bipartisan bona fides, showing that he can work well with a politician with whom he does not agree. But it also underscores a sense of normalcy in the presidency, that Republican or Democrat, a lot of the same moments occur, and Reagan was willing to expose his humanity, such as visiting Nancy in the hospital after surgery, in ways we are not currently seeing from Trump.
There is an egregious moment, though, that comes when the film shows a photo of Reagan holding an HIV-positive baby, and Souza opines that this photo helped destigmatize HIV/AIDS. That may be true, but one nice photo op cannot outweigh Reagan’s disastrous—arguably intentionally so—handling of the AIDS epidemic. This, then, is the same danger represented by Trump’s use of posed photos, that the right photo in the wrong context can twist the narrative and occlude truth. All images are political, and propaganda runs the gamut from relatively benign, such as family photos of politicians meant to humanize, to actively malicious, like the Nazi propaganda created to cover up genocide and war crimes. What Souza did as a White House photographer was propaganda that, at least under Obama, fell on the mostly benign end of the scale. Obama utilized his photographers to show what he was up to on the job to staffers who might not see him that often, and what life is like inside the White House to a curious public. The propaganda was documentarian in nature.
What Souza is up to now is less documentarian and more ideological. There are, disturbingly, many people who are ecstatic with how the current administration is going. But there are many (hopefully more) who are not, and to those people, Souza is presenting a counter-narrative for Trump’s presidency, a reminder of how things were and could be again. It’s still a kind of documentation, but his specific narrative-crafting takes on a storytelling role, not merely informative as when his photos were used in the president’s weekly Flickr stream. Souza’s shot selection is so exquisitely pointed he now has a book called Shade: A Tale of Two Presidents.
Pete Souza could just publish every photo he has of Barack Obama to his Instagram, but instead he is carefully selecting shots to counter Trump’s narrative that his presidency is what American greatness looks like. Souza is reminding us with each image of a time when the presidency was more humane, more familial, and more openly on display to the public. His shot selection isn’t just about “good” photos of Obama, it’s about those specific images that counter Trump’s narrative with a, for lack of a better term, more wholesome image of the presidency. The story Souza is crafting isn’t about specific politics or policy, it’s about actions and behavior, and how one president used photography to throw open the doors of the presidency, while another uses photography for self-aggrandizement and manipulation. Could Obama’s use of images be manipulative? Of course, images are always manipulative to some degree. What Pete Souza reminds us of, though, is a president who worked to honor the office he held, not dismantle it.