It never occurred to me that I could get so intensely nostalgiac for a time that ended less than a year ago, but that’s how I felt last night when I went to see a talk by Pete Souza, the former White House photographer for the Obama administration. During those eight years, Souza’s job was to document Obama’s presidency for the public record, and he captured countless images of the president both in his official duties and in his personal life at the White House. The most famous of them might be this utterly disarming moment of Obama bonding with a young African-American boy.
Souza’s work achieved substantial fame on social media, and even though the Trump administration wiped clean the White House’s official Flickr account when they assumed office (as is their prerogative), the photographer continues to post images from that era on his Instagram account—often as sharp commentary on the current administration. Souza has also been working on a book of this work called “Obama: An Intimate Portrait,” to be published this November.
In spite of the majesty of the space, at first I found it to be an unsettlingly odd setting; it almost suggested we were enshrining a just passed administration among other antiquities. But I stopped thinking about all of that when Souza began recounting his eight years of photographing Obama; Souza is a perfectly fine speaker but his imagery is incredibly powerful and affecting. I felt a sense of intense longing—and maybe even despair, too. Souza had an eye for capturing Obama’s genuinely deep regard and empathy for other people, a wonderful trait that practically permeates every photo he took. That’s in stark contrast to the current occupant of the Oval Office, suffice it to say, and I found myself nearly moved to tears many times throughout the evening.
That is the power of photography though, that ability to immerse us in other times and places, sometimes reflecting them back to us in idealized forms. To his credit, Souza’s work largely avoided hagiographic territory. If anything, they revealed the humanness of not just the president but the entire White House family as well. My favorite photo, displayed on the screen in the picture of the top of this post, shows Obama playing a practical joke on an aide.
Moments like these reminded me that the progress we saw in the Obama administration needn’t be a singular event, never to be repeated, even though it sometimes feels that way as we cope daily with the grim news emanating like a toxic gas from the Trump White House. All the achievements of the last administration were brought about not by superhumans but by regular people who put the interests of others first. That’s not such a tall order; it was done before and it can be done again.