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What it takes to be a White House photographer

Abby Narishkin,Clayton Dyer   

  • Pete Souza served as the official White House photographer for President Barack Obama and President Ronald Reagan.
  • For both administrations, Souza put his personal life on hold to follow the presidents for eight years, photographing history.
  • Business Insider sits down with Souza to break down his most iconic shots and learn what it takes to get the gig.
  • Check out Souza's new documentary, "The Way I See It," premiering on MSNBC on October 16 at 10 p.m. EST.

Following is a transcription of the video.

Pete Souza: My attitude is, if you're documenting for history, you wanna be there all the time, 'cause you don't wanna miss anything. And you can't always predict when history is gonna take place.

Narrator: That's Pete Souza, former White House photographer to Presidents Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama.

Pete: I think it's important for history. I think it's important to have these moments behind the scenes, where you get a real good sense of not only what he was like as a president, but what he was like as a human being.

Narrator: Pete was behind the camera for iconic Obama-era moments like this and this.

Pete: The photographs can show emotion and context and mood in a way that words can't. The still image is something that is just seared in your brain.

Narrator: After documenting the lives of two sitting presidents, Pete Souza knows better than most what it takes to be a White House photographer.

Pete: I started out working for newspapers in Kansas and Chicago. In 1983, the White House photo editor at the time reached out to me about a position at the White House. So that's what led to the job at the Reagan White House.

Narrator: After photographing the Reagan administration, Pete worked for National Geographic and as the national photographer for the Chicago Tribune. In 2004, when Barack Obama was elected senator of Illinois, Pete took an assignment to follow and photograph the up-and-coming senator.

Pete: That led to some, you know, real good access with Sen. Obama. I ended up going to five different countries with him. So I got to know him pretty well professionally. And so when he was elected to the presidency, he asked me to become his chief photographer. I don't think my political views play into it at all. I mean, look, I worked for a Republican and Democrat. This job is about documenting the presidency for history. All this other stuff just doesn't really matter.

Narrator: Pete photographed Reagan and Obama during all eight years of both administrations.

Pete: Well, I think that was the most difficult part of the job for me. It was just, it was physically and mentally exhausting, to essentially put your personal life on hold for eight years.

Narrator: Just as he did with Reagan, Pete often followed Obama seven days a week.

Pete: Well, I mean, I was with him, like, every day.

Narrator: It was because Pete didn't leave Obama's side that he was able to capture this historic moment.

Pete: This is during the bin Laden raid. They're monitoring it as it happens. So we were all jammed into this room for 40 minutes. You've got the most powerful people of the executive branch, and they're essentially helpless. And I think you can feel the tension in that room just by looking at their faces. As the meeting's breaking up at night, they know they have bin Laden, and it was just, like, such a subtle reaction to a momentous event in many ways. I don't know that I knew how widely circulated this photograph would become, but I certainly knew this would be a historic day. I think without the trust, you can't get the access. It's as simple as that. I think he did trust me. I think the people around him trusted me. And I think if not for that, there's no way I would have had the access to some of the things that I did.

Narrator: Pete's intimate access allowed him to capture some of the most poignant moments of the administration.

Pete: The most difficult times to photograph him were when he was consoling families that had been affected by some tragedy. And oftentimes the emotions were so raw.

Narrator: Pete says neither he nor the president ever got used to facing such tragedies.

Pete: When I would get to the photographs from Newtown, I would break down, 'cause it's still emotional thinking about that day and thinking about the circumstances of that day.

Narrator: But not all the moments he captured were tough ones.

Pete: I think the picture resonates for a couple reasons. One, you got, you know, a 5- or 6-year-old African American kid touching the head of the president of the United States that looks like him. But at the same time, I think it tells you something about Barack Obama, that at the behest of this young kid, you'd go ahead and bend over and let the kid touch your head like that. I don't think that would happen today. You know, one thing that I don't know that the photographs showed necessarily was his sense of humor and his competitiveness. Although I think I actually do a pretty good job in showing those.

Narrator: Here's a photo where Pete did catch his competitive spirit.

Pete: Reggie Love, who was 20 years younger than him, was four inches taller than him, captain of the Duke University basketball team. And here's Barack Obama, who didn't even start for his high-school basketball team. When they finished the game, President Obama starts walking towards me, sweat's dripping down his face, and he just comes up to me. He goes, "Did you get that block?" [laughs] 'Cause he was so proud of the fact that he had blocked Reggie. You know, look, I'm not the best photographer in the world. I'll be the first to admit that. But I do think that I was the right photographer to be the chief photographer for Barack Obama. It's one of those jobs that it's not like you apply for the job. They come looking for you. It's a hard job to aspire to do. Just so much of it involves luck. I do tell photographers around the country, photograph your mayor, your governor, because you never know if they, maybe they'll end up becoming a national politician someday. 50, 100 years from now, people will be able to go through all of my photographs and get a real sense of what it was like to be in this moment. What he was like as a person, you know, as seen through my eyes and my photographs. And I think that's the most lasting impact.