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A lens inside the West Wing: Souza to talk shop in Traverse City

Lawrence Jackson
President Barack Obama walks along the West Colonnade of the White House with Chief White House Photographer Pete Souza Feb. 18, 2016. (Official White House Photo by Lawrence Jackson)

The President of the United States is, arguably, one of the most photographed people in the world.

But there are fewer images of the presidency — the people, processes, and places that make America’s executive branch function smoothly. Pete Souza’s new book aims to change that.

“The West Wing and Beyond: What I Saw Inside the Presidency” is the latest collection of images from Souza, chief official White House photographer from 2009 to 2017.

He visits Traverse City as part of the National Writers Series this week, appearing Thursday at Traverse City West Senior High School.

Chief White House photographer Pete Souza, and the Obama family dog, Bo, sit just outside the Oval Office.

The Obama administration was not Souza’s first time inside the White House. He was an official photographer during the Reagan years as well.

But that administration was a little more formal, and the focus of his lens was mostly on the president himself.

“Well, part of it was that my access was not quite as good during the Reagan administration,” Souza told IPR News. “Whereas with the Obama administration I had virtually unfettered access. And it just opened up a whole new world — the time and the ability to look for these pictures away from the main player, if you will.”

In one image, for example, an interpreter from the Republic of Korea catches a short nap on the sidelines of a state dinner, curled up under a blanket in an orange arm chair in the White House Green Room, an ornate marble fireplace to her right, and a vase of fresh flowers to her right.

Souza said he’s experienced foreign trips with the White House before where you’re many time zones away from home, working long days, and “perpetually exhausted.”

“This was just the opposite — the other delegation being in Washington, probably experiencing those same things,” Souza said. “I identified with that woman in that moment, that she was probably so exhausted and here was a chance while they were eating dinner just to sneak a quick nap in. I thought it was funny, amusing, but at the same time I could identify with her in that moment.”

Souza’s favorite section of the book is called “Inside the Spare.” A presidential motorcade will usually have two limousines. One carries the president and the other, “the spare,” often carries other staff. Including Souza, riding just ahead of the president’s car.

“I was able to show people what I saw just sitting in that vehicle,” Souza said. “You’d get to see all the people lined up along the motorcade route. … The faces looking into my car, thinking they’re going to see the president because it’s the same kind of vehicle — you get this sort of anticipation, and almost disappointment.”

Souza says he hopes the book gives people a look they wouldn’t otherwise get inside the American presidency, and that the pictures he’s made will give future generations a real understanding of what the Obama years were like.