The former White House photographer on Barack Obama, presidential plates and high-class cuisine on Air Force One.
“As of November 2016 I had flown 1.45 million miles, done 1,280 flights and spent 122 days in the air. It was the equivalent of circling the earth 58 times – and I got zero frequent-flyer miles.
But I’ll tell you about the best gift I ever got. When they serve a meal on Air Force One your plate comes on a tray; one day when they came to clear it they just took the plate. They had made a special tray with the presidential seal on it that read “Congratulations on your 1,000th flight on Air Force One.” I have it at home.
The job was all-consuming while I was there. It wasn’t 24/7 but it was maybe 15/7. Especially the first two years, when President Obama was dealing with the economic crisis. I was there every Saturday and Sunday because they had meetings with the economics team. It takes its toll.
There are some days where not a lot happens visually – it’s the same people in the same seats. But with a subject such as President Obama, every once in a while something really unusual happens – at which point you have to be ready for it.
When I first worked as the White House photographer it was under Reagan. It was all new and I was very young, maybe even a little intimidated. In the time between working for Reagan and Obama I had another life: I covered the Kosovo crisis; I went to Afghanistan right after September 11. In Afghanistan the food situation was limited; I lost 18lbs [8kg] in seven weeks. For the first few weeks we survived on little more than bread and potatoes. It certainly wasn’t the best diet; food was just so hard to come by.
I covered all kinds of stories during this period, which meant that I had a different perspective by the time I went back to the White House. I was older and felt that I had lived a life that was fruitful and gave me more confidence; it made me sure that I was documenting Obama’s presidency for history. I was also more confident going into meetings about Afghanistan in the Situation Room because I know the territory, the terrain and what the people of Afghanistan are like thanks to my experiences there.
I don’t miss going to the White House every day but I do miss the people there: not just President Obama but also his personal aides, the pastry chef, the butlers and the secret service. You take things like that for granted and then suddenly, poof, they’re gone. But even if the election had gone a different way and I was asked to stay on for a few more months, I would have said no. The job wears you out and, besides, I had my end date. I was in Washington recently and walked by the White House – I found it disconcerting. This is a strange time we’re living in now.
I chose Busboys and Poets for my ‘last meal’ because my wife and I had our wedding reception here. That was in 2013 but we have actually been together for 20 years. President Obama was the one pushing me to formalise it. He helped me pick out the engagement ring and then we got married in the Rose Garden at the White House. But I’d much rather go to a place like this than have a five-course meal. This is definitely my kind of place.”
Photojournalist Pete Souza served as chief official White House photographer and the director of the White House photo office under former US president Barack Obama. A native of South Dartmouth, Massachusetts, Souza also spent more than five years photographing Ronald Reagan’s presidency and was among the first photojournalists on the ground in Afghanistan following September 11. His work has been published in National Geographic, Life, Fortune and Newsweek among others. He has also published several books, including The Rise of Barack Obama, which chronicles the years Souza spent watching the young senator’s ascent to power.
Named after US poet Langston Hughes, who worked as a busboy at Washington’s Wardman Park Hotel in the 1920s, Busboys and Poets was founded by Anas Shallal, an Iraqi-American artist, in 2005. Today Shallal has six locations in the Washington Metropolitan area. His restaurants are part bookshop and part art gallery, and many of his customers are artists, activists and writers.
Fried chicken over wild rice and collard greens; flourless chocolate cake.