Throwing 'shade' at Trump: Former White House photographer Pete Souza says president doesn't have an 'ounce of empathy or compassion'

Elisabetta Bianchini

In advance of the U.S. presidential election in November, a new film The Way I See It spotlights former White House chief photographer Pete Souza as he reflects on both the Barack Obama and Ronald Reagan presidencies, and how they differ from Donald Trump.

At the core of the film directed by Dawn Porter, which was part of the 2020 Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), is how respect for the office of the president and empathy for the people of America is critically important for anyone in that role. The message comes across by looking back at some of the most impactful and interesting photographs taken throughout Souza’s career at the White House.

“I want people to think about what kind of person, what kind of human being do we want in the office of the presidency,” Souza told Yahoo Canada. “Do we want somebody who’s confident, respectful, dignified, ethical, moral or do we want somebody who’s a liar, who bullies people, who thinks the presidency is about him.”

“Those are the two choices between the current president and Joe Biden, because Joe Biden has those same leadership qualities and human qualities as Barack Obama, and Donald Trump has none of them.”

Throwing ‘shade’ at Trump

Souza, who has photographed arguably the most notable Democratic and Republican presidents in U.S. history (although he had significantly more access to Obama), never sought out being featured in a documentary. He got the attention of Laura Dern and her production company’s team, who ended up attending one of Souza’s book talks and eventually convincing him to participate.

The legendary photographer mostly kept his political opinions to himself but when Trump became U.S. president, he had to speak up and call out the behaviour and rhetoric he disagreed with. Souza started getting attention on social media when he began using his images of Obama to compare the two presidents on Instagram, eventually collecting them into a book called “Shade: A Tale of Two Presidents.”

While the “shade” is addressed throughout the film, it also shows that stark contrast between the photographs taken of Trump versus Obama. Authentic, emotional and humanizing moments that were able to be captured by Souza seemingly do not exist of President Trump.

“I don’t know that they exist,” Souza said. “The one time we saw him supposedly consoling families was after those two mass shootings in Ohio and Texas, and they virtually showed all the video footage behind the scenes, that was all about him wanting to be treated like a rock star, he didn’t really console anybody.”

“He just doesn’t have an ounce of empathy or compassion inside of him, that’s not who he is, everything’s about himself, it’s not about other people. I don’t know that those images exist because that’s not the kind of human being he is.”

The importance of the still image for history

If anyone was at all doubting the power of a still image, The Way I See It showcases the undeniable way Souza’s images, of both joyous and upsetting moments, can instantly impact your emotions.

Some of the many notable images of Obama include the former U.S. president and officials in the situation room during the Bin Laden raid, five-year-old Jacob Philadelphia touching Obama’s hair in the Oval Office, and several touching images of Obama with his daughters and wife, Michelle. Souza released another book titled “Obama: An Intimate Portrait,” a visual biography of the Obama presidency.

“[The still image] can evoke emotion in a more visceral way than video,” Souza explains “Everybody brings their own background and prejudices when looking at a still image, but at the same time it is a universal language and I think people can relate to an image and know that it's authentic, as soon as they see it.”

Not only are these images beautiful but they also shape history, capturing moments in time for future generations to see, be informed and learn from.

Moving forward, if Biden becomes the next U.S. president after the November election, Souza does plan to call Biden and “remind him that the job of the official White House photographer is to document the presidency for history.”

“In order to do that, he needs to give his photographer the kind of access that I had with President Obama,” Souza said. “The Biden administration can make a determination on whether those images are made public or not, but for history, he's got to make sure that his photographer has access, and I have no doubt that Biden will understand that.”