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For the past eight years, Pete Souza has visually chronicled the Obama era. He was in the situation room when U.S. special forces killed Osama Bin Laden in 2011 and at the prayer service for victims of the Newtown, Connecticut, school shooting. John Yang sits down with Souza to discuss the “little unexpected gems” that became iconic moments and the constant character of the president he saw.
Finally tonight: As former President Obama now embarks on life after the White House, flying to California for vacation, few people had as intimate a view of him as the man tasked with taking his picture.
John Yang is back with that story.
For the past eight years, Pete Souza has watched history through the viewfinder of his camera.
PETE SOUZA, Former Chief Official White House Photographer:
To walk into the Oval Office every day, to walk along the Colonnade to photograph this man every day has just been a unique experience.
He was behind the scenes for world-changing events, like the May afternoon in 2011 when U.S. special forces killed Osama bin Laden.
This was in the Situation Room. You can see in the faces how tense this was to watch.
The interesting thing to me is, you can see the brigadier general that is sitting in what would be considered the president's chair. And he stood up to give the president his chair. And the president's like, "No, no, no, you stay where you're at, because you're in control here. And I will just pull up a chair."
There were days of sadness, like preparing for the 2012 prayer service for the young victims of the Newtown, Connecticut, school shooting. It meant President Obama would miss his own daughter's dance recital. Instead, he went to her dress rehearsal.
Sasha's participation was, I think, in three of the 16 performances. So, when she was dancing, he was totally focused on watching her. And then, when she left the stage and other people were dancing, he was editing his speech.
And you can see just the — that little subtle look on his face. He's still very emotional.
Emotions that would touch Souza as well.
Newtown was the one time where I had tears. It was very difficult to watch him greet these families.
Just imagine all of them meeting the president for the first time in the worst of circumstances. And I would say that was the one time where, emotionally, I couldn't hide how I was feeling.
And you're not just capturing the moments of history, the big moments of the presidency. You're capturing the small, human moments as well.
And, to me, those are my — probably my favorite moments is little unexpected gems, as I call them, that happen on occasion.
Like this otherwise routine Oval Office meeting with a departing staff member and his family.
The man's son Jacob asked the president if he could feel his head, because his friends had told him that he had the exact same haircut as the president.
So, President Obama just kind of leaned down, and Jacob feels his head, and click.
Over the years, this had kind of taken on somewhat of an iconic status, just because it showed the kind of person he is, meaning President Obama.
Did you have any sense that it would because so iconic, so symbolic?
Even after we posted it on WhiteHouse.gov, I just didn't realize how significant it would become.
It's one of many images Souza has captured of Mr. Obama with children.
I feel the joy and the disbelief that the president of the United States is lying on the rug of the Oval Office, hoisting up a little girl in her elephant costume.
There's that picture of him flexing muscles with Superman, or getting zapped by Spider-Man.
Were you surprised when he sort of flies back when Spider-Man slings the web?
Sure. I mean, it's, like, completely unexpected.
And I always tell people that the only pressure of my job is to make sure I'm ready for those moments, and try not to mess them up.
After two terms, the president jokes about his graying hair, but Souza says the man he sees through his camera lens has been constant.
You know, I have got to say that the core character of this man has not changed one iota. I mean, I think he's still the same person he was that I met in January of 2005, when he was first elected to the Senate.
Has he gotten older? Well, sure, but this is what happens, not just to a president. But, in terms of, like, his character, I honestly don't think he has changed at all.
For the PBS NewsHour, I'm John Yang at the White House.
Whatever your political views, you have to admire those photos.
And you can watch our entire series The Obama Years, in which we spoke to many leaders in the outgoing administration. That's on our Web site, PBS.org/NewsHour.
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