A picture is worth a thousand words, and thousands of pictures make a compelling case for the continued importance of photojournalism in the age of video in The Way I See It.
Focused on former Official White House Photographer Pete Souza, director Dawn Porter’s (“John Lewis: Good Trouble“) documentary often intrigues and inspires, but it also feels scattered and calculated, especially as its released six weeks before the presidential election.
Although it frequently jumps around in time for no compelling reason, the film traces Souza’s career as a photojournalist-turned-political agitator, focusing on his two stints as an Official White House photographer, first in the 1980s during Ronald Reagan’s presidency and then as the chief chronicler of Barack Obama’s administration, when he had virtually unlimited access for eight years to the country’s first African American president.
In between, Souza worked for National Geographic and the Chicago Tribune. At the latter, he was assigned to follow then-freshman Sen. Obama’s first term in Congress, which led him to take his demanding dream job as the 44th president’s primary documenter. He became so adept at capturing compelling images of Obama that supersized versions were mounted in the White House staff offices and a new array of shots was posted monthly on Flickr.
Souza believes in the adage that “journalism is the first draft of history,” passionately describing the job of the Chief Official White House Photographer as “to make authentic photographs.” In both the Reagan and Obama administrations, he took a fly-on-the-wall, apolitical approach to the job. Although he disagreed with some of Reagan’s politics (citing specifically his slow response to the AIDS crisis and role in the Iran-Contra scandal), Souza came to the conclusion that he was a decent, compassionate man with a deep love for his wife and country.
“Reagan and Obama respected the dignity of the office,” Souza says, and it’s clear he’s a huge fan of the latter, fondly sharing lovely stories and speaking in glowing terms about Obama, who helped marry the photographer and his longtime girlfriend in the Rose Garden.
The Way I See It is at its most interesting when it gives the behind-the-scenes look at Souza’s work with Reagan and Obama, since it’s such a unique view presidency. One former Obama staffer relates that the photographer was so ubiquitous during the latter’s two terms that people knew when Souza entered the room that the president wouldn’t be too far behind.
After leaving the White House at the end of Obama’s second term, Souza looked forward to spending some quiet time after being on call literally every day for eight years. But he soon grew an audience on Instagram as a political agitator when he began answering President Trump’s vitriolic tweets with graceful selections from his vast library of Obama photographs.
He has released two photo books – Obama: An Intimate Portrait as well as a collection of his online output titled Shade: A Tale of Two Presidents – and much of Porter’s film follows Souza on his tours with the latter.
Featuring interviews with Souza’s family, former cohorts in both administrations and historians, the film, like its subject, argues fiercely that Trump lacks the character, empathy and leadership for the role of president, warning voters that the president is a real person and that choosing one as a means to the end results in Americans getting the kind of bad leaders they deserve.
Although the documentary gives a close-up view of Obama’s successes and Trump’s failures, The Way I See It lets its subject maintain a certain distance that lets the film slip out of focus.