As White House photographer under President Obama, Pete Souza carefully avoided discussion of politics or the idea his photos conveyed any particular agenda. In his new life, Souza’s Instagram feed has become quite political. He’s served as a virtual photo deejay—mixing images from Obama’s tenure based on the news cycle. Those photos repurpose history as a visual counterpoint and non-verbal critique of the Trump administration’s actions and miscues.
This commentary has not gone unnoticed. The Washington Post, CNN, The Guardian, and New York magazine have done stories on it. CNN’s headline describes Souza as “throwing shade” at Trump. The Washington Post piece asks whether Souza is “trolling” The Donald.
Some of Souza’s images, including those journalists have called out to date, aren’t subtle about critiquing Trump. Others convey a deeper feeling of something lost—a low-drama White House, one with a sense of humor, one that put value on diplomacy and nuance. Souza seems to be saying that the human touch is gone. Let’s begin with a few photos that are most explicit in their criticism, then dig more deeply into a few that are somewhat ambiguous.
Without actually showing you what Trump replaced them with, the photo of Obama’s crimson drapes and Souza’s comment (“I like these drapes better than the new ones. Don’t you think?) uses color as a put-down. Once you know the status-obsessed billionaire went with gold, it says everything about Trump’s wealth-flaunting, gaudy taste and the difference in character between back-to-back presidents.
Here is another post where Souza is playing with what we do and don’t know. In this case, some real digging is required to understand the poke in this photo of a White House meeting and his accompanying quip about “Those damn lights.” But a New York Times article describes how Trump staff members, still getting familiar with their new digs, were having the worst kind of trouble locating the White House light switches.
Here we see Obama socializing with the Mexican president free of demands, ultimatums, or the buzz kill of “bad hombres.” Souza posted the image a few days after Trump blundered through a call with the Mexican president and demanded the country pay for his infamous border “wall.” Nieto responded to the squabble by canceling an in-person meeting at the White House with the important ally.
Souza is making a point about Team Trump’s xenophobia and the Muslim ban. This was posted three days after Trump issued his executive order barring refugees from seven countries from entering the United States. Highlighting immigration as a core value, Souza counters with a White House scene of American soldiers becoming naturalized citizens.
You could not find a better contrast to Trump’s hostile encounter with the Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, who is known for his geniality.
President Obama is the focal point of action here, and seems to be dictating terms to Russian President Vladimir Putin. That provides an interesting contrast to the image of Trump as patronizing Putin. Souza doesn’t mention it in his caption, but Obama was wary about Putin and made it a priority to set strong boundaries. Souza posted this five days after the inauguration, at a time headlines were consumed by Russia’s alleged involvement in swaying the election.
When and how did Souza’s critique get started? We can’t say for sure, but the possible genesis can be found on January 19 on Souza’s Twitter account, the day before Trump’s inauguration. That day, he retweeted a juxtaposition of Trump and Obama posted by the account, @SheTweetsTruth. The tweet compared photos of Obama and Trump and how each interacted with “Little Miss Flint.”
— SheTweetsTruth (@MsElectLadyKim) January 19, 2017
In the past couple weeks, Souza has stepped up the visual commentary.
Souza did four Super Bowl posts on February 5, Super Bowl Sunday, including two of Obama at the White House either looking to throw, or running with a football. It’s well known that Souza and Obama are big sports fans. Most notable, however, is the photo taken during the 2012 NATO summit in Chicago, the first ever held in America outside Washington, DC. You’ll notice the organization’s logo stenciled on the gridiron. Mindful of Trump’s hostility toward NATO, Souza’s caption actually states how ironic the reference is now.
This photo, which shows Obama in a pre-K class at a public school in Baltimore, appears to call out Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’s bias in favor of private and charter schools. This photo was posted February 7, the morning the senate confirmed (thanks to a tie-breaking vote by Vice President Pence) the controversial nominee.
Of all Souza’s Instagram retorts, this may be the most important and informative. It’s a response to the Trump team’s unprofessional and potentially compromising handling of a potential crisis with North Korea February 12 at the Mar-a-Lago resort. In a picture, it’s a primer on how the White House should properly (that means privately and securely) respond to a national security situation while on the road.
Souza’s commentary is an example of photography rising to new heights as an editorial form. The photos above are designed to draw blood without uttering a word. As visual “one-liners,” we instantly know what they mean. In many of his other Instagram posts, I sense Souza aims to illuminate a deeper shift in attitude or mood between Obama’s leadership and what is taking shaping up under Trump. Many of these images put a larger frame around what has been lost.
The first bit of brilliance in this photo posted on February 2 is the setting. It was taken at the White House, I believe, but the location reads: Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. What we have is a thoroughly deadpan Bill Murray (if you read the caption) posing as his character from Groundhog Day. What the photo celebrates is a White House with a healthy sense of humor. In this earlier post for CJR (see the transition photo of the Trump-Obama White House meeting by Stephen Crowley), I called out Trump’s humorlessness, and how the healthy balance of seriousness and fun inside the Obama White House was surely going to die. Souza’s photo punctuates the point.
This photo of Obama and George Bush Sr., posted on February 8, was also inspired by the Super Bowl. Souza says so in the caption. The ailing former president performed the opening coin toss. At the same time, the photo has a deeper resonance. With Trump, the political neophyte, already flailing, Obama did his best to offer his counsel. In depicting Obama’s ability to solicit guidance and tap the experience of his predecessors, the photo also infers how much more intact Obama’s ego is compared with Trump’s. The photo also prompts us to visualize Trump and Obama in a similar meeting. It’s hard to imagine the incurious and attention-challenged Trump showing this much deference to anyone.
What a perfect rejoinder to Trump’s disproportionately male and testosterone-charged team of advisers. Souza contrasts that with a creatively framed image of Obama’s mostly female group of top advisors. Stylish as it is with the focus on footwear, what was really in fashion in the Obama White House was equality.
This photo was posted on February 3. It features a blonde, attention-grabbing man-child. Stepping into Souza’s editorial mindset, I have to admit that when I read the “Nice suit!” caption (and drew a bead on those tiny hands and that credenza full of magazines), what flashed through my mind was “Baby Donald.”