A number of fascinating and important documentaries were released in the months before the 2020 US presidential election. For example, Alex Gibney, Ophelia Harutyunyan and Suzanne Hillinger brought us Totally Under Control, a damning indictment of Donald Trump's response to Covid-19.
Meanwhile, in their film All In: The Fight For Democracy, Liz Garbus and Lisa Cortés follow the incredible and inspiring journey of Stacey Abrams, the former Minority Leader of the Georgia House of Representatives. The filmmakers warn us of the dangers of voter suppression and remind us of the power inherent in the right to vote.
In 2020, Dawn Porter released not just one but two documentaries exploring the value of democracy. In John Lewis: Good Trouble, the director chronicles the life and career of the late civil rights activist and Democratic Representative from Georgia. Lewis possessed a steadfast belief in the importance of democracy and he worked tirelessly to protect voting rights.
Porter’s second documentary, The Way I See It, explores the responsibility we all have when choosing who we want to represent our interests. The film examines how this choice often goes beyond politics and becomes a matter of a person's dignity, empathy and humanity.
The Way I See It takes us behind the scenes of two of the most iconic presidents in American History, Barack Obama and Ronald Reagan, as seen through the eyes of renowned photographer Pete Souza. As official White House photographer, Souza was an eyewitness to the challenges and responsibilities of being one of the most powerful people on Earth. In short, he knows what happens in the Oval Office.
Porter combines fascinating footage of Souza working for both President Regan and President Obama with Souza's own stunning images. His photographs are wonderfully authentic and deeply moving. (The Way I See It brought me to tears on several occasions.)
Meanwhile, Souza talks about his career in ‘to camera’ interviews and speeches given during his book tours. He has published several photography books - including 2017's Obama: An Intimate Portrait: The Historic Presidency in Photographs. Porter shows us many of the photographs that appear in this book. The more candid shots often hold the most power - iconic images that reveal the empathy and the dignity of the 44th president of the United States and the incredible access that Souza was given.
“Pete was with the president all the time,” says Ferial Govashiri, former personal aide to President Obama. The Way I See It reminds us that, in contrast, President Trump did not allow his staff photographer to capture candid photographs of life and work inside the White House.
Much is lost if such access is denied. More than all the words and all the news footage, Souza's images showed the world who Barack Obama was as a husband, as a father and as the president of America.
Back in 2020, Souza described Obama in three words: “leadership, character and empathy”. He then added, “don’t you wish we had that now?”
When Alice Gabriner, the White House’s former deputy director of photography, first met Souza, he was not overtly political. That all changed when Trump came to power. “He could no longer be this fly on the wall,” Gabriner says.
The Way I See It charts Souza’s transformation from respected photojournalist to searing commentator on the issues facing the US. “Pete felt the urgency to show what the office can be,” says Samatha Power, former US Ambassador to the UN. “This was a 911.”
Souza began to use his Instagram account as a way to speak out - replying to Trump’s tweets with images from President Obama’s time in office. “Regan and Obama respected the dignity of the office,” he explains in the film. “The presidency is a serious job and I was going to do everything I could to make sure that people didn’t forget that”.
On the day of the inauguration of Joe Biden, Souza posted an image of him laughing with the then vice president in 2012. “I admit that I teared up watching at home as Joe Biden took the oath of office,” he commented. Adam Schultz will now be the official White House photographer. It will be fascinating to see what images he takes and intriguing to follow what’s next for Pete Souza.