“I look at myself as a historian with a camera,” proclaims photographer Pete Souza early in Focus Features’ documentary “The Way I See It,” directed by Dawn Porter (“John Lewis: Good Trouble”). As the official photographer during the presidential administrations of Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama, Souza made it a mission to document the smallest exchanges and moments alongside the most significant ones to paint a picture of what both presidents were like behind closed doors. The film not only serves as a documentation of Souza’s work as a presidential photographer but draws a stark contrast with the current occupant of the White House.
While “The Way I See It” devotes a solid amount of time to Souza’s work with Reagan, the bulk of the documentary is about his years working for Obama, following him from his first year as a senator in 2005 to the last days of his presidency in January 2017. As Chief Photographer during Obama’s eight-year term, Souza borrows the analogy, “Imagine trying to take a sip of water from a fire hose that never shuts off.”
The photographer was on call 24/7 taking pictures every step of the way, even battling through pneumonia one time while reporting for work. Some of his more notable photographs include the famous “Situation Room,” where Obama, Hillary Clinton and other officials reacted to the raid on Osama bin Laden and “Hair Like Mine,” where a five-year-old child named Jacob touched the president’s head. Throughout the film, we see through Souza’s photos and his own commentary how Obama showed great empathy toward the American people.
On the flip side, “The Way I See It” Souza features critiquing the stagy photography of Donald Trump‘s presidency, saying at one point, “We need to have real moments of real history, not posed moments of history.” Following his years as Obama’s photographer, Souza has taken to Instagram to demonstrate the differences between Obama and his successor. Posting shady captions targeted at Trump alongside photos of Obama, Souza has accrued 2.5 million Instagram followers and released a book called “Shade: A Tale of Two Presidents.” Despite his success, his outspoken views on Trump have caused the photographer to receive hate mail and death threats. But for Souza, it is all about showing the public the stark contrast between the two administrations. “I’m trying to make an argument that this is not who we are, that this president really doesn’t speak for us as Americans, what it means to be an American.”
Heading into the Oscar race for Best Documentary Feature, “The Way I See It” has a few elements that could give it a boost, starting with its relevance in an election year. Regardless of how the presidential election turns out, Academy Awards members will be more predisposed to take interest in political documentaries, especially one focused so centrally on Obama. The film has an accessible style that will make it easier to watch than some of the more hard-hitting docs that typically contend in this category. “The Way I See It” also comes from Focus Features, a studio that knows how to conduct a proper Oscar campaign.
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