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Focused: President Barack Obama chats with chief White House photographer Pete Souza.
Focused: President Barack Obama chats with chief White House photographer Pete Souza.

“I look at myself as a historian with a camera.” That’s Pete Souza, who held the post of chief official White House photographer for the eight years of the Obama administration. And as the fifth youngest president, the first one born in the 1960s and the first Black man in the job, Barack Obama was certainly a historical precedent.

Dawn Porter’s new documentary The Way I See It chronicles the chronicler. We get a look at Souza’s time as a staff photographer under president Ronald Reagan, whose background as an actor meant he was just as likely to direct a photo shoot as pose for one. The photographer clearly made an impression; years later, Nancy Reagan contacted him and asked him to cover the president’s funeral.

But the majority of the film follows Souza as he follows Obama, first as a newspaper photojournalist covering the Illinois Senator, and then in an official White House capacity.

I look at myself as a historian with a camera

His stories are hilarious, like the time Obama was playing one-on-one with his personal aide (and former college basketball star) Reggie Love. When the president blocked a shot, he immediately hurried over to Souza to see if he’d caught it. The photo was subsequently blown up and, at the commander-in-chief’s request, signed by his aide: “Mr. President. Nice Block!”

The timing of The Way I See It is clearly driven by the U.S. electoral cycle. More than one interview subject draws unflattering comparisons between Obama and the current president, and none more than Souza himself, who has made himself the new president’s chief photographic critic, taking to social media with images that contrast the two men’s leadership styles. They’ve since been collected in the book Shade: A Tale of Two Presidents .

This may rankle some viewers, as will the director’s bias. For instance, she neglects to mention that while Souza had unfettered access to Obama, the rest of the Washington photojournalistic press corps was often shut out, leaving the official photographer – on the government payroll, remember – as the sole source of images.

But as a look back at a less frenzied time in American politics – no allegations of sexual assault, porn-star payoffs, anti-science rants, excessive golfing, racism or impeachment – The Way I See It is a fun historical time capsule. And the images are beautiful.

The Way I See It opens Sept. 18 in Toronto, and Oct. 9 on MSNBC.

4 stars out of 5

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