For eight years, Pete Souza’s title was chief official white house photographer for the Obama administration. Today, he’s known as the “King of Instagram Shade,” and the documentary “The Way I See It” proves that he’s earned his title.
“The Way I See It,” directed by Dawn Porter and released Sept. 18, is an in-depth look at both Souza’s extensive photography career and the ever-changing relationship between the press and U.S. presidents. More specifically, it highlights the stark contrasts between America’s two most recent presidents — and, at its heart, it’s a call to action for voters.
At first, the documentary frames Souza as a silent bystander: He’s simply the man behind the camera, someone who must remain nonpartisan. But, as viewers soon find out, after leaving the White House and witnessing the beginnings of Donald Trump’s presidency, Souza turned to social media to finally voice his political opinions. By responding to Trump’s tweets with snarkily-captioned Instagram photos of former President Barack Obama, Souza eventually gained over two million Instagram followers and authored his photo book titled “Shade: A Tale of Two Presidents.”
“I, in some ways, have ruined any chance that I have of being a working photojournalist again,” Souza admits in the film. “To me, that’s a small price to pay for doing what I think is the right thing.”
Referring to himself “as a historian with a camera,” Souza’s authenticity carries the film. His exceptional dedication to his craft as a photojournalist makes him an ideal commentator: Not only does he have years of personal stories from being behind the scenes at the White House, but he also has years of photographs to help piece together a compelling, visual story.
Despite the photograph-heavy visuals, the documentary never feels like a two-dimensional slideshow: It’s a captivating photo album brought to life, enhanced by the narration of the very person who knows the story behind every image. Amid myriad interviews and videos, the documentary thankfully never loses sight of Souza’s brilliant photography, which is rightfully central to the film.
With such stellar photography, however, it’s ironic how unfocused the movie can be at times. Despite it roughly following a chronological sequence, the film is disjointed at points and half-heartedly attempts to bridge gaps, using clips of Souza speaking at public events to return focus to the narrator. Dedicating more than half of its 102-minute runtime to a history of the Obama administration, the documentary also loses some of its momentum when it shifts from Souza’s past to that of the Obamas.
Nevertheless, the documentary ultimately succeeds by capturing pure moments of intimacy and authenticity. It relies heavily on pathos, filling screentime with anecdotes of laughter and tears uplifted by Souza’s striking photographs. Depicting everything from Ronald Reagan visiting his wife recovering at the hospital to Obama visiting families affected by the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, Souza’s nostalgic images humanize presidents in illuminating ways.
At its close, the film’s focus returns to Souza’s newfound political voice. The documentary effectively reminds viewers of the significant role of the free press by displaying the influence of Souza’s photojournalism. Very aware of the power his images hold, Souza uses his poignant photographs to — as he fittingly puts it — “throw shade” not-so-subtly at the current resident of the White House.
Drawing vivid contrasts between the Trump and Obama administrations with captioned photographs, Souza urges people to reevaluate their values: His images show not two presidents, but two different Americas. While “The Way I See It” is laced with Souza’s refreshing, snarky humor, there’s also an underlying, almost foreboding, sense of urgency.
“The Way I See It” is a wide window into the White House, successfully captivating an audience by bringing life to Souza’s still photographs. Told by a mvan used to being behind the scenes, the documentary sheds light on the importance not only of freedom of press in America, but also of compassion in the White House. And considering its release just two months before the upcoming election, it’s more than a timely historical reflection.