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Photographer’s access to Obama stirs tensions with press corps

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WASHINGTON >> Few ceremonies at the White House over the last five years have eluded the lens of Pete Souza, President Barack Obama’s chief photographer and almost constant companion. One that did was Souza’s wedding, which was held last month in the Rose Garden with the president among 35 friends and family members on hand.

Permitting a private citizen to use the Rose Garden for a personal event is extraordinarily unusual, and it attests to the deep ties the president and his photographer have forged, as Souza has shadowed Obama on virtually every day of his presidency.

Now, though, Souza’s privileged access – combined with the rise of services like Facebook, Flickr and Instagram, which has allowed the White House to distribute his official photos rapidly to the news media – is generating tension between him and the news photographers who are assigned to the White House.

In a letter two weeks ago to the press secretary, Jay Carney, the White House Correspondents’ Association and other news organizations, including The New York Times, protested that the White House routinely excluded news photographers from sessions with the president and then released photographs of the events, usually taken by Souza.

"You are, in effect, replacing independent journalism with visual press releases," said the letter, which criticized the White House’s policy as "an arbitrary restraint and unwarranted interference in legitimate news-gathering activities."

At the best of times, the relationship between outside photographers and the White House’s in-house one is fraught: They jostle for the same image of the president, but the official photographer is invariably three steps ahead of them when the president works a rope line or is in the Oval Office for his meeting while they wait outside.

Souza, a plain-spoken 58-year-old who was a news photographer for The Chicago Tribune before moving to the White House, said he believed that photographers had better access to Obama than they did to President Ronald Reagan, whom he documented in an earlier stint as a White House photographer.

Still, he said he understood the frustration of the news photographers and has advocated more access for them – to a point.

"It’s legitimate for them to push for more access, and in some cases I think their arguments are valid, and in some instances I think their arguments aren’t valid," Souza said last week in an interview in his cubbyhole office in the West Wing.

This traditional tug of war has been exacerbated by digital technology, which the White House has exploited to distribute his pictures, often soon after he takes them. That puts Souza in de facto competition with other photographers since, owing to his access, his photos are sometimes more newsworthy than theirs.

"The core issue is the White House uses his images and disseminates them to the public, and they become the only historical document of events," said J. David Ake, the assistant bureau chief for photos at The Associated Press.

Doug Mills, a longtime White House photographer for The Times, added: "It’s not about Pete. It’s that we see Pete’s pictures of things that we’re not getting access to, and that’s incredibly frustrating for all the photographers who cover the White House."

David Hume Kennerly, the official photographer for President Gerald R. Ford, said: "Everybody is trying to come to terms with the impact of social media. I don’t know what the right balance is, but I understand his position in terms of the historical record."

Indeed, Souza’s principal job is to document the presidency, and all of his photographs, published and unpublished, are filed in the National Archives.

White House officials say Souza is being turned into a scapegoat for a press corps frustrated by how technology is upending its business. (The Times, they note, charges clients a service fee for reprinting Souza’s pictures and sends him royalty checks, which he does not cash.) They also say the public benefits from behind-the-scenes images, like Souza’s dramatic shot of Obama and aides watching the raid on Osama bin Laden in 2011.

"When there are decisions to release photos, those are made by the press office," said the deputy press secretary, Josh Earnest. "We’ve always acknowledged there is a difference between what Pete does and what independent photographers do."

That difference was evident in the case of the bin Laden photo, which the White House digitally altered to blur out a classified document on a table in front of Hillary Rodman Clinton, then the secretary of state. Souza said he had tried to get the document declassified to show it in the image, and when his request was rejected, he opted to airbrush it because otherwise the White House would not have released it.

Souza bridles at the suggestion that the White House has doctored other images. "I would never allow any of my pictures, or pictures which are taken by the photographers who work for me, to be airbrushed," he said.

For both sides, the tension has turned personal. Hours after the letter was delivered, the White House hastily gathered photographers to record Obama signing bills in the Oval Office. In what the photographers saw as an aggressive gesture, Souza snapped them as they pointed their lenses and then posted the picture on Twitter.

Critics raised questions about Souza’s use of his role when he split off from Obama’s trip to Boston last month to take in a World Series game between the Boston Red Sox and the St. Louis Cardinals. He wound up taking pictures behind the Red Sox on-deck circle. A friend of Souza’s said he had gotten a standing-room ticket from a photographer he knew, who had then invited him into the press box when another photographer did not show.

On Thursday, Souza, who is an avid user of social media, posted a picture of a trussed turkey on his Facebook page, with a message wishing his friends a happy Thanksgiving – "yes, even those who have been dumping on me and what I do."

The dispute has left some White House photographers feeling torn, because most have worked with Souza and welcomed him, as a member of their sometimes gruff fraternity, when he started the job. "We were happy to see Pete get the job," said Khue Bui, who has shot photos at the White House for The Washington Post, Newsweek and The Associated Press. "I’ve always liked a lot of his work."

A native of Massachusetts and a graduate of Boston University, Souza came up on newspapers in the Midwest before landing his first gig in the White House. He stayed in Washington, working for The Tribune, which assigned him and a political reporter, Jeff Zeleny, to a project documenting the new senator from Illinois, Barack Obama.

With fly-on-the-wall access and a photographer’s ability to disappear into the background, Souza hit it off with Obama and his key aide, Robert Gibbs. He is one of a group who plays spades with the president on Air Force One, and of the 315 trips Obama has made – by the count of the CBS News veteran Mark Knoller – he has traveled on all but two.

"He trusts me," Souza said. "I’m there when everything is happening, and I think for history’s sake, that’s a good thing."

Nothing more confirmed Souza’s insider status than the Rose Garden nuptials. It was Obama’s idea, officials said, and the president even helped him pick out an engagement ring. But it also gave someone else a chance to record a bit of White House history: Chuck Kennedy, one of Souza’s deputies, shot the ceremony.


Mark Landler, New York Times


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