Having authored the bestselling 2018 photo-book, Shade: A Tale of Two Presidents, which juxtaposes Donald Trump’s appalling tweets against Obama’s graceful photographs that Souza himself had captured, the photojournalist must have asked this question to himself countless times, starting all the way from Trump’s inauguration day in January 2017. Ironically, he didn’t know what “shade” meant then, when he decided to break a fourth-wall of sorts on his personal Instagram account (now with 2.3 million followers) and post an iconic image of the 44th President in the Oval Office, with a simple but telling caption regarding the chamber’s old, pre-Trump curtains: “I like these drapes better than the new ones, don’t you?” Souza’s intentions with his post were abundantly clear: to ridicule the gilded taste and bankrupt character of Obama’s successor. When a random commenter helpfully informed Souza that he was “dropping shade,” that’s when the photographer’s transformation from a voiceless, fly-on-the-wall documenter to an outspoken photo-activist started in earnest.
With escalating poignancy, Porter patiently unfolds both this fearless, later-life conversion in mission for Souza and his career in general, finding major inspiration in two of the artist’s bestsellers: Obama: An Intimate Portrait as well as Shade. Still, the filmmaker, who recently directed the civil rights documentary “John Lewis: Good Trouble,” goes further back in time and dedicates a slice of her film to Souza’s years with Republican President Ronald Reagan. While this segment ultimately makes for a smaller portion of the narrative, it crystallizes both Souza’s apolitical beginnings in his field and what it was like to have a president whose humanity one could see and feel even behind his disagreeable, sometimes harmful policies. “Ultimately, I thought he was a decent man,” Souza says about Reagan, while noting his major failings as president, such as his lackluster response to the AIDS crisis and role in the Iran-Contra affair. And he comes at us with concrete evidence to back his claim up. Photograph after photograph, at times paired with amiable behind-the-scenes footage, we see Reagan’s dedication to his wife Nancy, especially during her major health crisis.
Still, it’s the photographer’s relationship with Obama that lends “The Way I See It” its heart and soul. A tidy and entertaining encapsulation of their eight eventful years together, the film follows Souza around as he participates in talks and seminars tied to his promotion for Shade, embellishing these first-person anecdotes with talking-heads of historians and members of Souza’s family alike. At the center of it all is a priceless collection of pictures—of the president, his family and various high-ranking members of the Executive branch—Souza had immortalized while staying true to his creative instincts. Like Lyndon B. Johnson’s photographer Yoichi Okamoto whom Souza idolizes, he craved authenticity, chased truthful mood, emotion and context, aimed his lens at fleeting moments big and small, ultimately yearning for lasting images that would preserve history in some sense. “It is like sipping from a fire hose that never shuts off,” Souza says, giving his best shot to describing the experience of constantly having to keep one finger on the shutter release, and the other, on a Blackberry.