By Erin Roberts
Assistant Professor of Visual Communication Pete Souza has been named the Obama administration's official White House photographer.
Souza, who accepted the offer Sunday from incoming White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs, believes the relationship he's had with President-elect Barack Obama for the past three years gave him the edge for the job.
"I had developed a good working relationship with the president-elect back in January 2005, and I think the transition team felt that I would be a good fit for this job," said Souza, who also was on the White House photography staff for President Ronald Reagan. "I'm excited to go back as the chief photographer, which I wasn't before. I feel I have a good grasp of what it takes to visually document the president for history's sake."
Tommy Vietor, a transition team spokesman, believes Souza is the best photographer for the job not only because of his relationship with the president-elect, but for his "extraordinary" talent.
"Obviously, Pete's resume and work speak for itself," Vietor said. "He is an incredible photographer and an even nicer guy -- the ideal candidate for this job."
Souza, who joined the faculty of Ohio University's internationally recognized School of Visual Communication in fall 2007, will take an extended leave of absence from the classroom but does plan to return.
"This is an opportunity that I couldn't turn down," he said. "It's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, but I plan to return to teaching someday."
Souza began covering Obama, then the junior U.S. senator from Illinois, in 2005 while working for the Chicago Tribune. He accompanied Obama on trips to seven countries, including Kenya, where Obama's late father was born. His photographs of Obama have won multiple awards in the Pictures of the Year International contest and from the National Press Photographers Association, and are featured in the Life magazine book "American Journey of Barack Obama." Most recently, his photos were published in his hardcover book "The Rise of Barack Obama," which made The New York Times Best Sellers list.
Souza's main goal in his new role is "to visually document the president and his life in the White House."
"My discussions with the transition team were mostly about making sure the function of the White House photography office would be to visually document the presidency for the sake of history," Souza said. "That was important to me and to them."
While School of Visual Communication Director Terry Eiler will miss Souza's presence at Ohio University, he is happy for his colleague and fully supports his decision.
"The opportunity to record history live is an opportunity that no one could resist," Eiler said. "Recording the first years of this transition is just an awesome opportunity and one that Pete deserves.
"We have had the privilege of working with someone who is comfortable in the classroom, has produced one of the most exciting books on Obama and has done this while at Ohio University." He added. "We have hopes that loaning him back to Washington, D.C., will further benefit our students once he returns."
Eiler said Souza's appointment as the chief White House photographer points to the high caliber of his faculty as "working professionals with academic credentials."
"We have a community of working professionals with an extraordinary history who bring that experience to the classroom," he said, noting that VisCom faculty have Pulitzer Prizes and assignments with National Geographic, the St. Petersburg Times, the Associated Press and more to their credit. "It's such an incredible privilege to come to work with these people every day. The professional discussion is unbelievable."
Souza was still in Athens this morning, but plans to head to Washington today or Tuesday. He had a full teaching schedule for winter quarter, which begins today. Other VisCom faculty members will cover his classes until more permanent arrangements are made, Eiler said.
Souza's first task as the chief White House photographer is to hire a team of photographers. Vietor and the rest of the transition team have the utmost confidence in Souza's ability to choose a qualified team.
"He's one of the best in the business and was one of the first people to be asked into meetings that were private to be a fly on the wall," Vietor said. "He's someone we trust absolutely, and he is remarkably talented. We're lucky to have him."
Souza also has worked as a freelance photographer for National Geographic and Life magazines. For a full biography and samples of his work, visit Souza's Web site at www.petesouza.com.
Updated Jan. 6, 2009, to incorporate a refreshed video clip featuring Souza.