For years, Pete Souza, the former chief official White House photographer of President Barack Obama, stayed behind the camera. But in The Way I See It, a new documentary from filmmaker Dawn Porter, the lens is trained squarely on him. The film, in select theaters on Sept. 18 and premiering on MSNBC on Oct. 16, focuses on his work during the Obama administration as well as the years he spent photographing President Ronald Reagan. “What I was trying to do was look for these authentic moments,” Souza tells TIME about his tenure in both administrations. “The fleeting moments that not only reflect what’s happening in front of you, but that reveal what the president is like as a human being.”
In recent years, Souza has become more outspoken, particularly about his own feelings on President Trump, on his Instagram account, where he has more than 2 million followers. There, he shares photographs from his time in the White House, many of which are accompanied by snarky captions that compare the current president to the previous one. The popularity of his account led to the 2018 publication of his most recent book Shade: A Tale of Two Presidents. He goes even further in The Way I See It, revealing more of his personal life onscreen. “This puts me in a more public footing, which is a little uncomfortable for me,” Souza tells TIME. “But at the same time, I couldn’t not agree to do this film. I feel so strongly about the institution of the presidency and how it’s being ripped to shreds by this guy.”
Souza hopes that viewers of the film can draw connections between both Reagan and Obama through their appearance in photographs. “Whether you agree with their politics or policies, they’re decent human beings and they’re empathetic,” Souza says. “They know the presidency is about us and not about them.” Throughout the documentary, he discusses what it was like to have such unfettered access to Barack Obama and how he was able to showcase the former president’s humanity through pictures. In seeing authentic moments of a person exercising their capacity for empathy, we can understand what type of leader they are, Souza says.
Given the time he spent in the Obama White House, Souza also had a high level of access to the current Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, when he served as Vice President alongside Obama. TIME asked Souza to choose photographs he took of Biden during that time to discuss what he thinks voters can glean about Biden as a leader, and what a Biden presidency might look like.
Reaching out across the aisle
“This is Biden talking to a Republican senator. One of the things about Joe Biden is that he knows all these legislators and has really good working relationships with most of them,” Souza says about this photograph of Biden in the Cabinet Room. Because of these prior relationships, Biden was often tasked with meeting senators from the opposite party to discuss legislation like the Affordable Care Act, Souza recalls. “I think this picture shows that he’s able to try to work across the aisle.”
Disagreeing when the situation demands it
This photograph was taken after a Situation Room meeting on Libya in 2011. “I like this picture because Biden’s the last one to leave the room. Thus, he gets to have the final word with the President,” Souza says. The interaction demonstrates to Souza that Biden wasn’t afraid to argue if he disagreed with Obama’s point of view. “Biden was always willing to stand up and say what he thought was the right thing to do.”
Seeking out the opinions of a diverse staff
“To me, this illustrated that he listened to staff,” Souza says of this photograph, which he took through the window, of Biden sitting with then-Homeland Security and Counterterrorism Advisor Lisa Monaco. Though Monaco worked for Obama and not Biden, Souza believes this snapshot shows that he valued her opinion and was indicative of how he sought out other points of view. “Also to him, the gender of the staff, of the person, doesn’t matter,” Souza adds. “I think that in a Biden administration you’ll see a lot of women and people of color.”
After the Pulse night club mass shooting in Florida, both Obama and Biden met with the families of victims in Orlando. This particular moment was unusual for Souza because he didn’t cover Biden’s solo events—David Lienemann, who was on Souza’s staff, would do so—so it’s one of the few images he has taken of Biden consoling families. “This is what we’re talking about when want somebody who’s compassionate,” Souza says. “Someone who will console families after a tragedy.” Biden has suffered several personal tragedies, including the deaths of his first wife Neilia and their daughter Naomi in 1972, as well as the death of his son Beau in 2015.
Bringing a sense of humor to a serious job
“I can’t remember who said something funny, if it was President Obama or if it was Biden,” Souza says about this image from a campaign event in New Hampshire. It was rare for the pair to do these types of events together, Souza recalls, but this time Biden was going to introduce Obama. He chose the photograph because it captures their relationship as friends. While reflecting on the moment, Souza adds that Biden “just has a good sense of humor.”
Animated with passion and intensity
Like the first photograph Souza chose, this one was taken after a meeting Obama and Biden had with a group of senators. Souza explains that he couldn’t decide between the two and ultimately decided to include both because they show two different aspects of the now-candidate. This one, he says, shows how animated Biden could get. “His level of intensity could ratchet up in some of these meetings with congressmen and senators,” Souza says.
As November’s presidential election draws closer, Souza says it’s important for voters to look for photographs of both candidates interacting with other people. And more than that, to ask questions about these leaders. “Is this person competent?” he asks. “Do I trust this person to do the right thing?”
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