Former White House photographer Pete Souza has broken down how he came to take one of the most iconic images of Barack Obama’s presidency.
Souza explained the backstory to his picture that’s now known as “The Situation Room Photograph” — showing Obama, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and others watching the 2011 raid that killed al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden ― in a 21-minute video that he shared on Instagram on Friday, the ninth anniversary of the mission.
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Nine years ago tomorrow, I made this picture during the bin Laden raid. As promised, I will be posting an IGTV video here on Instagram tomorrow with my perspective on the photo and that day. For reference purposes, here is the original caption we posted to accompany the photograph when we posted it the following day along with eight other photographs from the day on the White House Flickr Photostream: President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden, along with members of the national security team, receive an update on the mission against Osama bin Laden in the Situation Room of the White House, May 1, 2011. Seated, from left, are: Brigadier General Marshall B. “Brad” Webb, Assistant Commanding General, Joint Special Operations Command; Deputy National Security Advisor Denis McDonough; Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton; and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. Standing, from left, are: Admiral Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; National Security Advisor Tom Donilon; Chief of Staff Bill Daley; Tony Blinken, National Security Advisor to the Vice President; Audrey Tomason, Director for Counterterrorism; John Brennan, Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism; and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper. Please note: a classified document seen in this photograph has been obscured. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
Souza, who in recent years has used his public profile to mock and call out President Donald Trump and his administration, recalled being told in late April 2011 that “something was brewing” and that he should be ready to work that weekend.
But he didn’t know exactly what was happening, nor when.
“Holy shit, we’re going after Bin Laden,” he said he thought to himself after finally finding out about the special ops mission while photographing a meeting between Obama and his national security team on the day of the raid.
Souza remembered not being nervous but “definitely on doubly high alert, knowing that on this day of all days I was the visual recorder of history.”
He recalled choosing his vantage point as Obama, Clinton and others piled into the room as the mission was underway. Unable to really move around and pushed against a printer, he used his two cameras selectively to not disturb proceedings.
“The mood was tense,” he noted.
Souza hinted at what was happening at the precise moment he took the picture, one of 1,003 he took that day and which had to be partially blurred in order to hide a classified document that was in front of Clinton:
All I can tell you is this. From a public timeline we know that the raid began at around 3:30 p.m. East Coast Time and that the raid lasted a little over 40 minutes. This picture is time-stamped on my camera at 4:05 Eastern Time. So, really, until a minute-by-minute timeline of the mission is declassified, that’s all I can say.
“I’m convinced that I chose the best one, that this is the best picture from the room,” Souza concluded.
Check out the video here:
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This is my remembrance of the days leading up to the bin Laden raid, the day of the raid centered on the iconic Situation Room photograph, and the day after. Note that the most important people from this day are not pictured at all. Our country owes a debt of gratitude to Admiral Bill McRaven, the former Commander of Special Operations, and the members of SEAL Team Six that planned for and executed the mission. They are the real heroes of this day. It was a real honor to be at Fort Campbell a few days later when they presented President Obama with the American flag that flew aboard the helicopter. If you have more questions, please leave them in the comments section. I will try to answer the ones that I can. I will not be able to respond to questions about what was on the screen during the raid or what I might have overheard. Please stay safe, practice social distancing, and wear a mask when you’re out and about!