Though he’s currently locked down in Madison, Wisconsin, former official White House photographer Pete Souza used to have a travel life few can imagine. He accompanied President Ronald Reagan and President Barack Obama throughout their terms, from the mundane moments around the West Wing to boarding Air Force One for appointments overseas—and what he has to say about those flying experiences might surprise you.
A new documentary, The Way I See It, follows his career and some of his most memorable moments with Obama. In anticipation of the film, which is in theaters now and debuting on MSNBC on October 9, Souza chatted with Condé Nast Traveler about presidential planes, the U.S.’s most underrated destinations, and the best spots he saw with the 44th president.
The trip he wants to take once it’s safe:
I want to see my mom. She just turned 94, and I haven’t seen her for about six or eight months, and she’s in Massachusetts, so that’ll be the first trip that I make.
How he packs his equipment for trips:
My packing is very chaotic. It’s very last minute. What I try to do on a work trip, if it involves photographing, is I have a little carry-on bag that I’m able to pack all my cameras in. It’s small enough that I can put it in the overhead bin. One of the things I try to do is check in as early as I can, so that I’m one of the first groups to board the plane; sometimes I pay extra for that because I don’t want to check that bag.
The struggles of getting camera equipment through security:
Back in the day of film, it was much more difficult. [Now,] I’d say a third of the time, TSA will flag my bag and go through my camera stuff, but I try to separate out all the batteries and things like that. So usually, it’s not much of a problem.
How he spends his plane time:
One thing that I always try to bring is noise-cancelling headphones, and sometimes I’m listening to music or a podcast—I listen to a lot of photography podcasts. Sometimes I’ll read instead, or I’ll be looking at photos on my laptop. Occasionally I watch a film, but that’s only usually on a cross-country trip or a foreign trip.
A surprising aspect of flying on Air Force One with President Obama:
For the first six years there was no Wi-Fi. That was incredible to me.
And the in-flight dining on Air Force One:
The food was surprisingly good, except that dessert came with every meal. I finally had to tell the flight attendant, “Don’t ever put dessert on my tray again, because if it’s on my tray I’m going to eat it.” And so, I usually sat in a conference room with a few other people, and everybody would get their lunch tray and all have dessert. I wouldn’t have dessert. Every once in a while I’d see [a] dessert and I’d look at the flight attendant, and he’d know exactly. He’d go, “Okay I’ll get you one.” It was really good!
The best places he’s ever been, for work or personal travel:
One and the same—it’s just going to Hawaii. I love Hawaii. We went there every year because that’s where [the Obamas] would spend Christmas. For me, it was always the new places that I liked best. So, the first time I went to the Pyramids [was] with him; I went to Petra, Jordan, with him; I went to Stonehenge with him. Like when I went to the Great Wall with him, it wasn’t that big of a deal to me because I had been there in 1984 with President Reagan.