Culture

She’s not a politician or a strategist, but for Dawn Porter, this election year has been an especially busy one. In July, the filmmaker released her prescient documentary, John Lewis: Good Trouble, about congressman and civil rights icon John Lewis, who passed away that same month.

Porter is also the director behind the new September documentary The Way I See It, a look into two American presidencies, Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama’s, from the point of view of official White House photographer Pete Souza.

If you don’t recognize Souza’s name, you’ll most definitely recognize his photos. (Remember this one of the Obamas from behind-the-scenes of the Inaugural Ball? Or this one of Jacob Philadelphia touching Obama’s hair?) The film also follows Souza beyond the White House, as he began trolling the current president on Instagram by posting photos of Obama correlated to recent news about Trump. His intentions, to show the stark differences between the men, are pretty much spelled out in the title of his latest book, Shade: A Tale of Two Presidents.

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“Sometimes we all have questions about, ‘Does the presidency really affect me? How does the presidency affect my life?'” Porter tells ELLE.com. “I think Pete’s photos show us, and also frankly the situation we’re living in show us, how important it is to have the right person in the job.”

From her quarantine spot in Martha’s Vineyard, Porter spoke to ELLE.com about seeing the Obama administration through Souza’s eyes, releasing a documentary during a pandemic, and her upcoming project with Oprah and Prince Harry.

How did you come to work on this project? Were you aware of the Instagram account beforehand?

I actually wasn’t. I’m not a big Instagram person. The producers came to me. They were pretty obsessed with Pete’s photos and thinking through a possible film. Once I saw what he was doing, it just felt so smart and fresh. It felt like he was giving voice to so many things that I thought. We would always say, “Pete has the receipts.” [Making this documentary] was like exhaling: watching those photos, thinking about what they meant, and what the past administration was. I was in the mood for having fun, and this was kind of fun.

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What were the logistics of working on this and also on the John Lewis documentary?

This one, once I saw it, I was like, we have to get this out before the election. Pete really wanted it out before the election. The same fantastic woman who edited the John Lewis movie was going to edit this movie. We already had such a smooth working relationship. We just left one project and went to the next. I really see them as complementary movies: John Lewis’s life was about getting people to speak up, and that’s what Pete was doing in his 60s. I just love the connection between those two things. [The films] speak to each other.

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How that did affect your process, having November looming in the distance?

Here, particularly for Pete’s film, I was very much thinking like a person who’s evaluating, who’s deciding what qualities they want for a president. I was thinking about that all the time and thinking about what Pete’s photos added to that information. I think what’s so clear is whether you are a Democrat or Republican isn’t actually the most important thing. It’s whether you are a person of character and integrity and whether you have a strong work ethic. That’s what we need to be focused on. I think that’s why it’s important that Pete was a photographer for Reagan. He actually wasn’t as partisan as most people might imagine. I think what he’s currently doing is more particularly targeted at the current president.

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Pete said he hopes the film is a reminder of “how the power of the still image in behind-the-scenes moments can reveal the true character of the person holding that office.” I think that prompts the question, why don’t we see more of President Trump, especially when he’s historically self-obsessed?

Yeah. The Trump administration has taken, as with so many other things, a different approach to the images that they release. They are very staged, very posed. They are all the same. The current president does not have a photographer with him all the time. Wouldn’t we love to see what the room looked like when he was making calls that are in dispute or talking with Putin? I mean, there wasn’t even a translator in the room, let alone a photographer. It makes you wonder what you are not seeing.

Was there anything really important you still needed to shoot after you had to pivot filming due to the pandemic?

Oh yeah. We had to shoot Pete’s main interview. We had to shoot Samantha Power. We had to do the full music score. We were partially done editing, but we weren’t close to finished, really. We sent Pete a camera, and our director of photography set it all up. Part of this world is rolling with the punches and being resilient, so that’s what we tried to do. No choice, no problem.

2019 ida documentary awards

Dawn Porter at the 2019 IDA Documentary Awards in Los Angeles, California.

Jesse GrantGetty Images

Are you able to tell me anything about the mental health series that you’re working on with Oprah and Prince Harry?

It’s six hours; that’s the other thing I’ve been working on. We are still filming. We definitely were interrupted, but we shifted from production and filming to doing work in the edit room, to gathering characters, so we were plenty busy during the complete shutdown. Now we’re back out filming, and it feels really good. They are both very involved in the series. We have regular conversations, and it’s been really cool. They are good friends, and they really complement each other, their curiosity, their compassion. I’ve had the pleasure of, in my research, going back and being reminded of the power of The Oprah Winfrey Show, and learning a lot from it, to tell you the truth. It’s been pretty incredible to be able to work with her and get to know her a little bit. She is an incredibly intelligent, hardworking, empathetic person. Like, she actually could be president.

And it was your first time working with Prince Harry, right?

Oh, yeah. Going to meet the prince was fun. He’s tall. I didn’t realize how tall he was.

The Way I See It is in select theaters on September 18.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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