Obama Photographer Shares Candid Photos of the Former First Family at Work & at Home in the White House
Lawrence Jackson is not the first Obama White House photographer to publish his photos, and he was originally hesitant to embark on the project because Pete Souza, President Barack Obama‘s Chief White House photographer, had already published one of his own.
But Jackson’s wife, Alicia, helped talk him into it.
“‘You have your own experience, and you’re an African-American covering the first African-American president,’ ” he recalls her saying. “‘So you have a unique voice that you should tell and show the world.’ ”
For Yes We Did, the book Jackson ultimately wrote, published on Tuesday, he delved into his trove of candid photographs from the Obama administration.
The result is an intimate look at President Obama’s two terms, what it felt like to be a black man photographing the first black president of the United States and the ways, Jackson says, that the former president and first lady maintained their authenticity both on and off camera.
Jackson was following along for much of the Obamas’ journey.
“There were times, like when [President Obama] gave the remark on Trayvon Martin or he talked about the South Carolina church shooting, whenever he talked about race relations, like his 50th anniversary speech in Selma, those moments were always personal to me,” Jackson tells PEOPLE. “It’s not like I took pictures any differently. But they had more resonance for me personally because, being African American, I’m a part of that.”
“In the book I talk about how there were moments where my thoughts were kind of jumbled in my head,” Jackson says. “Then he would give a speech and it would be what I was thinking. I’ve always appreciated him for that.”
Subtitled “Photos and Behind-the-Scenes Stories Celebrating Our First African American President,” Yes We Did includes insider photographs and backstories as well as first-person recollections from senior administration staffers such as Valerie Jarrett and celebrities including Bono and Stephen Curry.
“It kind of falls in line with the title, Yes We Did,” Jackson explains of what he hopes readers will learn. “I think if people can remember the Obama administration as a collaborative effort or movement led by them, then I think that’s a very good lasting memory.”
“[The Obamas] have always kind of talked about the next generation being leaders,” he continues. “In all of their programs, it’s always about kids, about eating right, eating healthy, about developing young men, people of color, for the world.”
In the book’s foreword, President Obama explains that he connected with Jackson over their similar backgrounds.
“Lawrence has a talent for capturing the big scene, the iconic images that will help explain our times for future generations,” the president writes. “But he also has a unique gift for capturing those quieter moments—the margins of a big event, the pauses in a busy day, some stolen times with Michelle and our girls.”
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“Lawrence brought something else to his work, too.” Obama continues. “He and I had similar upbringings as black men in America, each of us raised by an extraordinary single mom, both of us knowing what it’s like, at times, to feel as if we might not belong. Many of his photos are informed by that sensibility, an added awareness of the meaning that certain moments may hold for those who were so long dispossessed.”
Jackson wants his photographs to encourage people, especially young black boys.
“I hope they get the sense that anything’s possible, that the world is theirs just as much as anybody else’s,” he says. “I hope they see a man who tried to make things better and who continues trying to make things better for people. You really could not find a better example of how to be a human, a man, a person.”
While Jackson captured historical events, he also photographed the Obama family in those in-between moments.
“That’s when they would show their affection for each other,” Jackson says. “Like between takes in a photo line, between greeting people, the way they’ll talk to each other like a married couple — they laugh, they joke, they make fun of themselves, they make fun of each other.”
The photographer felt privileged to witness those special moments, but he says the Obamas were “authentic” no matter the circumstances.
“They came from modest means, so there’s no air of pretension about them,” Jackson says. “And so when they talk to regular people, it’s because they themselves were regular people.”
But one of Jackson’s favorite images is when this “regular” man recognized that he’d done something extraordinary.
“[The president] has just given his second and last inauguration address and he’s going back up into the tunnel of the Capitol, but he decides to stop and turn around and look at the crowd one more time,” Jackson says. “I think he’s appreciating the size of the crowd, the moment. It’s a really sweet moment.
“Every time I look at that picture, it’s like he’s almost like a little kid saying, ‘Look, they really came. This really happened.’ ”
Yes We Did: Photos and Behind-the-Scenes Stories Celebrating Our First African American President is on sale now.