Interviews

A Former White House Photographer on Photographing Michelle Obama

Mrs. Obama harvests kale with students in the White House Kitchen Garden, June 6, 2016. (Official White House Photo by Amanda Lucidon)

Amanda Lucidon served as a White House photographer from 2013 to 2017, during the final term of the Obama administration. She was one of the White House photographers assigned to former First Lady Michelle Obama. Lucidon was the only woman photographer at the White House at the time, and is one of only a few of female White House photographers in history.

Her photographs of Michelle Obama are luminous—they demonstrate a keen attention to detail, and a knack for capturing moments that others may have overlooked. She has compiled 150 of them in Chasing Light, a book that chronicles Michelle Obama’s tenure as First Lady with warmth, nostalgia, and joy. In Chasing Light, Lucidon also tells much of her own story—how surprised she was to get the call from then Chief White House photographer Pete Souza inviting her to apply for the position; her awe upon meeting Michelle Obama for the first time; and how moved she was to see her name printed on a card welcoming her aboard Air Force One.

We got the chance to speak with Amanda Lucidon over the phone and hear more about her photography prior to the White House, the greatest lesson she learned from Michelle Obama while there, and what her plans are post-White House. Read on.

SIGNATURE: How did you get your start as a professional photographer?

AMANDA LUCIDON: After college I did a few internships at newspapers across the country, and that was before I landed my first job as staff photographer for The Press-Enterprise which is a newspaper in Riverside, California. During my time there I covered sports, spot news, features, and worked on my own photo stories. All of that was great training for my skills as a photographer.

SIG: Did that naturally lead into your job as a White House photographer? You talk about it a bit in the book, but could you tell us how you ended up there?

AL: Sure, yeah. I left the newspaper and I started my own business, and I was working on my own personal projects for about five years before I got the call one day. I picked up the phone and it was Pete Souza on the other line, and I was pretty sure he had the wrong Amanda, because I had only met him once before. He asked me if I wanted to apply for the position at the White House, and I said, of course! It was definitely unexpected, but I was glad that I had all of those years of training and shooting daily at the newspapers, to be able to help me build my skillset and also know how to troubleshoot when I have problems. When I went to the White House I felt like I was really prepared for that job.

SIG: That must have been such a terrifying but incredible phone call to get!

AL: Well I just felt like I was being pranked, actually. But yeah, it was pretty amazing. I had to pinch myself.

SIG: In the book, you also said, you know, you were so in awe of Michelle Obama, and of course you were assigned to her specifically. Did you eventually get more comfortable being around her?

AL: Well, I actually had a great balance of covering both the President and the First Lady, Lucidonio I spent most of my time with the First Lady but I also traveled around with the President, which was really awesome. The President Obama and Mrs. Obama are extraordinary people. They’re also very kind, and grounded, and thoughtful. As a photographer I was seeing scenes happen on the other side of my camera, and I watched how they made everyone feel comfortable and welcome. Seeing that all the time made me more comfortable too, and allowed me to see them as the people that they are.

on-the-South-Lawn-with-POTUS

President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama walk from Marine One on the White House South Lawn, September 29, 2015. (Official White House Photo by Amanda Lucidon)

SIG: You also wrote that there was really no such thing as a “typical day” for you while at the White House. So instead of asking you “what was a regular day like,” can you talk a bit about what one of your more exciting days was like at the White House?

AL: A really exciting day for me was boarding Air Force One for the first time. I mean you hear about Air Force One, and you’ve seen it in the movies, but actually to step foot inside Air Force One was really awesome. I was even more amazed when I saw my name card that said “Welcome to Air Force One, Ms. Lucidon.” That was definitely a really cool experience. Every time I stepped foot on it afterwards, I always appreciated how special it was.

SIG: To get your own name card on Air Force One welcoming you; I got goosebumps hearing that!

AL: Yeah, and I mean you think about your name; it’s also your family’s name. It’s the people that came before you; your grandparents, your great-grandparents. So it’s like, every Lucidon, or Lucidonio, which was my original last name, was stepping foot on Air Force One with me. I was really proud to see my name, our family’s name.

SIG: Right, it’s like you kind of brought them all with you in spirit.

AL: Absolutely.

Boarding-Bright-Star

The First Lady boards Bright Star at Orlando International Airport, July 1, 2014. (Official White House Photo by Amanda Lucidon)

SIG: So you wrote a bit about your photography prior to the White House as well; in terms of style, and focus, how was your White House photography similar to or different from the photography you produced before working at the White House?

AL: I’d say my style as a documentary photographer remained the same. I always loved capturing candid moments, but being in the White House, you’re in a lot of intimate spaces. I think what changed for me was being more decisive, so not taking as many pictures as I did as a newspaper photographer, and just being really focused on the scene, seeing what happens, and waiting for that moment. And when that moment happens, being ready. That was probably the biggest difference.

SIG: That’s making me think of that one photo that I guess you didn’t get to really compose properly, but it was one of your most famous ones — that really candid shot of Michelle Obama and the President together.

AL: Yeah, that’s a picture where I was glad to have an editor looking through my take because for me, I usually like to frame and compose the shot so it’s a clean background, and then just wait for a nice moment to happen in that space. But this was something where I just kind of picked up my camera as quickly as I could, and it was like one or two frames, and then the moment was over.  I guess it goes back to being ready for anything to happen, and then having good editors to say, “Hey! This is a great moment!”

SIG: Yeah, don’t throw it away!

AL: That’s important that you brought that up — we never threw anything away — all of our pictures ended up in the archive, and that’s probably how there were four million photos of the Obama administration. I think over two million were taken by Pete [Souza]. He was working every day to make great images. All of those images ended up in the archive.

SIG: Do First Ladies traditionally have White House photographers assigned to them? Did you learn from any that came before you?

AL: Well, Official White House photographers cover the President and the First Lady, but the assignments can change from administration to administration. I was fortunate to have two close friends who worked as White House photographers before me. Susan Biddle and Shealah Craighead. Susan worked for Reagan and [George H.W.] Bush, and Shealah worked as Mrs. Bush’s photographer, and is working for the current administration. They both gave me great tips about working for the White House, and I could always call them at any time I needed advice. I also studied the photos in the Obama archives from the female photographers that came before me — Samantha Appleton and Sonya Hebert. One of my favorite pictures is Samantha’s image of Mrs. Obama meeting Nelson Mandela in his home in South Africa. I love that image. It’s candid intimate moments like that that are my favorite ones to make, so I’ve drawn on the experience of all the amazing women that have come before me in this role.

SIG: That’s great, that you had [Susan and Shealah] to talk to, and help you out when you needed it.

AL: Yeah, not a lot of people have been in this role, so to be able to actually talk to them and navigate some of the things like, “how do you know which car you’re supposed to get into in the motorcade?”

SIG: It’s funny how it’s the little things like that that somehow end up being the most difficult.

AL: Right. That was my biggest fear: Either missing a motorcade, or worse, missing the plane. So that’s why I was always extremely punctual.

SIG: Right, in the book you talk about showing up pretty early to the White House for work.

AL: Yeah, definitely. And then always leaving extra time for, if there was, you know, an accident on the road, or something unpredictable. So I always left myself like three times the amount of time I needed to get to a place. But it’s good, because I never missed the plane or the motorcade!

SIG: Speaking of traveling, you wrote that you traveled to twenty countries during your time at the White House. Did you have a favorite place that you got to go to?

AL: Yeah, I love to travel. I don’t think I ever imagined that I would get to see so much of the world. Each place we went to, I was truly grateful for, including a lot of the great American cities that I’d never seen before. So I’d like to pick, but I think I’m just going to say I loved them all, if that’s okay.

Girls-from-Liberia-and-Morocco

Mrs. Obama welcomes girls from Morocco and Liberia in the State Dining Room before a screening of We Will Rise: Michelle Obama’s Mission to Educate Girls Around the World, October 11, 2016. (Official White House Photo by Amanda Lucidon)

SIG: That’s allowed. So, what have you been working on since completing your time at the White House?

AL: Well, creating this book was a great time to reflect on my time at the White House. We had experienced so much so quickly, and it was nice to have the time to go back through the images and also think about all the lessons that I learned. So now I have the opportunity to share these lessons with others, and I was also recently named a Turnaround Artist with the Kennedy Center, so I’ll be meeting with students across the country and sharing my passion and excitement for the arts.

SIG: Congratulations! That’s wonderful.

AL: Thank you! It’s really so great.

SIG: I loved how your book told so much of your story and your experience being at the White House, and all that you personally learned from Michelle Obama. It was so much more than a book of photos, which can already tell so much, but I loved how you added in your own narrative.

AL: Thank you, yeah — I mean that’s the thing, is I never imagined in my wildest dreams that I would be there, and I’m sure there are a lot of kids who come from similar circumstances as me that probably think the same thing, but it really, truly is possible. That’s what I wanted to share in this book.

SIG: Do you miss working at the White House?

AL: It’s an awesome place, filled with history, and amazing people. Like I said in the book, one of my favorite things to do was walk from the lower Cross Hall up the stairs and feel the indentations in the marble staircase, because if you think about all the people that walked on those steps before you, it’s just truly amazing. Not only that, but the people who care for the White House, like the Executive Resident staff, and the butlers, and the ushers, and the gardeners. They’re all really wonderful people and I loved being around them, and traveling with the staff, the West Wing and East Wing staff. You spend a lot of time with these people, and so they truly became a second family. It was definitely a unique experience, and a special time in my life. I’m just grateful for that time, and that the gates actually opened for me.

SIG: And you talk about your love for the staff in the book — it sounds like they had been at the White House for quite a while, right, and they had a lot of history to share.

AL: Definitely. Some of the butlers have been there — and even the gardeners; I did a multimedia piece on the National Parks gardeners that have been there—some of those guys have been there for thirty-five years. They have some really interesting stories.

SIG: Would you ever want to return to the White House to work?

AL: I feel like all the stars aligned for me to be a photographer at the Obama White House, so I’m not sure that special set of circumstances will ever occur again. If it did, I’d be open to it.

SIG: Right, it seems like it must have been such a special time working for that administration, at that time in particular.

AL: Definitely, definitely.

First Lady Michelle Obama participates in a discussion with President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Freida Pinto, and students at R. S. Caulfield Senior High School in Unification Town, Liberia, June 27, 2016. (Official White House Photo by Amanda Lucidon)

First Lady Michelle Obama participates in a discussion with President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Freida Pinto, and students at R. S. Caulfield Senior High School in Unification Town, Liberia, June 27, 2016. (Official White House Photo by Amanda Lucidon)

SIG: So like I was saying before, your admiration for Michelle Obama leaps off the page in every way. If there is one, what’s the greatest lesson you’ve learned from Mrs. Obama, that you’ve carried with you since leaving and that you’d like to share with others?

AL: I think the greatest lesson that I learned from her is to be fearless. Oftentimes we are afraid of failing, and that’s why we don’t try. What Mrs. Obama always said was it’s okay to try something and fail. That’s part of growing. But it’s not okay to stop trying. So taking this book for example, was it scary to make my first book? Definitely! But did I still do it anyway? Absolutely. So it’s definitely a lesson that I learned from her that I draw on every day.

SIG: It won’t happen at all if you don’t even try. Great advice from Michelle Obama.

AL: I think sometimes when you’re scared, it’s probably because something really cool is about to happen. You kind of have to just walk towards fear, and recognize that it’s there, and say, ‘okay, well, I would like to see what’s on the other side.’

Photographs courtesy of Amanda Lucidon from CHASING LIGHT: MICHELLE OBAMA THROUGH THE LENS OF A WHITE HOUSE PHOTOGRAPHER published by Ten Speed Press.