By Christen A. Johnson
Amanda Lucidon moved in faith. After taking a buyout from her California newspaper job, in 2008 the photojournalist relocated to the nation’s capital, a place she believed would offer “unlimited possibilities.”
Lucidon excelled as a freelancer in the competitive D.C. market, earning awards that brought her to the same spaces as influential people in the industry. That’s how she met Pete Souza, the former chief official White House photographer.
She remembers leaving an unmemorable impression in the exchange with Souza, so when he called two years later to ask if she wanted to apply for a job, she thought he had the wrong number. Turns out, she just happened to be right about the possibilities.
Lucidon accepted, which made her the only female photographer during Barack Obama’s second term as president. Her new book, which she calls her “visual diary,” debuts a collection of Michelle Obama portraits, and reflects on the many ways the former first lady affected Lucidon’s life.
The conversation has been edited for space and clarity.
What did you learn from watching Mrs Obama through your lens?
That life’s challenges are actually our strengths — they teach us resilience. She shared that with students across the country, and it deeply resonates with me. I learned to be fearless and willing to try new things. We often don’t try because we’re afraid to fail, but you don’t know you can succeed unless you try. That was my approach with this book. It was a little scary, but I tried it and it’s been amazing.
How did you feel having this position?
It felt surreal. Being able to walk up to the White House, a living, breathing museum, every day for four years always felt amazing to me. Witnessing history, flying on Air Force One, travelling to the most amazing places in the world and meeting such inspiring people was remarkable. Growing up I saw places like the Great Wall of China in books but never thought I’d go, let alone with Mrs Obama. I never stopped being thankful for this special position. I felt like, “Wow, what did I do to deserve to be here?”
What did it mean to be a part of history in terms of documenting the first African-American first lady?
I’ve always been passionate about stories on civil rights and discrimination issues. When Pete asked me if I was interested in applying, I thought, “Absolutely, this is an amazing opportunity,” but I was also thinking, “I’m not a political photographer.” But I was able to connect the dots. Photographing the Obamas made complete sense to me and was totally consistent with my prior work and what I’m passionate about. It was my responsibility to photograph the presidency for history, and I took the role very seriously. It was a new level of recognising the importance of the photos you were making.
Describe a typical day.
We had a schedule and knew the events we needed to arrive for, but days could change and things could pop up. We covered all of the events that happened in the White House, official events that were open to the press and events that weren’t. We also covered domestic and international travel. For big events like state arrivals, we were all there. We’d have someone in the back, and on the sides. We worked together as a team to make sure we preserved and documented history.
What was Mrs Obama like?
I got to be in this small bubble and see that she is all the things everyone hoped: compassionate, thoughtful, kind, nurturing and funny. She loved to have fun, too. I always admired that about her. She had such a serious role but liked to laugh and share light moments with her staff. She’d tell short jokes about me. I’m 5-foot-4-inches, so when I was directing a group photo, she’d be like “Look for Amanda, she’s the little one!” or, “She’s small but she’s mighty!” I’d have to tell her where to stand, too, and it took courage to tell her what to do. At events, she’d always take time to meet people, give a hug, take a selfie, say something encouraging. Seeing her prioritise people was incredible.
In the book, you talk about how it’s easy to make Mrs Obama the centre of every picture, but the real magic happens around the edges. Why do you think people have such big reactions to her?
It’s her presence, authenticity, humility and how grounded she is that really puts people at ease, yet moves them at the same time. There’s a photo where she’s surprising Turnaround Arts students who were waiting in a room after their White House performance. Mrs Obama was walking down the hall and says, “Those kids were amazing, I want to say hi. Let’s surprise them!” I slipped in before to get the reaction. She opened the door and said, “Hey everybody, how you doing?” They erupted with joy; it was such raw emotion. If you were just focusing on Mrs Obama’s face, you would miss those moments. I like looking at how people react to the layers of her.
What’s your favourite photo you took of her?
I really like the one with Mrs Obama and Mrs Akie Abe, wife of the prime minister of Japan, sitting on the floor petting Bo and Sunny. Mrs Obama learned that Mrs Abe loved dogs, so she had them come down and meet Mrs Abe. They just sat on the floor in their formal attire and (petted) the dogs. It was one of those moments that was so candid it surprised me.
I love the one where she’s in the middle with her back turned, and all you see are the faces and reactions of the girls.
I love that one, too! We met those girls when we went to Liberia and Morocco as a part of the Let Girls Learn initiative. They were a part of a CNN documentary about global girls education, and once the documentary was created, Mrs Obama wanted to screen it at the White House. We invited those girls to come from Liberia, some had never been out of their town. They were shrieking with joy as they walked through the doors of the White House. All the photos have a story like this.
You dedicated the book to your mother and daughter. How did Mrs Obama influence those relationships?
Being a mother is another extraordinary experience where I’m learning everyday, and appreciating my mother even more because of it. I hung up the picture of Mrs Obama and her daughters at the Great Wall of China when I was making the book because, at that point, my daughter was only 4 months old. I wanted to be reminded that even though I was working so hard, my daughter was No. 1. Mrs Obama showed me that despite her important roles as first lady and a professional woman, being a mother was always her first priority. I admire those values. I’m glad I got to learn so much from her. — Chicago Tribune/TNS
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