Between 2009 and 2017, official White House photographers accumulated an archive of nearly 4 million photos of the Obama administration. On average, that’s a little less than a photo a minute.
One can imagine what surprising gems are hidden in such a crush of images. And for Amanda Lucidon, her new book Chasing Light: Michelle Obama Through the Lens of a White House Photographer is a chance to share some of those previously unpublished photos.
Lucidon took a break from her book tour to speak with National Geographic about her time in the White House—and how it started with a surprise call from White House photographer Pete Souza.
That must have been a wild moment.
I was pretty sure [Souza] had the wrong number. I was freelancing, and I’d met him at National Geographic’s photo seminar a few years before. I thought I made a pretty unremarkable impression, so I was really surprised when he called me two years later and asked me to apply for the job. I thought he had the wrong Amanda for sure.
What was it like going from freelance to the White House?
When people ask me what my first day was like, I think they expect to be more impressed, but I was just happy to get through the gate, to get my badge and find my way to my desk. The first six months was just figuring out a lot of logistics. I’d never been in a world like that, where you have to think about which black car you get in in the motorcade—they all look the same! It was a while before I felt like I could make creative pictures.
What were some of the most difficult pictures to take?
A lot of the time, I would jump out of the car and run into where we were going so I could get ahead of Mrs. Obama and take a couple seconds to assess what the scene was like, what the lighting was like. Technically, that was challenging.
Emotionally, I think there were so many intimate scenes and moments that allowed Mrs. Obama to have that connection with people. Sometimes it was a matter of taking a breath and having the courage to take a picture of what you know is a very special moment.
What are some funny behind the scenes moments?
One time we went to the Ellen Show to launch a new dance for the Let’s Move initiative. I’d never heard anything about it, I’d never seen her practice it, so when they turned on the music and Mrs. Obama performed it flawlessly I was so impressed. I was cracking up behind the camera.
She’s really funny, she loves to laugh. That’s one thing I always admired about her: even though her role is so serious and she’s taken on so much, there’s a levity and a lightness about her that is always present.
What are some of the photos you’re excited for people to see?
I love seeing the image of Mrs. Obama kneeling on the floor with Mrs. Abe and the dogs. Everyone saw the two of them outside for the state arrival, but that’s what happened immediately after. That’s something I didn’t expect to see.
I also love the one of her surprising the students. They were part of an arts program helping turn around low-performing schools, and they invited to come to the White House to perform. Afterwards they were waiting, thinking they were just going to be escorted out. Mrs. Obama was walking down the hallway and said, “I really want to see them. I want to surprise them.” So I went in the door right before her, and when she came in the kids just erupted with joy. Every time I look at that picture it brings me joy.
I guess I like looking at the edges of the frame—Mrs. Obama’s so beautiful and such an extraordinary person, it’d be easy to focus on her as the central part of each picture. But what I found really interesting was the way people were reacting to her, how she was touching them—those candid moments.
Michelle Obama is an iconic figure, but you worked closely with her for four years. How did your relationship evolve?
She definitely was a mentor and an inspiration in my life. I learned a lot—from watching her, from talking with her, traveling around the country and the world with her—about the person I could be and the life I wanted to create for myself.
I think what was most surprising was that her interactions with people around the country and around the world were so authentic. To stop and speak with people or give them a hug and say some words of encouragement, that could be something that really made a difference in their lives—she always expressed that was worth taking time for.
How has this experience changed you? What’s next?
One thing I’ve heard President Obama and Mrs. Obama say so many times is to work hard, do your best, and once you’re doing well to reach back and help others. Having this amazing platform to do a book, to share these images with others—sharing the lessons of President and Mrs. Obama with people, making it as accessible as possible is very important to me.
I’m also excited that I’ve been named a turnaround artist through the Kennedy Center. I’ll be able to share my passion for photography with kids who may have come from low-income families and lacked access to the arts, or who might not have a lot of opportunity, to let them know that anything is possible. Somehow, I ended up being allowed in the gates of the White House time after time after time. I want to tell kids that if that’s something they want to do, they can do it too.
These kids are so amazing. They’re already wondering how they can have an impact on the world.
Amanda Lucidon's book, Chasing Light: Michelle Obama Through the Lens of a White House Photographer, is published by Ten Speed Press.