Michelle Obama is one of the most admired First Ladies in history, known for her grace, spirit, and beauty, as well as for the amazing work she continues to do to promote girls’ education, combat childhood obesity, and support military families.
In Chasing Light: Michelle Obama Through the Lens of a White House Photographer, former White House photographer Amanda Lucidon, who spent four years covering the First Lady, shares a rare insider’s perspective, from documenting life at the White House to covering domestic and overseas travel. This collection of 150 candid photos—many previously unreleased—and Amanda’s narrative reflections reveal what makes Mrs. Obama so special. From an affectionate moment with her daughters atop the strikingly empty Great Wall of China to exuberant moments with schoolchildren and quiet moments between the First Lady and President Obama, the photos are a vibrant, candid, and beautiful celebration of the First Lady, capturing the qualities and strengths that make her so beloved.
Amanda spoke recently with Read It Forward editor Abbe Wright, covering such illuminating topics as what makes an expertly shot photo, her favorite hidden Hogwarts-esque library in Washington, and the expansive value of arts education in our country’s most underserved schools.
Read It Forward: What makes a good photograph?
Amanda Lucidon: For me, it’s an image that evokes emotion and creates connection, which changes from person to person. But that’s what I’m always trying to do: to take people into a place where they’re not able to be, to expose them to something they wouldn’t normally see and create a connection or an understanding.
RIF: Let’s talk about the title, Chasing Light. Certainly, light is very important in photography. What does the title mean for you?
AL: As a photographer, you can spend your career chasing light, but for me it represents moving toward inspiration, possibility, and hope. We all have lights in our lives. Mrs. Obama, President Obama, the staff that we were surrounded by in the White House, my mother—these people have all been lights in my life. It means moving toward being the person you know you can be.
RIF: Of all the images, do you have a favorite? I’m sure it must be difficult to choose.
AL: I love capturing an expressive moment. It would be easy for me to focus on Mrs. Obama in every image, but I really like looking at the edges of a frame, what’s happening around her. I like documenting the way people react to seeing and interacting with her. In the book, there’s a great shot of the Turnaround Arts students being surprised by her in the Map Room.
RIF: Yes! Their faces are amazing!
AL: There’s pure joy on all the students’ faces, and it’s reflected in different ways. I like studying the reactions, and every time I look at that photo, I smile. If you asked me for my favorite, depending on the day, it would probably be a different image. Hopefully that’s how other people feel when they look at the book, too.
RIF: Mrs. Obama spent a lot of time working with children while she was in the White House, and there seems to be that extra amount of warmth that comes through her eyes—and certainly the children’s faces are full of exuberance. What was it like to be a witness to these scenes?
AL: It’s an incredible experience to walk into a room full of young people. Sometimes I’d go in before the First Lady would enter, feeling the energy of the room. Then I watched as the kids exploded with excitement. Sometimes it made the hair on my arms stand up. She did that in every space she moved into. It could be different: maybe she was going into a hospital room and needed to be a nurturing mother, or a friend; maybe it was after a tragedy, when people want to hear encouraging words; or maybe it was a time when all you can do is share a hug. Seeing how the President and Mrs. Obama were able to transform space in a positive way, it’s hard to put into words how incredible that experience was, and I got to see it nearly every day for four years.
RIF: Did you ever get emotional behind your camera?
AL: Yeah. I mean, emotion is such a broad spectrum, from excitement and joy to being deeply touched. So, yes, it happened all the time. The first Turnaround Arts event I photographed was the White House Talent Show. Turnaround Arts brings arts education programs to the lowest performing elementary and middle schools in the country to see if they can turn the schools around. They started with several schools in the pilot program, and it was proven that the schools had drastically improved.
The students were invited to come to the White House and perform. It could be a poem or a dance, whatever they were working on. Seeing these kids on stage was really moving. A spark was ignited by Mrs. Obama welcoming them into the White House, and it seemed like there was a shift during their performance when they recognized the light inside themselves. I remember that was an especially emotional day. I thought, These kids are amazing! And they’re just learning they’re amazing. It’s incredible that Mrs. Obama created that opportunity. There were so many times like that.
RIF: You were a witness to Mrs. Obama working tirelessly on behalf of women, children, veterans and their families, education, healthy living, and the Let’s Move initiative. What was most inspiring to watch her advocate for?
AL: I had the chance to observe her commitments to each of these important initiatives, and I was really moved by all of them. If I had to pick one that was most meaningful, I’d say it’s education—especially the arts education, and how she brought so many people into the White House and exposed them to the arts. I watched her ignite a spark in children, and it seemed as if their worlds expanded. That’s what the arts did for me too, so any time we did those events was particularly special. But I was also inspired by the work she did with Reach Higher and Let Girls Learn. She reached so many young people through her education initiatives.
RIF: I love that. During your time in the White House, what were some things you learned from the First Lady?
AL: My time at the White House was a totally transformative time, and I learned so much from the President and First Lady that it would be hard to narrow down. I learned from Mrs. Obama to be fearless. I heard her tell young people across the country and the world to be fearless and to be unafraid to fail, because failure is a part of learning and pushing yourself to new heights. She also encouraged us to look at the challenges in our lives as our strengths and not our weaknesses, because the tough times have taught us resilience. I draw on these lessons almost every day.
RIF: That’s remarkable.
AL: Those lessons gave me the courage to create this book. To see Mrs. Obama share her story with so many children across the country, to know some of the kids haven’t been exposed to a lot of opportunities in their life, and to watch them make the connection that they can see themselves in the First Lady, in the White House photographer, in the communications director and all of the staff that traveled around with us. We have the ability to create those connections and for kids to say, “Hey, I could do that, too!”
RIF: As a photographer, it’s your job to notice the details, and in your book, I love the way you describe the White House. To me, it really felt like I got a tour of the interior. Did you have a favorite room in the White House or a piece of art?
AL: Being early for my assignments gave me an excuse, or I’d say a reward, really. I got to spend more time in all the beautiful rooms of the White House, and I loved observing the details. I also enjoyed talking to all the butlers and ushers and the Executive Residence staff, because they have such interesting stories and can talk at length about any piece of art in the room, and the history of the room itself. My favorite piece of art is a painting by Alma Thomas in the Old Family Dining Room called Resurrection.
RIF: You have a photograph of it in the book. It’s so colorful.
AL: And Alma Thomas is the first African American woman to have her art displayed in the White House, which is pretty incredible.
RIF: Wow. You got to travel to more than 20 countries with the President and the First Lady and her team, as well as to countless American cities. Is there one trip or experience that stands out in your mind?
AL: I dreamed of traveling to so many of these places as a child, but I didn’t think I would ever get to go to them. It was a remarkable experience; each place had its own unique qualities and fascinating history and rich culture and delicious food. And each one was extra special because of the inspiring people we met along the way. So I’m not sure if I can pick a favorite. I would say all of them.
RIF: Your images are so breathtaking: the composition, the smiles on people’s faces. Everything’s working together. Do you know when you take the photograph that you just got a great shot? Or do you have to wait until you review all your images to determine that?
AL: Yes and no is the short answer to both questions. I usually know when I’ve documented a special moment, but it’s also important to have good editors. There was a pretty well-known image of President Obama and Mrs. Obama sharing a sweet moment in the Diplomatic Reception Room. In the book, I tell that story and talk about the importance of editors and sometimes not always knowing that you have the shot. So I think that’s both a yes and no.
RIF: For eight years, we watched Mrs. Obama inspire with her fashion choices. She was known for being impeccably dressed but still approachable in her fashion. When you’d photograph her for big events, did you enjoy being surprised by her different looks?
AL: Mrs. Obama could be in garden clothes or a formal gown and she always looks stunning. She’s a beautiful person, and I really enjoyed learning the decisions made behind the fashions. There was a thoughtful consideration of the people and places we were visiting to pay tribute to the culture with colors and design. I thought that was an interesting layer to the story.
What We're Reading This WeekGet recommendations for the greatest books around straight to your inbox every week.
RIF: In your author bio you say, “To break a glass ceiling, you have to be the girl with the tallest ladder.” How did it feel to be the only female photographer during the Obama administration and one of the few in history?
AL: I was the only woman there during my time at the White House, but there were two phenomenal photographers who were in the same role prior to me, Samantha Appleton and Sonya Hebert. During my time, there were four male photographers and myself. To work for the Obama administration, among more women and minorities on staff than any other administration, it felt special to be included in that space.
RIF: In your bio, you also talk about how you’ve used your camera to reveal injustices faced by underserved communities. Why are photography and photojournalism such powerful tools for shedding light on those who are often less seen?
AL: Photographers have the ability to take people to places they haven’t been exposed to and introduce them to people they may not have come in contact with. Photography creates exposure and makes connection, and from that grows understanding. I think it’s our job, our responsibility, to provide that to the viewer.
RIF: What books did you read during your time at the White House? Are there any that punctuate your time there?
AL: There’s an amazing library in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building. It’s on the top floor, and every time we had an intern, I’d make sure that was one of the first places I took them because there’s so much art and history there. There are four levels, which look out over a stunning mosaic floor, and a little, tiny staircase. There’s a section for each of the presidents and every legal paper you could imagine. I always think it’s like Hogwarts in Harry Potter.
I loved going up there, and I thought early on, I’m surrounded by so many great leaders. I want to learn what makes a great leader. So I decided to read the biographies and books by the leaders whom I admire most. I started with President Obama’s books. Martin Luther King’s Strength to Love was one that was really important to me. Books by Maya Angelou and Gandhi, I really connected with. And John Lewis’s Walking with the Wind. He’s so amazing and inspirational, and another person whose been a beacon of light in my life. Going back to why photography is important to me, it’s all of the things I learned from these leaders. Knowing that I have a tool to be able to share that light, too. My camera is my way to shine light.
RIF: It gives me chills just to think about.
AL: Yeah, Walking with the Wind was definitely a book I read over and over again and brought onto Air Force One. It often reminded me why I was doing what I was doing. Documenting history is so important.
RIF: Books are so powerful that way. Now, your father died before he saw you take this position. I know he was optimistic about Obama’s presidency. Does it make you sad that he didn’t get to see it play out? Or did you feel like he was with you in some way?
AL: The first few months working at the White House, I carried a picture of my dad folded up in my suit pocket, and I’d take it out any time I felt stressed or overwhelmed or in need of a confidence boost. It was a picture of him with a snorkel mask on, and he was making a silly face. It always reminded me not to take myself so seriously. Although he wasn’t alive to see it, he was definitely with me for every step of my journey.
RIF: What a beautiful story. What will you do now? This job might be hard to top.
AL: Having the opportunity to write this book has also been an amazing experience. It’s allowed me to reflect on my time as a White House photographer, and the lessons I’ll take with me. I was also recently named a Turnaround Artist by the Kennedy Center. I’m really thrilled to be able to share my passion and excitement with young people across the country as I visit Turnaround schools on the book tour. I’ve learned so much from working at the White House, and I feel it’s my responsibility to share with others. I’m hopeful that telling my story might help others realize anything is possible.
RIF: That’s a perfect next step in your career, to show others, “It’s possible! Look at me!” Thank you for bringing this book into the world. I’m struck with remembering what incredible people the Obamas are, and what amazing work they did and continue to do. It really resonated with me and will with a lot of other people.
AL: That’s the thing they taught me and they taught us: there are lessons in all the bold work they do, but there’s also the question of, “What are we going to do?” You know, we’re the torchbearers, too.
Photos courtesy of Amanda Lucidon from Chasing Light: Michelle Obama Through the Lens of a White House Photographer (Ten Speed Press); Author Photo: © Alan Spearman