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Documentary Photography: Creating a Life in Storytelling

Lesson 2 of 13

Learning to Leap


Documentary Photography: Creating a Life in Storytelling

Lesson 2 of 13

Learning to Leap


Lesson Info

Learning to Leap

So the next lesson is Learning to Leap, and I'm gonna talk about trusting your instincts and pushing through those times of discomfort, those times of transition. So in 2008, my friends and colleagues across the country were losing their jobs at newspapers. And so rather than me wait to be part of the next round of layoffs myself, I took a leap of faith. I wanted to move to an area that was rich with news, Washington, D.C., right? A place that I could start my own freelance photography business. So that's what I did. But one thing I forgot to consider is that Washington, D.C. is a little bit competitive. So it took me a while to break into the industry. And it was really difficult. It was a difficult time. So after months of sending emails and phone calls to editors that went with no response, I thought, I have to come up with a different plan because if no one's hiring me for work, I don't want my skills to suffer. So I started creating my own "self assignments". And at first, this wa...

s just going around D.C. You know? Getting used to the new area that I lived in. Visiting memorials, significant sites, covering seasonal occurrences like the cherry blossoms and just putting myself proximate and seeing what happened. And sometimes finding these really beautiful, creative moments. Creative photos. And sometimes I just took pretty pictures that made me happy that I liked. And so later, I'd realize that these self assignments actually helped me a lot because when I did get hired for work, I actually knew how to get around my city. So, election night. I was living in an apartment in northern Virginia, so just about 10 to 15 minutes away from the White House. And I was sitting on my couch in my pajamas, watching the TV, probably depressed that I wasn't covering election night for a newspaper. And I saw people celebrating, thousands of people in the streets, celebrating. All moving to the White House. And I was like, wow, I can't believe this is so amazing. This is happening right down the street from my house. So you know what I did, right? I got a ride into the city and I stayed up late making photos and it was actually liberating to not have a deadline. No one was waiting on my images. I was just there for me. So I got to really be totally present and feel the energy of the moments and make photos. A few months later was the inauguration of President Barack Obama. I wanted to document this important moment in American history. But I still didn't have press credentials. So I thought I'd cover it from what I did have access to, the people's perspective. So I got up early and got on the bus at 4 A.M. like everyone else, (chuckles) The boy's face? Yeah. I love it. (audience chuckles) I had my hand warmers in my pockets and my shoes. Had a backpack full of snacks, prepared to stay the whole day in the freezing cold and make photographs. And I'm so glad that I did. It was a thrilling, thrilling day. And you can see where I am in the crowd. I mean, I don't even see President Obama there. It's like this is the closest I ever thought I'd get to President Barack Obama and I was absolutely thrilled just to be in the same National Mall. So, you know, this was the first day that I was like, Yes! I trusted my instincts. This is exactly where I'm supposed to be. I'm on a high like, I can do this. This is how I'm supposed to feel. I made the right choices. (sighs) 10 A.M. the next morning, my father died unexpectedly of a heart attack. And while this was one of the most challenging moments and times of my life, it also brought me extreme clarity. Life is short. We don't know how long we're gonna live. We don't know how many breaths we're gonna take. We don't know how many times our heart's gonna beat. I wanted everything to matter. I wanted my life to matter. I wanted to live a life that was my dreams. I wanted to take chances. I wanted to dream big. I wanted to leap. (laughs) You can see we're a family of goofballs. (laughs) And so after taking some time to grieve the loss of my father, I set out with a new determination. A new perseverance. Send another round of emails and another round of phone calls with links to my "self assignments" that caught the attention of a photographer and an editor and ended up kickstarting my career as a freelance photographer for the New York Times. So I share this to say life is full of ups and downs, and sometimes the day before, you could be on a high and the next day you could not want to get out of bed. So it's these waves of emotion are also like waves of creativity, right? And you have to be able to ride these waves and in times of challenge, it's okay to get down. But resiliance and character is built every single time you get back up. So I want to challenge you to think about a time of transition in your personal or professional life and what part of this experience has been most difficult for you? And what are some active steps that you can take to help you achieve your goal? And what have you learned from this experience? So I just thought I would ask all of you and for those of you at home, there's a workbook that you can work through these questions in the extra materials. Does anyone want to share? Well I probably took a cue from what you just said. I went through a major life experience going through a long-term divorce and being a single at an age where I didn't expect to be single and a future that I envisioned was never gonna happen. And I've always also been interested in creativity and I, too, sort of set a goal just to take evening classes at community colleges in addition to work and doing caregiving for an elderly mom and a handicapped sibling. And it's been very rewarding because I actually have been producing art and feeling very good about it even if I don't necessarily have an audience but I did get fortunate enough to come across some interesting material post-fire in the Napa Valley and actually, I'm having a photography show that I never expected to have, never really set a goal to have, but by just happenstance of returning to a property that had been very beautiful and burned to the ground, where I had healed from my divorce, I found some burnt fruit that was half burnt and half color and to me, it was sort of a sign of survival in a difficult time. So in some ways, that experience gave me a lot back and also produced, unwittingly, a show. Wow, that's amazing. Yeah. Thank you. Thank you for sharing your story. Sure. That's an inspiration Thank you. for so many people, and what you said about the photo that was burnt or half burnt is sort of what I've come to recognize about accepting that, sort of the light and the darkness in everything. The beauty in things you might look at and at first, have hard feelings about, so- I sort of forced myself. Well, it's sort of interesting you should say that, because I went back to that property because it had given me so much healing and I felt like I couldn't turn my back on this property because it was no longer beautiful and as hard as it was, it was nice to see one element there that gave me a sign of hope. Right, right. And can I ask you this? Are you happy that you made the leap even though it was uncomfortable? Oh, absolutely. Yeah. I mean, it was a gift that I didn't expect to get but like you, I like to see the benefit sometimes of something that you don't anticipate, just shows up in your life. Exactly. Thank you so much for sharing. Thank you. Hi. Thank you for sharing your story, very inspirational. Your story actually brought a lot of clarity for me because I lost my dad in similar way, suddenly from a heart attack. I'm sorry. A few years after you but for me, I was expecting my first child at the time and he was born just 20 days after (choking up) so so close. But you sharing your story just brought a lot of clarity for me of part of the reason why photography's so important to me because it was my son being born that really sparked that interest for me and just realizing, you know, at a different level, why it's so important for me to capture the everyday and these moments. So thank you. Thank you so much for sharing. Yeah, I have a two-year-old myself so I've had that experience, too, when I brought her into the world feeling like something was missing. But then, in our observant nature, watching her every day and seeing the things that she likes to do and it's like, oh, there's Poppy, my dad. There's Poppy. And at night she'll say, "Tell me a story about Poppy, mama." You know? (chuckles) So I'm storytelling, and so I think that oftentimes when we miss the people that aren't here in our lives, it's like... I mean, look at these lines in our hands. This, they're right here with us, right? These people are all connected and it's in your art form, so... and so I'm really thankful that you shared your story. Amanda, I just wanna share a story of somebody who was online, willing to share their stories. Stephan who says, "I was bullied in high school. It escalated to a climax where I had both of my ankles broken. Oh my gosh. (audience gasps) A month after this, I found my calling in photography. And that has helped me work through my pain and struggles with life." And so thank you as well, Stephan, for sharing. Yeah. Thank you, Stephan, for sharing and I think that sometimes, these experiences we have make us a better photographer, you know? There are stories that you can tell about bullying that you've experienced and that you have extra sensitivity. So I think it's not pushing away from the things that are uncomfortable, it's just like the burnt photo. It's accepting both sides of it, and finding the power in that, the power in that story. And to be able to share that with others to find the work that's impactful to you. That can make a really positive difference in the world.

Class Description


  • Identify what stories you’re drawn to photograph
  • Trust your instincts when documenting real-world scenarios
  • Overcome fear and doubt to step out of your comfort zone as an artist
  • Approach subjects creatively when capturing a story
  • Understand how to pursue a career in documentary photography
  • See all sides of a situation through empathy to improve your photos


Documentary photography captures real-life stories as they unfold, highlights social change, and, often, simply captures everyday life. In this class, former Official White House Photographer Amanda Lucidon inspires and guides a beginning audience into a career as a documentarian. Through a mix of sharing her own journey and providing insightful questions and actionable steps, Amanda helps budding photographers refine their goals and focus their efforts.

Utilizing her untraditional path and experiences, Amanda will discuss how to improve your photography through creative storytelling and how to grow professionally. Rather than sharing basics like exposure settings and post-processing how-tos, Amanda leads photographers on a path of self-discovery through photography tips on creativity, challenges, and launching a career in documentary photography.

As one of only a few female White House Photographers in history, Amanda talks through how creativity, resilience, and community helped her land a role documenting the American President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama from 2013-2017. Through her journey and a series of actionable steps and questions, you'll learn to turn your own creative passions into a career focused on the issues close to your heart.


  • Photojournalists
  • Documentary photographers
  • Documentary filmmakers
  • Beginner and Intermediate photographers


Amanda Lucidon is an award-winning documentarian, filmmaker, teaching artist, public speaker, and author. Lucidon served as a United States Official White House Photographer responsible for documenting First Lady Michelle Obama and President Barack Obama from 2013 to 2017, as one of only a few females in history to hold such a position.

Lucidon is the New York Times best-selling author of Chasing Light and Reach Higher. In 2018, the John F. Kennedy Center appointed Lucidon as a Turnaround Artist, highlighting the importance of the arts in underserved schools. Currently, Lucidon is working with her husband Alan Spearman and a team of artists on implementing a pilot program that introduces arts and mindfulness practices to at-risk youth in Memphis, Tennessee. Amanda’s work has been honored by Pictures of the Year International, National Press Photographers Association Best of Photojournalism, and the White House News Photographers Association, among others.


  1. Class Introduction

    Meet the instructor and hear Amanda's non-traditional path towards a career as a professional photographer in the photojournalism and documentary photography genres. See what to expect in the class.

  2. Learning to Leap

    Photography as a career often involves a leap of faith -- learn how to find the courage to make that leap, how to assign yourself projects to prepare for documentary work, and how to capture photos before you have press credentials. Gain insight into overcoming personal and professional challenges, building resilience, and trying again after real-life failure. See how Amanda went from assigning herself projects to freelancing for the New York Times.

  3. Making Time for Creativity

    Creativity doesn't just happen on a whim. In this lesson, Amanda discusses the importance of making time for creativity and keeping space for personal projects even as you start to pick up paying work. Carve out space for personal, creative projects and your professional work will benefit too.

  4. Creating Your Own Path

    Looking at the lives of documentary photographers like Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Frank, Lewis Hine, and others, and it's clear there's no one "right" pre-mapped route to becoming a professional photographer. In this lesson, Amanda discusses learning how to fail as you try new things and explore your own path -- including how she failed when she first tried video. Build your own unique path by answering questions about your own work.

  5. Budgeting

    When working as a freelance photographer, how do you keep track for taxes? How do you make sure you are earning enough? How do you set your rates? Tackle these questions with Amanda in this lesson.

  6. Staying Grounded & Generating Confidence

    Where do you focus as a professional photographer? In this lesson, Amanda shares how she found her focus and confidence. Learn how staying on top of trends and breaking news can put your work in front of more people. Then, apply the same ideas to your own work with action items at the end of the lesson.

  7. Multiplatform Storytelling

    Learn how Amanda found the opportunity to work as an official White House photographer -- and how she learned to look for emotions in her subjects. Finally, build your own steps to create your own opportunities for your own career through mentors and actionable steps.

  8. Thinking Creatively

    Working in genres like documentary photography and street photography, many moments are repeats. In this lesson, Amanda discusses getting creative with familiar moments -- like yet another speaking engagement -- along with pushing through at the end of a long day, troubleshooting, and assessing a scene quickly.

  9. Embracing Emotion

    Emotion shouldn't just be in front of the camera-- it should be behind the camera too. Here, Amanda discusses using your own emotions to connect with subjects and the viewer to create images with impact.

  10. Building Community

    Capturing a moment shouldn't interrupt the moment -- in this lesson, Amanda shares strategies for getting the shot while being unobtrusive. Learn to build a community of support -- and how to contribute to that community yourself.

  11. Defining Your Pillars

    Determining goals helps documentary photographers to focus their efforts and evolve their work. Learn how to define your own pillars to create a focus, find a story to tell, and more.

  12. Writing the Next Chapter

    When one project ends, what happens next? Here, Amanda shares how she found her next projects after working in the White House, including writing a book and going on a book tour. Use the fear of getting out of your comfort zone to stay on your toes.

  13. Q&A

    Finish the class with insight gleaned from a question and answer session with students like you. Learn about adapting your schedule, finalizing projects, and more.



I feel the class was a great honor to witness through Amanda’s eyes, as the journey of one of the most beautiful First Ladies of our time and to be able to capture the most personal moments of stillness. the class was so inspiring and I think it will be future lifetimes to come before we realize how important the Obamas were To our growth as a nation and evolution of humanity! thank you Amanda for your vision to capture the moments of stillness and sharing with us I loved this class In Gratitude ROBIN

a Creativelive Student

Amanda is an inspiration. Her hard work, dedication to her craft and in all the ways she pays it forward. This class will help you get beyond your creative blocks, see and create your own opportunities. All the while being reminded to BE KIND to yourself. With stunning images and fabulous stories, you'll learn from this class each time you watch it!


Thanks Amanda and CreativeLive. Great class. I'm studying photography and just finding my feet as a documentary photographer at 58yo. It's a wonderful thing to be able to record those moments. I may never be a White House tog, but thank you for the inspiration. ☺