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Documentary Photography: Creating a Life in Storytelling

Lesson 8 of 13

Thinking Creatively


Documentary Photography: Creating a Life in Storytelling

Lesson 8 of 13

Thinking Creatively


Lesson Info

Thinking Creatively

So we all have challenges in our lives, you know, we all have days that feel mundane. So how can we be creative, flip the switch and seize the moment. So, this might be surprising but even at the White House there were slow days and days that were, felt ordinary, right? You know, how do I, how do I make this state dinner look different than last state dinner? How do I take a creative picture of President Obama, or Mrs Obama speaking at a podium. Again, right? (laughs) And I think these are the, I think these are the most rewarding images. You know, I always felt that when I worked at his newspaper when I was doing the same kind of thing over and over again, rather than think of, oh gosh, you know, I don't really wanna do this again. It's like, okay cool, how am gonna make a creative picture? How am I gonna make a picture that no one's seen before? That I haven't seen before, that I haven't shot before? And so it's looking for these little surprises, like when Mrs Obama decided to kick ...

off her shoes after a really long day while she was talking to a group of White House interns. (laughs) So this is a image that's more revealing of her character, she's very comfortable and you know, it's in those moments where we lean into our creativity and show something that hasn't been seen. So on this day, I had just returned from a long international trip. So I'd worked 10 days straight without any time off. Long days when you're traveling overseas. And my colleague said, hey there's not a lot going on today, it's kind of a slow day, why don't you head home? You know, get some rest and stuff. I said, oh that's really thoughtful, thank you so much. But I'm hearing rumors that they're gonna light up the White House as a rainbow to honor the Supreme Court's decision of the Defense of Marriage Act. A project that I had spent several years working on. And now this was happening, so I was like, I could go home and rest or I could stay late into the night, until it got dark to be able to photograph the first time ever in history the White House lit up like a rainbow. So, that's what I did. You know, and I think sometimes it's pushing that last 10% that really makes the difference. Or even the last 2%, right? It's like, oh I don't wanna edit this film again, I've looked at it so many hundreds of times. Like, come on, 10%. You know you got this, right? And so, I think that's you know, pushing through those, pushing through those times. So we talked early on about building my foundation at the newspaper and constantly troubleshooting. This is what I did most of the time at the White House. Let me explain to you, we'd get into a motorcade and sometimes that was, we'd get into a plane and then a motorcade, arrive at a place we had never seen before. So, sometimes I would, and I'd have to get out of the car, 'cause my car and the motorcade was several cars behind. Run so that I could be in front of Mrs Obama when she got out of the car and her car was ahead of me, so she's already ahead of me. I spent most of the time running. (laughs) 'Cause she's really tall and I'm only 5'4, so even when she's walking I was running. (laughs) So, I would get ahead of her so that I could be able to make those images. Sometimes, imagine this photographers, I'd be on an elevator and they'd say, there's gonna be a photo right when we get off the elevator. And it's like, wonder what the light looks like? Wonder how many people will be there? I wonder how much space I have? And it'd be like, ding. (camera shutter sound) And then moving, right? So, I'm like, math. You know, what does the space look like? What, you know I'm like quickly assessing. What does the space look like? What does the light look like? Where are the moments gonna be? Be quick, stay ahead of her, you know? (laughs) And troubleshooting in my mind, right? So while that feels very overwhelming, right? I can connect with something that's always with me. My breath. I can go, (inhales) (exhales) That's like three breaths getting up the elevator. (inhales) (exhales) Ding, ding, ding. Boom. Got this. Math. Boom. Got this. Having confidence in your ability 'cause you've done it time and time again. You've built your foundation, you've done your training. Having your confidence in yourself. I'm gonna get the shot. I'm gonna walk into this room called the Mirror Room for obvious reasons, in Milan, during the World Expo. And so, there's all these mirrors. On one side there's a projector. This scene in the back is constantly changing exposure, right? Every maybe 15 seconds or so. They're only gonna be in this room for two and a half minutes. My challenge is, how am I gonna make myself disappear in a room full of mirrors? (laughs) I know from Alana's story, the ballerina, that I find where the mirrors meet in the corner of the room. I turn myself sideways, make myself as small as possible. And think thin thoughts. (laughs) And it worked. So as a White House photographer, I also knew that I had a unique vantage point. And we've talked about this to everyone's background you have a unique vantage point from your experiences, from what you're interested in. So, being able to use that. So, a lot of people have seen what this photo looks from the other side. This is the Kennedy Center Honors. The press is staged below waiting for President Obama and Mrs Obama to come out and wave. But this is actually shot from the presidential box. And there's only me, another staff member and a secret service agent, who by the way does not care if I get my shot. (laughs) That's not his role. So I had, I was able to get like two frames before the door was closed. And something unique about this photo is typically President Obama and Mrs Obama attend the Kennedy Center Honors together. But on this night President Obama stayed behind in the Oval Office to deliver remarks about the San Bernardino terrorist attacks. And so I think that's also what pictures can do. Is to provide another layer of information. To give us moments and reflection points. So, what are assignments you don't look forward to? And I try not to use the H word, 'cause that's how I used to feel about portraits but that's very strong, right? So like, what do you not look forward to? That was softer. How can you challenge yourself in these situations to make a creative and informative photo? You know, so I had showed you some images like, speaking at a podium, that needed some creativity to look for little surprises. What unique qualities do you possess that enhance your ability to make creative images? Does anyone wanna share something they don't very much look forward to? Assignments that often pay money. Sponsored posts on our blogs, so we aproach- Can you say it again? Sponsored posts. Sponsored posts. Yeah, so we approach like food companies and say, I don't know, they make nut butter or something. We'd create a recipe using the nut butter, we'd publish it on our blogs and give them permission to use it, but the work can feel very corporate, sometimes. Well, a lot of the time it can feel very corporate. What about it feels corporate? I guess because you're having to endorse their product and I think, ideally you pick products that you feel passionate about, that you like. That fit with your dietary requirements or whatever the perimeters of your blog are. But I think in a sense you still feel a little bit like, does it seem like I'm selling out? And the photography has to be a bit more specific. It's harder to make, it feels harder to make the photos so creative, I think. I can totally relate to that. Because in those times, in the early days when I was trying to buy time to work on my projects, and I was doing you know, like a, I mean, people refer to it as a grip-and-grin. I'd stand there and there'd be handshakes happening in front of me and I would just like, I would be like, two hours, two hours and then I got a whole month to work on my projects, you know? And so it was like, it was like letting go of that judgment of like, oh am I selling out or something like that. It's like no, what I'm doing is buying my time to work on my projects. To be able to create work that I love. That I will eventually get hired for. And then I can make better decisions and I won't have to do this anymore. I won't have to endorse a product that I don't believe in. I can make better choices because I have better options. So, thank you for sharing that. No problem.

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. ☺