INSIDE THE BUBBLE
I imagine that my first encounter with First Lady Michelle Obama was similar to many other people’s experience—it was quick, I have no idea what I said, and I could hardly see because I was smiling so big. I imagine Mrs. Obama said something like “Welcome to the team. We are glad to have you.” But I can’t be certain, because it was all a blur. In my head I was thinking, Wow! She’s so tall . . . and pretty . . . and nice!
When she walked away, I immediately started thinking, Geez, I hope I didn’t look or sound foolish.
It was hard to imagine that I would spend the next four years in her company.
I would come to learn that I wasn’t alone in my shell shock. For my first few weeks at the White House, I shadowed the other photographers before I started taking pictures on my own. On the first assignment with Mrs. Obama, I was shadowing my colleague Lawrence Jackson as he shot a very long photo line in the Blue Room. About three hundred people were lined up to meet the First Lady and have their photo taken with her before an event. I watched each of them have their own reaction to meeting her. Some covered their mouths in awe, while others fanned themselves or had trouble catching their breath. Some laughed, some cried, some couldn’t speak. Others just stood there with a big goofy grin as they smiled and nodded (while I kicked myself for doing the same thing!). During my time as a White House photographer, I would see this time and time again. The First Lady was accustomed to meeting a lot of people. But they
were not used to meeting the First Lady. I realized that if I was going to do my job effectively, I’d have to find a way to get comfortable being in Mrs. Obama’s presence.
• • •
What’s a typical day for a White House photographer? I’ve been asked that many times. The truth is, there wasn’t a typical day. Every day was different, and I loved that. It could be busy and exciting or slow and routine. But we always had to be ready, because slow days could turn into busy ones quickly and unexpectedly. Our team of five White House photographers documented the day-to-day duties and the official events of the President, First Lady, and Vice President. Pete Souza, the Chief White House Photographer, documented the President, while David Lienemann covered the Vice President. I primarily covered the First Lady. But Chuck Kennedy, Lawrence Jackson, and I often found ourselves photographing both the President and First Lady, especially for big events where two or three photographers were needed to cover multiple angles. Our job was to document the presidency for the historical record. It was a responsibility that we took very seriously.
I felt like I had the best of both worlds: I was fortunate to be able to assist with coverage of President Obama, while spending most of my time with the First Lady. I covered meetings, formal remarks, official events, photo lines, tapings, performances, and state visits as well as domestic and international travel. Mrs. Obama enjoyed adding some fun to the mix. She loved to drop by and surprise people, in and out of the White House, which always made for great photos. I really admired the way the First Lady maintained such a serious role, yet she loved to laugh. Mrs. Obama’s interactions with kids and animals, skits with comedians and celebrities, and light-hearted moments with staff members brought a refreshing levity to this high-pressure environment.
I learned that arriving early was essential. It was not only important to stay inside “the bubble”; being early also meant I could assess the setting, capture some interesting behind-the-scenes moments, and be prepared for any last-minute changes. A certain phrase became ingrained in my mind: “The motorcade only waits for one person . . . and it’s not you.” I had heard stories from White House staffers of current and past administrations who warned, “Don’t get left behind.” I heard about a photographer who missed the motorcade after trying to get a unique angle, and about a staff member sleeping through an alarm on an exhausting overseas trip. Missing the motorcade (or worse yet, the plane) was by far my biggest fear. For a White House photographer responsible for documenting history, missing the motorcade or plane would mean there would be no official photos taken of the event. This anxiety never really went away throughout my time at the White House.
But it was a thrilling job that afforded me amazing opportunities. I was able to witness and document history, while learning from and being inspired by the President and First Lady. There were so many things that never stopped being exciting, like flying on Air Force One. The first time I boarded the President’s plane, I was overwhelmed. I had no idea how I’d find my seat on this enormous, beautiful plane. I just followed the seasoned White House staffers, who led me past the President’s cabin, doctor’s office, and conference room back to the roomy staff cabin. There were two pods of four chairs around two tables, plus another two chairs on the far side of the plane by the window.
“Ms. Lucidon, you’re seated over there,” said the Air Force One attendant.
I walked over to the window seat and saw the place card that read “Welcome to Air Force One, Ms. Lucidon.” I remember feeling so proud to see my family name on that card. My great-grandfather changed our last name from Lucidonio to Lucidon because he found it was too difficult to get a good job with an Italian last name. I looked at our modified family name and thought about the generations of immigrants that came before me and the struggles they endured as manual laborers. Now the Lucidons (and the Lucidonios!) had a seat on Air Force One.
I looked around at the cabin of staff members and recognized that we came from many different backgrounds. We each had a place card with our family name represented, and everyone was welcome.
Moments like those constantly reminded me how special it was to work in the White House.