Scout Tufankjian: Obama’s Armenian Photographer

Scout Tufankjian

Armenian-American photographer Scout Tufankjian is the only independent photographer to have covered President-elect Obama’s entire campaign from before he announced his candidacy through the Election Night celebration in Chicago’s Grant Park.

She amassed an archive of some 12 000 images as she crossed the country countless times documenting this historic campaign. She covered the primaries, the debates, and the final weeks of the hard-fought campaign, compiling the widest variety, the most intense momen’s, and the greatest ecstatic receptions to greet the young politician on the campaign trail.

Tufankjian’s work on the campaign trail was recently compiled into a book called YES WE CAN: Barack Obama’s History-Making Presidential Campaign.

Released on December 12 by powerHouse Books, Tufankjian’s work is both a timely and touching documentary story of Barack Obama’s historic, world-changing journey from junior senator for Illinois to President of the United States of America. It’s a comprehensive and intimate portrait of the man, his run, and his supporters. With more than 200 amazing photographs by Tufankjian, the book takes the reader along on Obama’s personal and political journey.

From coffee shops and diners to auto manufacturing plants and bowling alleys, Tufankjian followed Obama as he wooed potential voters in middle class neighborhoods as well as in poverty-stricken Indian reservations.

Yes We Can is as much about Americans and their visions for America’s future as it is about the man that gave them voice–and hope.

According to powerHouse Books, the first printing of 55 000 copies of Yes We Can sold out before the book was even released, and has already created a buzz of interest throughout the nation.

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Below is an interview with Tufenjian conducted by her publisher, powerHouse Books:

powerHouse Books: How did you first get involved in photographing Barack Obama?

Scout Tufankjian: The first time I photographed Barack Obama, I didn’t want to go. I knew who he was and was interested in him but I had plans for that weekend and I didn’t want to drive five hours to New Hampshire to photograph what I assumed would be a deadly dull event. But when my editor at Polaris Images found someone to pay me, I canceled my plans and drove up to Portsmouth.

The building the event was in was dark, cavernous, and impossible to find. I showed up late and in a panic. Looking around at the space, I wondered why I had even bothered–but when Obama walked into the room, the crowd went nuts. When he started talking, they became completely transfixed. Hell, some of the other news photographers were transfixed–and this was New Hampshire! New Hampshire photographers are not impressed by politicians. Ever.

Immediately after the event was over, even before filing my pictures, I called my agent and told her that I was going to cover the Obama presidential campaign. I did not offer her a choice. The fact that he wasn’t technically running yet didn’t really seem that important to me.

pHB: When did you decide to pursue full-time documentation of the campaign, and what made you decide to do this?

ST: I think part of it was pure stubbornness, combined with a journalist’s fear of missing something. Once I had decided that this was going to be historic and that I wanted to document as much of it as possible, I didn’t want to miss ANYTHING. I remember freaking out because I was missing a small town hall meeting in Claremont, NH. Now, attending this event would have involved a six-hour drive through a blizzard when I had a 100-degree fever and a wicked sore throat. Despite that, I still had to be forcibly dissuaded from going. I calmed down a lot over the course of the campaign but I still hated missing anything.

pHB: How did you finance this project?

ST: Credit cards–lots and lots of credit cards, and I’m only kind of kidding. Despite the fact that I made good money covering this campaign, I still ended up spending more than I made. I was on assignment (i.e. all expenses paid) only about 15’s20% of the total campaign. The rest of the time I paid for it myself and just hoped to make enough sales to make it worth it. In the beginning this was pretty easy, as my house and rental car in Iowa were both pretty cheap, but the last year involved flying on Obama’s charter jet, at an average cost of $500 per flight-half-hour –and that’s where the credit cards came in.

pHB: What kind of access did you have to the candidate, his family, his advisors, and other VIPs?

ST: Access kind of came and went depending on the period in the campaign and who I was working for at the time. In the early days, I could occasionally get backstage access without an assigning editor, but as the traveling press corps got bigger, it generally related to what editor I was working for at the time.

pHB: As a member of the press corps, you were living a whole other life that few of us can even imagine. What were your days and nights like?

ST: I don’t know if you have ever read The Boys on the Bus, but it was pretty much exactly like that only with more female reporters, better technology, and fewer hard drugs. We would wake up every morning for baggage call at some ungodly hour and head to the hotel lobby where we would line all of our worldly possessions up for the Secret Service to examine. If we were lucky, the bomb dog’s handler would be nice and we could play catch with the dog for a few minutes before being dragged off to our first event.

We would then show up at some high school gymnasium, drop off (and plug in) our computers and head into the buffer to shoot the event. Following the event, we might have a half an hour for lunch and file time before being loaded back into the bus (or plane) to head to our next event. Once we got on the plane we would be fed (again) and try to get some work done on the usually short flight. Because they were charter flights, the rules about stowing electronic devices (okay, all rules) were suspended, thus allowing us to get work done.

We would then head to our next event, plug in our (now battery-less) laptops, head to the buffer between the stage and the crowd (again), shoot the event (again), and get fed (again) before heading to the plane where we would;.well, you get the idea. After running through this whole cycle two to four times, we would end up at a random hotel where we would drop our stuff off in our rooms, plug in our laptops, and head straight to the bar.

pHB: What was it like to tour the United States ? What kind of surprises did you encounter?

ST: It’s almost hard to remember all of the crazy stories from the road, because it all almost started to seem normal. People lined the road waving to us (even us! Not just Obama!) as we drove into town. We would end the night in Memphis getting a full dose of Huey Lewis’ (of the News) philosophy on life, fly fishing, and politics (he is, oddly, both a self-proclaimed libertarian and a self-proclaimed socialist). Or, we would end up meeting with rednecks for Obama or getting tours of a cow research facility that had what the Senator referred to as “screw-top cows.” It is a huge clich? but the thing that really struck me was how similar Americans all are. Of course everything seems similar when you are seeing the country out of the window of a bus or from the inside of a hotel bar or at an Obama rally. But despite the country’s obvious physical differences (you are never going to confuse Montana and South Carolina), the people are not all that different.

pHB: What were your interactions like with the American people as you attended the rallies, which increased in size and fervor, as well as the more intimate gatherings?

ST: The people that came to see him were pretty much the only thing that kept me (relatively) sane throughout this process. I loved seeing their excitement and hearing their stories. I have always considered his supporters to be the real story of the campaign. Obama is obviously an inspirational figure to people but I think they are the real force behind this movement: the young people, the older people who tossed away their cynicism and disbelief, the military families, the auto workers, the teachers;

pHB: You watched Obama rise from a junior Senator to the President–what sort of transformations did you witness in his personal, professional, and public personas?

ST: I think the strangest thing about Obama is how little he has changed. Up until election night, when you could really see the weight of his responsibilities bearing down on him, he has seemed to be the exact same guy at the beginning that he was at the end. Certainly he was more tired, his hair was grayer, and his relationship with us soured somewhat after photographers followed him during private momen’s, but on the whole he changed very little.

pHB: Was there any pressure from anyone regarding what you could and couldn’t, or should and shouldn’t photograph?

ST: Not really. The AP and the networks had worked out a deal with the campaign that we weren’t supposed to photograph him in gym clothes (not sure why, but he does wear a super dorky gym outfit) and that we were supposed to leave the kids alone during private momen’s, but beyond that there were no rules.


pHB: Was there a point where you realized you were part of something historic?

ST: There were tons of momen’s where I stepped back and realized that I was witnessing something truly historic. The most memorable was during our South Carolina swing. I can’t even imagine what the older black folks in South Carolina have had to live through but I do know that they have been crushingly disappointed over and over again. Talking to those men and women about how they were allowing themselves to believe again and how they still could not believe that this could happen in their lifetimes was the most moving part of the campaign for me.

pHB: What is the one thing you would have never predicted back in December 2006?

ST: Honestly? I don’t know if I actually thought that he was going to win. I mean, I must have, but he didn’t just win. America voted for a black guy named Barack Hussein Obama, not in a time of safety and economic security but in the midst of some of the darkest times this country has known. Isn’t the clich? that people retreat to the familiar in times of crisis? In this case they didn’t. I don’t know if I could have predicted that.

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