Tuesday, 16 December 2008

Scout Tufankjian – Obama’s Armenian photographer

Armenian-American photographer Scout Tufankjian is the only independent photographer to have covered Obama’s entire campaign from before he announced his candidacy through the Election Night celebration in Chicago’s Grant Park. Tufankjian has amassed an archive of some 12 000 images as she crossed the country countless times documenting this historic campaign. She lives in Brooklyn, and has a B.A. in Political Science from Yale. Before covering the Obama campaign, Tufankjian worked photographing the conflict in the Middle East, primarily the Gaza Strip, for four years. Tufankjian’s photographs have been published in major newspapers and magazines, including Newsweek, Time, The New York Times, People, The Guardian, ELLE, Esquire, Essence, Rolling Stone, Fortune, The Times of London, Stern, Der Spiegel, and many others.

Publishers informed Unzipped about the 12 December 2008 release of YES WE CAN: Barack Obama's History-Making Presidential Campaign book by Scout Tufankjian.

Yes We Can is the story of Barack Obama’s historic, world-changing journey from junior senator for Illinois to President of the United States of America as documented by Scout Tufankjian. 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.

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

Below are selected extracts from a fascinating interview with Tufankjian (by powerHouse Books) detailing her experiences on the campaign trail.

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.

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. […]

What was it like to tour the United States ? What kind of surprises did you encounter?
[…] It is a huge cliché 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.

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…

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 moments, but on the whole he changed very little.

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 moments, but beyond that there were no rules.

Was there a point where you realized you were part of something historic?
ST: There were tons of moments 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.

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 cliché 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.

*Photo credit: from Yes We Can by Scout Tufankjian, published by Melcher Media/powerHouse Books


Armen Filadelfiatsi said...

I'm sure she's a great photographer, and you can tell from her interview that she'd be cool to hang out with, but what's up with the 12th century Abbot-cut?

Ani said...

New Yorker Armenian-style haircut, Armen. You got a problem with that?

Ani said...

Interesting--some (much) earlier photos of Obama have just surfaced--pretty different, huh?

artmika said...

Yes, I saw that photos of him. Cute, isn't it? :)

nazarian said...

Here's a story (and a slide show) she did on the Secret Service agents protecting Obama during the campaign:

artmika said...

Thanks for the link, Nazarian. Very interesting, indeed.

Anonymous said...

She's a talented photographer, but surprisingly inarticulate in interviews. I saw her on a PBS program with "Charlie Rose" on January 23rd and every other phrase out of her mouth was peppered with "yeah, absolutely, totally" Valley Girl type comments. For someone who graduated from Yale with a B.A. in Political Science she is quite inarticulate.

Reading her interview - again I was struck with the hackneyed, cliched "aw shucks" type of comments she makes. Her photographs are quite good, but her verbal, analytical skills are quite limited.

I know she was not a paid staffer on the Obama campaign, but I get the feeling she is a gushing, drooling fan-girl type who is completely in awe of Obama. Don't get me wrong, I seriously doubt she's a groupie - Obama is completely a devoted family man who loves his wife.

I just thing Scout is a one-hit wonder who by a fluke lucked out on a great story.

The kiddie haircut, eyebrow piercing, somewhat adolescent look she has doesn't add to her credibility as a serious photojournalist. Her book will sell quite well, but then I have the feeling she will disappear.

Anonymous said...

What is the big deal about her being "Armenian"? She definitely is All American Corn Fed American woman. I think it is fairly affected, this Armenian stuff. I have an Irish name, but I don't pass myself off as a professional Irish person.

Garo Chicago said...

Brief history lesson: One hundred years ago, most of the world's Armenians, the predominant Christian minority of the Middle East, were defenseless peasants oppressed by Moslem rulers who would drive them from their homes to torture and murder in the Syrian desert. Their pre-meditated slaughter by the hundreds of thousands was documented almost daily in the NYTimes, and by cables from the US Ambassador and other diplomats in the US State Dept archives. Yet our own government will not acknowledge the Ottomans' actions as a deliberate attempt to wipe out a people from their homeland (aka, genocide).

To BE Armenian is know and honor this suffering and oppression, and to appreciate the cultural jewels of the first Christian nation. If that's not such a big deal, then neither is it such a big deal that President Obama is partly of African descent, and yet he has been transfigured into a messiah of sorts for all the injustices against the entire African-American some measure because he embraced his heritage.

From that camera angle, if you will, for Scout to be a Yale alumna who exhaustively documented an historic presidential campaign is only part the 'big deal' behind her Armenian surname. A century ago, how many Indian or Algerian immigrant kids in the UK or France made it, let alone were allowed, to Oxford or the Sorbonne?

Amanda said...

To the ANONYMOUS (of course) poster bent on pointless and less-than-unhelpful insulting criticism, what's your damage?! The book isn't about her magical literary achievement. She's not highlighting her Poli Sci degree from Yale. The book is not about her mastery of the English language and aptitude for storytelling.

I completely disagree. I think she was more than adequately articulate, and seemed pleasant and charming, which is a helluva a lot more than anyone can say for you. And I think she does Yale proud by showing that you can be part of such an exclusive white-bred institution and turn out well-rounded and approachable, likeable. All while maintaining your intelligence and achieving something worthy of commendation.

As for the "aw shucks" tone which you so bitterly spoke out against, it's a far cry from the conceit and inflated sense most people might have (while not doing half as good a job as she did), and that is a good thing. Modesty is so rare these days.

And who cares if she disappears?! And what's more, even if she doesn't publish another award-winning book, it doesn't mean she disappeared. She was around way before you were aware of her "appearance" in the first place. Your comment reeks of envy and missed opportunities. Go shack up in your community college photo lab teaching people who don't give a crap about you. Quit attacking her aesthetic and pay a little more attention to what's inside.

And FINALLY, there is absolutely NOTHING wrong with being "completely in awe of Obama." He is an incredible inspiration during one of the darkest extended periods most of us will live through. I am completely in awe of Obama and I am not ashamed of it.

So, great job Scout!