A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW
Although I was, of course, first drawn to this story because of the potential historical significance of Obama, himself, I very quickly became much more interested in the movement that surrounded him. Not because he was boring (although photographing one person for two years is a little, well, crazy), but because his supporters and their efforts on his (and their own) behalf seemed to be the real story of this campaign.
-- Scout Tufankjian, Documentary Photographer, Yes We Can: Barack Obama's History-Making Presidential Campaign
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We get so accustomed to perfunctory, formulaic political photographs that it is a bit stunning to look through a book of photographic images that is full of surprises that together create an emotional, exciting, moving sense of the two-year Obama campaign.
Yes We Can: Barack Obama's History-Making Presidential Campaign, by documentary photographer Scout Tufankjian, is such a collection. You get a rare vision of the texture, the details that catch the eye and express the moment and personalities of the campaign.
Tufankjian understood from the beginning of taking photographs of the Obama campaign that she was recording images of the relationship between and a candidate and his supporters. She comments here on her experience of the historic Obama campaign.
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BuzzFlash: Your photographic documentation of the Obama campaign is stunning, in large part because you capture the synergistic relationship between the Obama supporters and Obama. Was it intentional that you created a record of "we" in a political campaign that focused on "us" rather than just the political candidate?
Scout Tufankjian: Definitely. Although I was, of course, first drawn to this story because of the potential historical significance of Obama, himself, I very quickly became much more interested in the movement that surrounded him. Not because he was boring (although photographing one person for two years is a little, well, crazy), but because his supporters and their efforts on his (and their own) behalf seemed to be the real story of this campaign.
So many people -- from the older folks who put aside years of crushing disappointment to believe in him to the younger people who uprooted their lives to work for him -- threw themselves into this campaign. And, perhaps for the first time in the United States, the presidency was won, not just by money and connections, but also by a real grassroots movement that was almost as much a part of the campaign as the candidate himself.
BuzzFlash: You don't work for a news media entity, but rather for a photo agency that sells images. Did that give you more freedom to shoot more daring shots, such as the one where you just seek Obama's shoe and cuffed suit leg as he walks on stage and you focus on the faces of supporters in the first row?
Scout Tufankjian: Absolutely. Not having a boss to yell at me about not shooting enough podium shots was very freeing. I did about 20% of my work on assignment, though, so in those cases I did have an editor to keep in mind. I've been extremely lucky, though, in that both of my editors -- Michelle Molloy at Newsweek and Deb Boardley at Essence -- have been fabulous to work for and very supportive of my style of shooting.
BuzzFlash: You were initially reluctant to do your first shoot at an early New Hampshire Obama campaign stop, but did it because you were getting paid. Then you got hooked and asked to cover the campaign from then on. What changed your mind?
Scout Tufankjian: Seeing the way that the crowd in New Hampshire reacted to Barack Obama made me realize that, if he chose to run, his candidacy could be something truly historic. I think it is also important to note that I had absolutely no idea what I was getting myself into. I had never done anything like this before. I had no idea how expensive it would be. I had no idea how long the primary would run. I had some funny little idea that I would spend around a week a month or a weekend here and there following the candidate and that it would be cheap and easy. Ha.
Two events in, I became terrified of missing something (I am a journalist, after all -- missing something is our biggest fear) and pretty much refused to leave the campaign trail. By the time we were flying around in his charter plane (which costs $500.00 per flight half-hour for all of you who erroneously think that the campaign pays for our travel), and I had maxed out my fourth credit card, it was WAY too late to quit.
BuzzFlash: Most traditional journalistic photograhers shoot the candidate talking and then a crowd scene. You focus on shots with details that might be considered by traditional media not to be at the center of the "story." What draws you to that type of shots?
Scout Tufankjian: Covering Obama for as long as I did freed me to look at the campaign as one big overall story. Where the wire shooters are forced to look at every event as its own story, I could spend an entire event photographing one person in the crowd that interested me. I remember days when I would look at my take and think, "Hmmm, maybe I should actually take some pictures of Obama tomorrow ..."
In general, I think the cheesy (and probably accurate) answer to the question is that I was trying to capture the feeling of the campaign, rather than the event of it. Because it had quickly become clear that this campaign was going to be of huge historical significance, I wanted there to be a record of what the campaign felt like, for both the people that had been a part of it and for the people that would study it in the future.
BuzzFlash: Tell us about the Obama supporter chalk board shots.
Scout Tufankjian: When Obama first started running for president, there were a lot of articles about who his potential supporters would be and why, so I decided to go try to find out the answers for myself. I bought a chalkboard and a piece of chalk and brought it to rallies in California, Texas, Iowa, New Hampshire, Boston, Philadelphia, New York, and a few other states. I gave people the chalkboard and asked them to write down a few words explaining why they supported Obama and then asked their names, ages, profession, and place of residence.
BuzzFlash: Since you started photographing the campaign so early on, did you acquire special access as you were joined by a crowd of others? Did you get to talk with Obama a bit?
Scout Tufankjian: The Obamas treated me like a mildly annoying younger relative. Michelle liked to make faces into my camera and the Senator would box at it or jokingly put his hand over my lens. I did have several conversations with both of them -- as is natural when you spend 24 months on the same story -- and they were both very gracious and very funny. As for access, I suspect that my access was better than some of the other photographers', but that is largely because I started covering the campaign pre-Secret Service, when the constraints were much fewer, and because I often worked for larger magazines, which gave you better access.
BuzzFlash: How did you go about selecting the 200 photographs in the book from more than 12,000 images?
Scout Tufankjian: Ha! With enormous difficulty. I kept a running edit of about 400+ photographs, that I would work on every few weeks. Then when the book became more of a reality, I corralled a few photo friends (mostly Damon Winter of The New York Times and Sam Appleton of "Noor Images") and forced/bribed them into helping me edit it down. I then sent David Brown, the designer, my edit, and we immediately began a protracted negotiation about which ones would make the cut. David did an amazing job (especially considering the fact that I was in about four states a day as we were doing the edit), and all in all, there are probably only two images that aren't in the book that I wish were. It's ok, though. I can always put them on my walls.
BuzzFlash: You have spent a lot of time in Gaza on assignment. How emotionally do you handle the contrast between the grim task of shooting bodies in a morgue, victims of the ongoing Israeli/Palestinian conflict, and the hope and excitement of the Obama campaign?
Scout Tufankjian: Honestly, the two stories are so different that it really doesn't come up as an issue. Obviously there are some similarities; people are people everywhere, and they are both stories that I care very deeply about. In general though, the way I cover the story is so different that it is really difficult to compare the two.
In Gaza, I work in a team of three, picking my own stories and planning my own schedule, whereas on the campaign, towards the end, we traveled in a group of eighty and made no decisions, except perhaps what we had to drink at the end of the night.
I realize that you are asking me a question on a more emotional level, but as a journalist, that is exactly the kind of question that I shy away from answering. Clearly, days spent around death and grieving families are more grueling than days spent around excited Obama supporters, but in both cases, I am doing my job.
I want to stress that it is not just a job. I don't want to reduce any of the families that have welcomed me into their worst moments or imply that I consider them to be just elements in my images. I feel pretty strongly that you can't tell people's story without at least some level of emotional involvement or caring; but my job is to communicate people's stories, and in both Gaza and on the campaign trail, that is what I was trying to do.
BuzzFlash: Do you plan on continuing to photograph President Obama?
Scout Tufankjian: That is the $64,000 question. Honestly, I don't really know. I don't have any plans to move to DC and I have no job waiting for me there. I will definitely cover the Inauguration, but beyond that I'm not really sure.
BuzzFlash: You have a B.A. in political science from Yale. How did you become a documentary photographer?
Scout Tufankjian: I wrote my college thesis on police accountability in Northern Ireland and spent my junior semester abroad gathering interviews and working on it. My stay there overlapped with the annual Lundy Day "festivities," which at that point ended somewhat inevitably with a riot.
Stuck in the middle of this riot, I was faced with two choices: I could riot or I could take pictures. Thinking that it was pretty stupid for an American to get involved in a conflict that had absolutely nothing to do with me, I decided to go with option B. And I loved it.
I had always been interested in journalism but had been turned off by what had seemed like a career that equaled an endless stream of school papers. But photojournalism (which had stupidly never occurred to me) was the perfect way to satisfy both my "what happens next?" nature and my deep interest in social and political issues.
BuzzFlash Interview conducted by Mark Karlin.
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Book preview, from the publisher.
A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW