About 27 months ago, photojournalist Scout Tufankjian ’00 sat in a dark room, begrudgingly waiting for a senator from Illinois. Unbeknownst to her at the time, that night would impact the next two years of her life. Now, just a few months before Barack Obama is inaugurated as president of the United States, Tufankjian will share the images she took on the campaign trail in her book, “Yes We Can: Barack Obama’s History-Making Presidential Campaign,” which will be released on Dec. 8.
Tufankjian, who graduated from Yale with a B.A. in political science, chats with staff reporter Danika Fears about covering the historic election.
Q: At the start of Obama’s campaign, his chances of becoming president were a long shot at best. Why did you decide to start covering his campaign?
A: I was sent to cover an event in New Hampshire, but I actually didn’t want to go at first. This was three months before he announced his candidacy in December 2006. But I needed the money, so I showed up at an event in this horribly dark cavernous room. I thought it was going to be awful, but Obama came in and the crowd went completely psychotic. To see the way people reacted to him was really impressive. Later, we went to a book signing with 300 people and at night there was going to be a Democratic party function. Between the events he made us stop at a copy shop, and I couldn’t help but think, this guy is really smart. He started talking to a college student about Kant and Heidegger and to a man about D.H. Lawrence. Because of the way that people were reacting to him I began to think that he could do it, and that if he did it would be incredibly important and historic. I wanted to be a part of that.
Q: What was it like following Obama for two years? Did you learn something from the experience?
A: Obama is pretty incredible. Midway through the campaign I got a sense of the responsibility that comes along with this job. It seemed bizarre to me that I was the person who had the fullest record of this campaign. This sense of responsibility became really key, and I began to think about this as a moment in history. In Iowa he was just a politician, but when we got to the South Carolina primary I got a sense of the possibilities that he represented. The campaign tried to avoid race in Iowa because the population is mostly white, whereas in South Carolina people have lived through horrible times. I wanted to tell this story for those people who might actually see a black man win the presidency. I started doing a lot of research about the civil rights movement so that I could find this election’s place in history. You would think that as a photographer it’s not as important, but it really is.
Q: In general, photojournalists painted Obama in a very favorable light. Is there something about Obama and his campaign that is especially well suited for photographs?
A: Obama is a young, vibrant guy and he’s very controlled and aware of the camera. He’s very good at portraying the image he’s trying to. Though there is much talk about the bias of the media in elections, ultimately the media just wants to portray the story that will have the most impact and is going to become a part of history. The media is biased toward competency. The McCain campaign was a mess, whereas the Obama campaign was incredibly sober, well run and aware of the power of words. This kind of competency made him seem like a smarter candidate. Inevitably, we all want the best story.
Q: Did you have a favorite moment on the campaign trail?
A: One day we had a surprise stop somewhere in Austin at seven in the morning. It was March and I was so exhausted at this point, but all of a sudden I realized we were pulling into the University of Texas football stadium. I’m a huge fan of this team so it was really exciting to have the quarterback and receiver hang out with us. Obama was having a blast playing catch with the guys. It was really fun seeing him so relaxed and having a good time.
Q: Your book, “Yes We Can,” has your photographs from the campaign. Is there something in particular you wish to convey in the book?
A: For me the most important thing about the book is that it portrays the emotion surrounding the campaign. I wanted to know who his supporters are. Obama’s campaign has been a grassroots movement, and it is all about the people. Capturing the looks on people’s faces as they watch him is more interesting to me than Obama himself. The book documents the movement of the campaign and the supporters that became the Barack Obama campaign, rather than just him. When it comes down to it he is just a politician, but the inspiration he gives to people is something else entirely.
Q: After the election do you have any upcoming projects?
A: This was the first campaign I have ever covered, and I’m not doing it again. I have no idea what is next for me, but I have spent some time in the Middle East and will possibly head back there at some point.