A one-on-one interview with the woman who took a million photos of the President
Armenian-American photographer Scout Tufankjian is the only independent photographer to have covered President Obama’s entire campaign from before he announced his candidacy through the Election Night celebration in Chicago’s Grant Park. A daughter of the Massachusetts Armenian community, Scout spent two years trailing across the country with candidate Obama.
Now that the campaign is over, she has been touring the United States promoting her book, “Yes We Can: Barack Obama’s History-Making Presidential Campaign.” A collection of her photographs from the campaign trail, the book tells the 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 and the movement he inspired.
Along her tour, Scout visited Sardarabad Armenian Bookstore on Friday, March 19, where she discussed her experiences documenting President Obama’s election campaign. She was also at Rose and Alex Pilibos Highschool on Monday March 23, giving students an interactive tour of her book in the school’s famous Noah’s Ark library.
I caught up with her while she was in LA to talk on a more personal level about her life and her journey before, during and after the campaign.
Below is our conversation:
Allen Yekikan: Talk about your background and where you grew up. What was your childhood like?
Scout Tufankjian: I grew up as an only child in a small town in Massachusetts about 45 minutes south of Boston called Scituate. It was a great place to grow up.
A lot of the reasons that I am a journalist come from my childhood and from being one of the few Armenian kids in my town. Like every other good Armenian girl, I wrote my 7th grade history report on the Armenian Genocide and my teacher told me I had made it all up. She failed me, eventually that was corrected, but she told me that I had made it all up. I think that is one of the reasons why I became a journalist, and specifically a photojournalist. People can always tell you that your words are lying but photographs show people the reality of the situation and the truth and that’s always been my drive–to show people what something looks like; what something feels like. To show people who can’t be there what it feels like to be there; to show them that I did not make them all up as well.
A.Y.: Who are your inspirations? We have a long and rich tradition in photography going all the way back to the Ottoman Empire? Were you influenced at all by Armenian photographers? Do you draw anything from Yousuf Karsh, the world famous Armenian-Canadian Portraitist?
S.T.: My main influence in photography and my personal hero is a photographer named Robert Cappa, a Hungarian born photographer. He said a lot of very clever things because he was a very clever guy. He was one of the first conflict photographers and one of the founders of Magnum. He kind of covered almost everything that was going on and this during the early days, when we first got the ability to use the small cameras that gave us the luxury of portability.
One of the things he said was that “the most important thing about photojournalism is to like people and to let them know you like them.” To me that has been a huge influence. You can see this motto in his work. He cares about people he’s interested in people, interested in their stories.
And Karsh’s work, although I’m not a portraitist, when I do portraits, I very rarely arrange them. I don’t work in studios. I tend to photograph people doing things in more candid moments. But his ability to capture someone’s personality in that setting is something that I find so incredibly impressive. The ability to show you what these people were like in a photograph is something that I think is just incredible.
A.Y.: Do you think that photography, or at least the drive to capture and record history, runs in your blood?
I think that’s definitely true. being Armenian is a huge part of being a photographer, both because of the story I told earlier about people not believing me that the Genocide had happened, but also because we are a diasporan people; we exist in so many different countries whose founding culture’s we are not a part of, so the drive to observe and to document is really something that is a part of us.
We were the first photographers in the Middle East. There is a photo-museum in Beirut and a huge percentage of photography there, all the early stuff, is from Armenians. If you go through the old city of Jerusalem, all the photography shops are run by Armenians. And so I think that drive to document the places we are living in is definitely a part of it.
I remember reading something in college, or it might have been right when I finished college and I was just getting started in my career as a photographer. It was a book by an anthropologist about Armenians across the world and I remember thinking to myself it was a little bit weird hearing someone write about you as an ethnic group to be studied and to draw all these broad conclusions on what it is like to be an Armenian living in America or in Europe or Jerusalem. One of the things he said is that photography was one of the main three cliche careers that he found Armenians in. And I remember not having known that at the time and remember being kind of pleased being a part of that long history.
A.Y.: How did you get into Photography? Did you always know this is what you wanted to do?
S.T.: I always knew I wanted to be a journalist. I always knew that I wanted to be there when things were going on to ask lots of questions and document history–whatever was going on. But I didn’t start thinking seriously about photography until I was doing my junior year abroad in Ireland. I was living in a town called Derry and I got caught up in a riot. So they shut off all the streets so that I couldn’t go home and at that point I had a choice; I could either riot or take pictures. I thought, “ok, I’m an American; I’m not going to throw rocks at the police, that’s just crazy. So I started taking pictures and I loved it–the immediacy of it, the ability to show people what it had been like. The ability to capture people’s emotions and feelings in these photographs was something I just loved.
So I came back to the states to finish up my degree and started taking all these photo classes because I didn’t know anything about photography. I talked my way into a gig covering a minor league hockey team and slowly figured out what an aperture was and how shutter speed worked. I then went back to Ireland to build up my portfolio; then I came back to the states again and got a job at a newspaper. I worked there for about a year and then when I got laid off from that job; it was late 2001. So I decided that I was going to move to New York and also start covering the conflict in the West Bank. So I moved to the West Bank. I knew only two words of Arabic–no and thank you. I didn’t know anyone and I just decided that this is what I was going to do.
I remember going to Armenia with my dad in between being in Ireland and going to the West Bank and we fought about this pretty much the entire time we were in Armenia. We kind of reserved an hour every day for fighting about whether or not I was going to go to the West Bank. And I went. Instead of stumbling into trouble, I talked my way into the back of an ambulance and spent a month doing a story on the health crisis in the West Bank, covering mental institutions, traveling with doctors from village to village, sitting with ambulances as they took people to the hospital during curfews, and as they covered clashes. I worked in the West Bank off and on for two years and then I worked in the Gaza strip off and on for four years; until I started covering the Obama campaign.
A.Y.: What was your trip to Armenia like? Talk a bit about your experiences there.
S.T.: I spent ten days in Armenia with my dad. When we got there, we called my grandmother and she cried–she’s not the kind of person that cries, ever. It was incredible. We pretty much ate our way through the country. We would go do something cultural for 25 minutes then we would eat for another hour. It was incredible. It was the first time I had been in a country where everyone looked like my uncles and my cousins.
It was hot and dusty, but it felt right. I went swimming in Lake Sevan and went out to Khor Virap. It was an incredible time and I took lots of pictures. My dad took lots of pictures of me taking lots pictures. So it was an extremely well documented ten days and I’m hoping to go back in the fall.
A.Y.: Did you take any pictures?
S.T.: I did, but as is always the case with my work, people were always more interesting to me than scenery or more precisely how people interact with the land is maybe a better way of putting it. We were there in July so the haze made it really hard to photograph the landscapes. But the people, the faces of the people…I used to get up every morning and walk around the city and photograph people, the women brushing off the sidewalk in front of their shop, the people setting up for the Vernisajh market and the kids playing soccer. People just living their lives, was what I wanted to photograph.
A.Y.: If you were to take your photos from Armenia and put them together, what story would they tell?
S.T.: You know, I don’t know what story I would tell. I’m not ready to do that. I think I need to spend more time there. For me, I think ten days is not enough time to tell the story of anything, especially an entire nation, especially a nation that so many people look towards. So I’m hoping to go back and spend more time there and hopefully to tell that story. So I don’t know if I have an answer for that because I just don’t feel like I had enough time.
A.Y.: How do you approach photography? Do you approach the subject you are capturing already knowing the story you want to tell or do you approach it with a blank slate, take the photos and then try and figure out what the story is?
S.T.: I try to go in with a blank slate. I think that whenever you go into a situation saying that these are the photographs I want to take; even if it’s something like a single day on the campaign, which I worked on for two years…I try not to do that because you then miss what’s actually going on and instead see what you want to see going on.
As a journalist it’s pretty important for me to be open to anything that’s happening and to be observing the reality of the situation, not what my presupposed idea of the situation is. So I definitely go in with as much history, as much knowledge about the subject as I can. I think that going in completely blank and not having tried, at least, to get an understanding of the political complexities and history or background, will lead me to miss things. You will miss what things mean; you’ll miss the hidden languages underneath the way everyone moves and talks; what everyone does. So I do try and go in with as much background as I can, which is, I think, one of the reasons why I tend to spend so long in one place and why I think ten days in Armenia wasn’t enough for me to do anything remotely resembling a story.
The longer you spend in a place, the more you understand the hidden language and the hidden meaning behind what everyone is doing. That to me is really important but in terms of going and looking for a specific photograph, you can’t, because if you do you’ll be concentrating on looking at that the whole time instead of doing what your actually supposed to be doing and that’s observing. So I do try and go in visually blank.
On the campaign, occasionally we would try and keep ourselves entertained by saying “ok today you are not allowed to take pictures of anyone under six. You take a photograph of anyone under six; you need to justify it to the entire press core.”
A.Y.: How did you get involved with the campaign?
S.T.: I got involved with the campaign somewhat by accident. My editor at Polaris Images, which is my photo agency, asked me to go cover the junior senator from Illinois who was to be doing a book signing in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. And I didn’t want to go. I had a date that night. I live in Brookline and it’s a six hour drive up to Portsmouth and I had no interest in covering this event. And book signings are not a lot of fun to photograph. So they found someone to pay me to go so I immediately jumped out of my car and drove up to New Hampshire.
I don’t know if you are familiar with New Hampshire at all but they are all very jaded with politicians. Because they are the first primary state, they are very spoiled. Unless the politician is actually sitting at their table talking about how cute their kids are, they don’t care. So I thought it was going to be nothing. I walked in the room and it was dark and gloomy and I thought, “oh God, there’s going to be no pictures here, it’s going to be brutal.” And then he walked in the room and people flipped out and people were just fixated on him; people were crying; people were laughing and smiling. I mean people were just glued to him. He did three events in New Hampshire that day and everywhere he went, people’s reactions were just incredible. And I thought, if he can make people react like this two years before the election, when he hasn’t said he’s running yet and in New Hampshire, then if he decides to run for president, he could really do it. So I started following him and I followed him for the next two years. So that’s how I got involved.
A.Y.: What kind of access did you have to candidate Obama and his family and advisers? Did you travel with them?
S.T.: When we first started there was no organized press travel. There were organized press trips; for example we had a two day announcement tour when he announced he was running for president. There were charter flights and busses and I was on that and he would occasionally do a bus trip through Iowa or New Hampshire. But for the most part, you were pretty much on your own for the first year. You would get a rental car and follow the motorcade and go from event to event, which was great, you had a lot more freedom.
Toward the end of ’07, he got a full time traveling press corps. At first it was just buses, mostly just Iowa, but towards the end of January it started to be full time flights. So there was a press plane and you would fly from event to event, with the occasional bus tour thrown in to keep us a little bit sane. So I did travel full time with the campaign but I did take some time off here and there.
Photographers, as a general rule, had much better access to the candidate than print reporters did, because when we got alone time with him, we wanted him to pretend we were not there as opposed to print reporters who wanted to ask him questions. I think he enjoyed that we didn’t ask him any questions.
So we had a lot more access to him and his wife and the kids, when they were out. We were careful not to photograph the kids when he wasn’t around because it wasn’t a public event because they were not public figures. But when they were around, we photographed campaign staffers playing games with the girls and the girls doing little dances for their father. It was always fun when they were out because he was always so much happier and the kids are so cute and unpredictable. It was always more fun when they were out.
A.Y.: You saw candidate Obama rise from being a junior senator to the underdog in the campaign and then to becoming the leading candidate and finally the President. Throughout this entire two year period, did you notice any sort of change or transformation in his persona?
S.T.: One of the surprising things about him actually is that he really just didn’t change that much. I mean, he obviously got more tired as the campaign ran on and on–but so did we. As a general rule though, he really didn’t change that much. He was mostly the same guy from the beginning of the campaign to the end. And he was also not someone where there was a backstage Obama and an onstage Obama. I have a friend who worked on the Newsweek story covering the campaign. Newsweek has a program where every four years they get backstage access to the campaign candidates in exchange for not publishing it until after the elections. And one of my best friends was the guy who had Obama and he told me that “he’s the same guy.” The deal with being a reporter that’s usually great is that you get to see the hidden side of people. With Obama there weren’t a lot of surprises. If you saw him on stage that was pretty much what he was like. I mean he’s a little bit more private in his private time, as we all are. But he really is the same guy off the stage as he is on.
A.Y.: There’s a lot of anticipation right now over what he is going to do or say come April 24. He had come out very strong in support of Armenian Genocide recognition, both as a Senator and as a candidate. But now you have him faced with this decision as the President. So you can’t help but wonder; has becoming the President changed his positions and principles on issues such as the Armenian Genocide.
S.T.: I’m wondering the same as you are. Is he going to be one of those politicians, because there has been so many of them who have been so strong and have gotten into office but then said, “oh well we have other concerns.” So I’m waiting to see as much as you are what he’s going to do. I know he has Armenian friends. In one of his books he talks about going to Armenian weddings in Chicago so I don’t know. Part of me thinks this is exactly the kind of thing he would take a stand on. And another part of me thinks this is exactly not the kind of thing he would take a stand on. So I really just don’t know. I’m waiting to see just as much as everyone else is.
A.Y.: Did you ever speak to Candidate Obama about the Genocide?
S.T.: I didn’t. But I didn’t because I felt like…well first of all as a journalist we are not supposed to talk about the things that we care about when we are interacting with the candidates but also because I felt like he knew. It’s not an issue that I felt like he was ill informed on. It’s not my 7th grade teacher saying that I made up the Armenian Genocide. He knows what it is and he knows what the reality of the situation is. But will he take a stand on it? I don’t know.
A.Y.: Can you talk about your emotional experiences on the trail, photographing the rallies and the president? Was there a point where you just stopped and thought about your role in history?
S.T.: I think it’s been a pretty incredible two years. We all tend to look at history as something that has happened and not as something that is happening or something that we are able to witness. I remember there being a few moments throughout the campaign where I thought, “this is really history.” As journalists what we really want is to document history. And so normally events that are nation changing–whether this proves to be nation changing is another question–but we have gone from a nation founded on slavery to one that has elected a black man as president and that’s an amazing cultural shift. Normally things that promote huge cultural shifts are tragedies–Pearl Harbor and 911 or the assassination of JFK. American history has mostly been changed by tragedy, whereas this is an event that, for the majority of Americans, is a positive experience; something that is really incredible and I feel very lucky.
I didn’t always listen to Obama’s speeches; not because I thought he was boring, but because when you are concentrating on work, you are thinking about shutter speed and aperture and composition and finding that face in the crowd and trying to create an image that will show what it felt like to be there.
I remember his Philadelphia race speech during the reverend Wright controversy. And this was the first time in the campaign where he had decided to talk about race in America, historically, culturally, contemporarily. I saw his best friend sitting in the front row crying during the speech. Now this is not a guy who sits in the front row of an Obama event and cries. He’s not that guy. He usually just wanders around and looks through trophy cases at events in high schools. But when I saw him crying in the front row, I thought I should probably pay a little more attention to this one. And I remember sitting and thinking that if I have kids, they will study this speech; and if I have grandkids they will study this speech. There were a lot of moments like that throughout the campaign, where you would just pinch yourself and think, “I am here right now documenting this moment that people will be talking about and studying for years.”
I remember during the South Carolina primaries, you would talk to folks that grew up during Jim Crow and saying that there had been various leaders that have come through and have disappointed every single time but that this time would be different. For these people, who grew up with the colored drinking fountain and the white drinking fountain, forced to sit in the back of the bus, there is now a black man who is president of the United States. I remember during the inauguration, when he came out for the swearing in ceremony, the first person he saw on the stage was Congressman John Lewis, an American hero, a civil rights hero and a person who literally had his head cracked open during a voting rights march in Selma Alabama. That to me was an incredible moment. It really shows how far we have come; not full circle obviously, but just the moment of John Lewis and Barack Obama embracing on the morning of Obama’s swearing in is an incredible thing to have witnessed.
A.Y.: Was that the most memorable moment of the inauguration for you?
S.T.: There had been many moments throughout the campaign where I did feel the emotion of the moment. This was not one of them. I felt that my toes were going to fall off. It was cold. For me, the story of the campaign has always been about the movement around Obama more than the man himself. So for me the most incredible moments of the inauguration was not necessarily the swearing in moment. The most memorable moment for me was the trip to the inauguration. We took the train from Philadelphia down to DC with the Obamas and the Bidens and I don’t know if you have seen the photographs of the RFK funeral train but when RFK died his body was taken along the same Amtrak line. People lined the tracks; they had signs and American flags and the photography from that time is incredible. But that was in June. Obama’s trip was on January 17th or 18th. It was about 15 degrees outside and people still lined the tracks, from Philadelphia all the way down to DC. People stood along the side of the tracks waving at the train in the freezing cold. That to me was one of the most incredible moments of the inaugural weekend. Also striking was the parade after the ceremony, where the now president and his wife take the limo from the capital to the White House. The Obamas walked part of the route, which is something that some Presidents do and some don’t. Despite the fact that all of these people had been outside from probably 4 in the morning, there were people lining the streets. And again, seeing their faces…I remember the security for it was done by law enforcement and military. I remember seeing this young naval officer, who was a young guy probably in his early 20s, grinning from ear to ear, so excited to be a part of it. To me that is what the campaign is really about, more so than Barack and Michelle Obama walking down the street. That’s a huge part of it but also the people lining the streets to see him; people that really did make a grassroots campaign and movement to put someone in the White House.
A.Y.: Along the trail, did anyone ask you about your name and what it meant? Did you ever find yourself confronted with that awkward situation where you are trying to explain what an Armenian is to someone who has never heard of our people?
S.T.: Every time someone finds out what my name is, they ask me what I am–unless they are Armenian in which case they say, “oh you’re Armenian.” Sometimes they guess that I’m Finnish, or Indian, I’ve had all sorts of random guesses and when I tell them that I’m Armenian they say, “what’s that” or “oh Albanian.” But I kind of like it; you get to talk about being Armenian every time someone asks about your name. On the campaign, when I make reservations for a hotel over the phone, everyone asks me what it means. But Obama knew…Obama knew it was an Armenian name.
A.Y.: What does your last name mean?
S.T.: Tufankjian means son of a gunner. Scout is also an unusually first name as well. It’s from a book called To Kill a Mockingbird. If I was a boy they were going to call me Atticus. Can you imagine Atticus Tufankjian? But with the unusual first and last name, people always ask.
A.Y.: Did you meet any Armenians along the trail?
S.T.: There were a couple of Armenian staffers. In the early days, when we actually signed in to the events, we would do secret Armenian handshakes or see our names on the sheets and get excited. It was actually kind of really cool. They made Armenian Americans for Obama stickers that I gave to my family; those were cool.
There was an Armenian secret service agent in some town in Michigan. I went up to him and asked if he was Armenian and he was very surprised. But yea, there were some staffers. Everyone always had a friend who was Armenian. I don’t know if you find that too, but they would say, “oh I went to college with someone who was Armenian,” or “someone in the Vegas staff is Armenian.” So there were a bunch, but unfortunately nothing I could really photograph. I was always on the lookout, but I never really saw any signs signifying Armenian at events.
A.Y.: Were there any Turks in the crowds?
S.T.: There were actually a lot of Turks for Obama signs and pins. Kind of all over the country, there was a concerted Turks for Obama effort.
A.Y.: What’s going on in your life or career right now? What’s next?
S.T.: Right now I’m doing a mixture of book promotion tour stuff and daily assignments. I have a very nice, very suffering boyfriend who is insisting on me spending a little bit of time in New York after two years of pretty much straight travel, which I think is kind of fair; so I’m doing assignments in New York–portrait jobs, news jobs, things like that.
I’m here in LA until Monday; I was out in the Bay area and the Midwest a couple months ago. And I’m doing some stuff in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut when I get back. So I’m kind of doing a mix of book stuff and work stuff. I definitely want to go back to the Middle East to pick up some stories I left off there.
A couple of years from now, I want to go back and re-photograph some of the people I photographed in this book and look and see how has this presidency changed their lives. Has his presidency changed their lives? And it’s a story that I’m kind of anxious to get started on but you’ve got to give the guy a break, he’s only been president for two months. That will be two or three years from now story.
A.Y.: Any plans for Armenia in the future?
S.T.: Yeah, definitely. I’m hoping to head back in the Fall. A year from now my boyfriend is going to be spending a lot of time in Moscow; so I’m planning on spending a lot of that time in Armenia and trying to work on some actual stories, as opposed to some ten day tourist snaps.
A.Y.: How close do you feel to your Armenian heritage?
S.T.: I feel very Armenian and I try very hard to continue to stay involved. I live in Brookline and New York doesn’t have a big Armenian community anymore. Most people are in New Jersey; there’s the Church on 32nd street but culturally I try and stay involved. I cook Armenian food; the messenger bag I would walk around with used to have a sticker that said, “Turkey stop denying the 1915 Armenian Genocide.”
But I don’t speak the language that well because when I was a kid I grew up an hour and a half from the nearest Saturday school. I was a total dork and would beg my parents to drive me to it but they never did. So everything I learned, I learned from my grandparents. It’s complicated because not having a language really distances you, as well as not living in the community. There isn’t really a place for Armenians to just get together in New York City. The fantastic thing about this book is that I have been meeting with a lot of different people and meeting with a lot of different Armenians at different events; so I am kind of finding the community in New York. There are young Armenian dances throughout New York that I’m trying to get involved in.
Traveling full-time makes it kind of hard to have roots anywhere and that’s part of the problem.
A.Y.: On a lighter note, what’s your favorite Armenian food?
S.T.: My mom’s choreg and Soujoukh; I love Soujoukh. There’s a place in the old city of Jerusalem that makes the best Soujoukh and Bastrma; those are my favorite. Also my family is from near Syria so Kubbeh is something I grew up with. But yea, every Saturday I make yogurt in my great grandmother’s yogurt bowl and every time we have special occasions, I make Kubbeh with the yogurt. I just made a huge bowl for my boyfriend so he would have something to eat when he was at home.
For a glimpse at some of Scout’s photos from the trail, visit Scout’s website