Scout Tufankjian followed Obama for two years to create “an eyewitness record”
An interview with the American-Armenian photographer
by Emil Sanamyan
Published: Thursday January 01, 2009
February 23, 2008 in Austin, Texas: "Obama shaking hands" from Yes We Can: Barack Obama's History-Making Presidential Campaign. Scout Tufankjian
Washington, - Armenian-American photographer Scout Tufankjian just published Yes We Can: Barack Obama's History-Making Presidential Campaign (powerHouse/Melcher Media), which documents her two years covering the campaign. With the first print run of 50,000 sold out, her publisher is preparing a second printing.
A photographer with Polaris Images, Ms. Tufankjian previously worked for several years in the Middle East. She talked about her background and experiences to our Washington Editor Emil Sanamyan on December 23.
Family and school
Born in Whitman, Massachusetts, and brought up nearby in Scituate, just south of Boston, Scout Tufankjian went on to get her bachelor's degree in political studies from Yale University in 1998.
ST: My father's family is very typical Armenian. I have a great-grandfather from Harput. My grandmother is somewhat vague in terms where their family comes from. Although relatively recently we found out that her family is from Musaler, which we still need to do more research about because it kind of sounds too good to be true.
We lived too far away from an Armenian church to go on regular basis. As a kid I begged to go to Saturday school, but my parents could not take me because it was more than an hour away.
I lived in Massachusetts until I was eighteen. I went to college in Connecticut and then moved to New York about year and a half after graduating.
AR: Your college degree was in political studies. Was the idea initially to go to law school, as with many Armenians, or do something else?
ST: No, my dad is a lawyer, so I never wanted to go to law school.
I always wanted to do journalism. What always attracted me to journalism is the idea of creating a record. I don't know if that perhaps comes from being Armenian. I remember spending a lot of my childhood telling my non-Armenian friends about the Genocide that they never heard of.
The idea of creating a record of something you witness has been very important to me.
But since my school did not offer a journalism degree, I majored in political studies with a focus on ethnic conflict and nationalism in kind of an attempt to know more about what is going on in the world rather than simply learn journalistic skills. I thought I could best learn and train [to be a journalist] on the job, having learned about history in classroom.
AR: Did you get to write as a journalist?
ST: I did do some writing in college for a local newspaper, but I already knew I would be doing photography. I did school exchange in Northern Ireland, and when I was there, there were riots in the town that I was living in and I photographed them. So immediately I knew this is what I wanted to do.
That was still the predigital world and there was this idea that a photograph cannot be argued with (which unfortunately is no longer the case). Plus, I enjoyed photography so much more than writing. So it was 10 years ago that I began photography.
AR: And in 2002 you took some pictures in Armenia...
ST: I was there with my dad and that was just around the time I began working professionally in the Middle East. We spent about two weeks in Armenia and it was pretty great. We called my grandmother who was still alive at the time and she cried.
We had a great time and did touristy things like Lake Sevan, Geghard, Garni, and Khor Virap. But I think we spent most of our time eating.
I want to go back and see more of the country, photograph Lake Sevan. We never made it to Karabakh, which I want to do sometime as well.
Scout in Gaza
First published at www.reporter.am
From 2002 to 2006, Ms. Toufankjian worked in the West Bank and in Gaza, where she covered major stories, including the Second Intifada (the Palestinian uprising against Israeli control underway since 2000), Yasser Arafat's death in 2004, the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza in 2005, and the Israeli incursion into Gaza in 2006.
ST: At times I would be the only foreign reporter working in Gaza, which is in a way a lot of responsibility.
Culturally, [Palestine] is kind of similar to the Armenian atmosphere, so the place felt familiar and I never felt that foreign there.
But one of the most important things you learn traveling the world is that people everywhere are basically the same. People want the same things. They want their kids to be happy, they want to stay healthy, and they want security.
So I did a lot of stories on life in Gaza and on regular families trying to get by in these crazy situations.
But I loved working [in Gaza] and my plan is to head back this year.
AR: Gaza has this image out of a "Mad Max" film, a very violent and dangerous place. Where did you live?
TS: Depending on the situation with electricity, I would stay at a hotel or rented residence in a relatively secure coastal part of Gaza City. Occasionally Israelis would shut down all power supplies - either by shelling or just cutting off the lines or gas supplies - so I had to live in a hotel with generators because I can do nothing without being able to charge my batteries and my computer.
During the [Israeli] withdrawal I stayed in an apartment in downtown Khan Younis, which is the second largest town in Gaza.
Gaza can be dangerous and certainly because of Israeli air power they can strike anywhere they want at any moment. Air strikes can come at any moment and considering how crowded and densely-populated Gaza is, they can be very devastating.
But not all of Gaza is dangerous at any time. Whenever there is an army incursion that specific area can be intensely dangerous, but even then, 10 blocks from there may be perfectly safe. It is possible if you are extremely careful to avoid the danger.
AR: Sorry for a stupid question, but are there any Armenians living in Gaza?
TS: I keep hearing about this one Armenian guy who sells little airplane bottles of alcohol - which is illegal in Gaza - for about $250 a bottle. I keep trying to track him down because it could make a great story, but because what he does is somewhat illegal I have had a hard time tracking him down.
There had been more families in the recent past, along with a church, but a lot of people had left for the [relatively safer] West Bank or Lebanon or somewhere in the West. A lot of people have left Gaza.
The Obama campaign
In December 2006 Ms. Tufankjian was offered an assignment: to photograph the junior senator from Illinois, Barack Obama, doing a book presentation in Manchester, New Hampshire. She was initially reluctant to go, but having gone and met him, she decided to continue to cover the senator who soon after launched his presidential campaign.
AR: What did you know about Sen. Obama before you met him in New Hampshire and what struck you about him?
TS: I read an article about him in the New Yorker and I kind of knew he would be an important figure in American politics at some point. But I did not expect him to be that interesting or compelling. I was expecting just another boring political event that I have seen before.
What struck me about him was not just his personality - and he is definitely a great speaker and was interesting to listen to - but also how people responded to him. People in New Hampshire pride themselves on being cynical about politicians and not being particularly interested in what they have to say. But [at that event] people saw Obama and they were transfixed. They were fascinated by him. It felt like he was a rock star, people were so excited.
Obama seemed smart, young, and believable in a way that I found remarkable compared to most politicians you meet that look kind of alien and having no experience in dealing with real people in their lives. He seemed like a real person.
And for me personally it became a great opportunity to travel around the United States, which I had not done before, with almost all of my work having been abroad.
AR: When you started covering Barack Obama he was still below the radar of most media. But as time went on, the interest became intense. Was it difficult to keep your access to the campaign? Did they try to get rid of you because you were not affiliated with a major media outlet?
TS: It did get to that point eventually. But I have been lucky to get assignments [from publications] at key moments that allowed me to stay on [the campaign] plane.
I did a lot of work for Newsweek, filling in for their main photographer who could not be there for family reasons. In the last two weeks of the campaign, which is the time when I could have had real trouble staying on because access was tightened so much, I was able to work for Essence magazine.
And since I was there for so long, I think I was rewarded by the campaign for loyalty. But obviously they would not just give me access at the expense of their own coverage.
AR: At what point in the campaign does the Secret Service get involved? When do they decide that "Here, this guy is important, we have to protect him"?
TS: Obama got secret service protection in May 2007 before anyone else in the presidential campaign. And that is because there were actual threats against him.
What happened was that Dick Durbin, the senior senator from Illinois, made a request to the Senate that Obama be given Secret Service protection. And since the Senate found that necessary, Obama was given that protection. So the decision was not made by either the candidate or the Secret Service.
Candidates can of course themselves put in a request for protection. I remember Mitt Romney [a Republican hopeful] made requests for Secret Service protection throughout his primary campaign because he thought that made him look cool.
But for Obama security really kicked in after he won the [caucuses] in Iowa.
AR: How was your relationship with Obama himself?
TS: He treated me as his annoying little cousin. He would stick his hands in front of my camera, shake my shoulders, that kind of thing. He and I definitely developed some sort of a relationship.
AR: Did you ever get on his nerves? Maybe taking a picture that may have made him uncomfortable?
TS: Not really. The only times I was asked not to take pictures was when he was asleep on his [campaign] bus, just because the click might have woken him up.
He was pretty good about avoiding the camera. People kept asking whether we ever saw him smoking cigarettes and how come there were no pictures of him smoking. That is because none of us ever saw him smoke. The [campaign] would not have been able to ask us to not file the pictures or anything.
AR: But would Obama get a smoking room in a hotel?
TS: We [in the press pool] have been guessing that one his aides got a smoking room and [Obama] may have smoked in that room. We are not sure but that could have happened.
AR: You mentioned in another interview about your interest in things on the margins of the campaign. Did any Armenian things come up?
TS: One of his staffers in Iowa was Armenian, and there were couple of Armenian volunteers on the campaign. The campaign gave me "Armenian-Americans for Obama" stickers and I received e-mails about Obama's statements on Armenian issues, recognizing the Genocide, etc.
But there was never anyone with an Armenian-American sign or something, which I kept looking for to photograph.