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Scout's honor: Close-up of history

Posted by Teresa Hanafin  January 3, 2009 02:15 PM

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Tufankjian Beacham
Twenty-year-old Andrea Beacham, wearing a pink tye-dyed Obama T-shirt,
danced and chanted before the start of an Obama campaign rally in Dallas, Texas.
Photo by Scout Tufankjian / Polaris Images

Scituate photojournalist's images captured drama of the Obama campaign

By Mark Arsenault
Globe Correspondent

Sometimes a news story becomes so big, so compelling, that its every twist makes not just headlines, but history. On the trail of that kind of story, there's almost no hardship a journalist will not endure.

After a chance run-in with Barack Obama in 2006, photojournalist Scout Tufankjian, who grew up in Scituate, followed the Illinois senator around the country for nearly two years, living the nomadic existence of an independent photographer among the traveling press corps, and driving herself into debt.

Her campaign pictures appeared in Newsweek, Rolling Stone, Esquire, and many more newspapers and magazines around the world.

The most engaging campaign photos of the nearly 13,000 images she filed have been collected into Tufankjian's first book, "Yes We Can: Barack Obama's History-Making Presidential Campaign," published by powerHouse Books.

She had remarkable access to Obama, and her photographs show the president-elect at moments of triumph and of exhaustion. Just as prominent throughout the book are pictures of the regular Americans who often waited in long lines for a glimpse of the candidate or to hear him speak.

See photos of Tufankjian at work and her subjects in this gallery. Try the "Full-screen" link:

"When I started out, the first few weeks of the campaign, I was of course interested in Obama" as the subject of the story, Tufankjian said in an interview. "But that quickly changed. Not that I became less interested in Obama, but I became more interested in the movement around him, how people reacted to him. The thing about him that makes him different, outside of the color of his skin, is the amount of passion he arouses in people and the amount of work those people want to do for him."

Her work, like those of other photographers during the campaign, created iconic images that helped define the Obama candidacy, just as photographers have been influencing perceptions of past presidents.

Photographs are usually the closest most people will ever get to meeting a president, said Andrew Mendelson, who is chairman of Temple University's Department of Journalism and studies photographic coverage of presidential campaigns. Photos "are clues to who they are - if they're like us and, ultimately, would we like them to lead us," he said.

"Imagery benefited Obama in a number of ways," said John J. Pitney Jr., a professor of American politics at Claremont McKenna College in California. "From his announcement at the Old State Capitol in Springfield to his victory speech in Grant Park, the backdrops suggested that he was historic and presidential."

Pitney added: "Obama's followers projected their hopes and expectations into whatever pictures they saw. To them, just about any picture of Obama was inspiring."

Tufankjian was born in Whitman, grew up in Scituate, and was educated at Derby and Milton academies, before earning a political science degree at Yale University. She is the daughter of Betty and Allan Tufankjian of Scituate. The 31-year-old photojournalist now is based in Brooklyn.

After covering riots in Northern Ireland and daily life in the Gaza Strip, she stumbled into the Obama phenomenon, and just barely. In December 2006, Polaris Images, the New York agency that represents Tufankjian's work, told her that the German news magazine Stern would pay her to photograph Obama at a book-signing in Portsmouth, N.H.

Reluctantly, Tufankjian made the five-hour drive to New Hampshire from Brooklyn. She was stunned by the crowd's enthusiasm for the junior senator with a light political resume and a powerful speaking style. On that day, Obama was not yet formally a presidential candidate, but politicians who visit the Granite State in the dead of winter are probably going to run, Tufankjian figured.

She informed her agency that she was going to cover Obama's presidential campaign - every bit of it. Then she spent 23 months on the trail.

"I took a week off here and there to remind my boyfriend of what I look like," Tufankjian joked. "I'd come home and he'd be like, 'Oh . . . I thought you were better-looking.' "

Tufankjian moved to Iowa to keep expenses down, and followed Obama day to day as he built his winning campaign in the nation's first presidential caucus. "Over the course of that first year," she recalled, "the campaign was about this great speaker, this exciting young politician, and you didn't really get a sense of the role he played in history - until South Carolina."

Once the Democratic primary campaign moved to a state with a large African-American population, "you got a sense of just how much his candidacy meant to people in a life-changing, game-changing way," said Tufankjian. "You'd think that a story [this big] would be covered by the people you studied in school."

She began doing research, studying the details of the Civil Rights movement, the Robert F. Kennedy campaign in 1968, busing riots in Boston - "anything I could find that would help place this moment in the context of history."

Her knack for showing Obama's effect on people is what impressed Daniel Power, chief executive officer at powerHouse Books. "These photographs told not [Obama's] story, but the story of his campaign - the hope, the change, the history of it all - visibly and literally affecting people as they witnessed him," he said. "No other body of work captured the rapture and the nuances, the effect . . . his campaign was having in so many parts of the country, in so many ways."

The book deal was struck two weeks before the election. For most of the time Tufankjian was on the trail, she shot pictures "on spec," paying her own expenses, then hoping to sell enough photographs to make a living.

"It became a real struggle to figure out when I absolutely had to be there and when I could take a week off to save money," she said. Obama could be campaigning in Nevada when he would suddenly rush back to Washington for a vote.

"And all of a sudden I've got an extra $5,000 being billed to me," she said. "At first I would get kind of twitchy and really stressed out. But eventually, I learned how to keep the financial worries outside of the bubble so I could concentrate on work."

She financed much of her expenses the old-fashioned way - by maxing out five credit cards, a debt she has begun to whittle down.

Tufankjian plans to photograph Obama's inauguration, promote her book for a few months, and then . . . who knows? She'll find a hot spot somewhere on the planet, and take her camera. "It depends on what's going on in the world," said Tufankjian. "I've never been a good long-term planner."

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