Exclusive: Behind the Scenes of the Obama Campaign with Scout Tufankjian

The first time Scout Tufankjian (who’s named after a character in one of her parents’ favorite books, To Kill a Mockingbird) photographed Barack Obama, she didn’t want to go. She knew who he was and found him interesting, but she didn’t feel like making the long drive from Brooklyn to New Hampshire for what would probably be a dull event. Thank goodness she did, or we wouldn’t have her new book, Yes We Can, which gives readers an in-depth, behind the scenes look at the following two years she spent on Obama’s campaign trail through nearly 200 photographs. (It’s revealing, but you won’t see any shots of him in what she calls his “super dorky gym outfit.” That wasn’t allowed.)

What happened in New Hampshire that day that convinced her to hop on the bus? She saw the crowd’s reaction to Obama. “I was impressed when they went nuts because I grew up in New Hampshire, and it’s hard to get that kind of reaction out of people there about a politician — and they were transfixed,” she says. “Even some of the other photographers became starry-eyed.” Obama wasn’t technically running for President yet, but Tufankjian immediately called her agent to tell her she was going to cover the campaign.

“Here was a black guy named Barack Hussein Obama from Chicago wowing a crowd in rural New Hampshire, which isn’t known for being very open,” she explains. “If he could win them over, it made me think he could go all the way, and I wanted to be there to document it. Photojournalists all want to document history, and the fact that this was history that could also have a positive effect on so many people made it even better.

“So many of the stories that I shoot — like the work I’ve done in Gaza — are about showing people something horrible and tragic that is happening in the world. Although as soon as I’m through promoting the book, I’m getting on the first flight there. Israel’s closed the zone and I have a lot of reporters friends who are trying to get in, but it’s too hard to just sit here watching what’s going on there.

“Now that the ‘holy f*ckin’ shit he’s going to get to govern!’ euphoria is fading a bit, reality is sinking in. I think all of Obama’s supporters know that he can’t help but disappoint them a little once he’s in office. He’s an inspirational figure to people, but he can’t fix the economy or collapsing industries or international situations like Gaza overnight. Many issues might not get the attention that people would like because we’re living in such fraught times. I would witness people hearing him say what they wanted to hear — hearing ‘yes’ when he was really saying ‘no’ just because it was his voice and they consider him to be this perfect reflection of what they want. But he’s not that guy. Let’s hope he won’t disappoint on the big things, though.”