She didn’t even want the assignment.
When Scout Tufankjian’s photo-agency sent her to New Hampshire in the dead of December, 2006, to cover a post–mid-term election Democratic “victory rally,” this hard-bitten photo-journalist fresh from covering the horrors in the Gaza Strip was prepared for a lame photo-op.
After all, Indiana Sen. Evan Bayh was there, drawing a small crowd of … mildly enthusiastic party regulars.
And then Barack Obama showed up — and 600 rabid fans went crazy.
“Bayh got three people,” she said. “So I knew something was up with this Obama guy. People lost their minds when he came on stage and spoke.”
The excitement continued at the next stop, a smaller gathering at a bookstore-coffeeshop.
“One person asked him to sign her copy of ‘Lady Chatterly’s Lover,’ and they got into a long talk about the book. Then the next person asked him about philosophy and suddenly they were talking about Kant and Heidegger. I thought, ‘Wow, this guy is smart.”
She immediately called her editor and begged to cover the Obama campaign.
“You do know he’s not even running,” she remembers the editor saying.
“I said, ‘He’s in New Hampshire in December and he doesn’t ski. He’s running.’ I knew that his campaign, win or lose, would be historic and I wanted to be part of it.”
And so, she was. For the next two years, virtually full-time, Tufankjian covered Barack Obama’s climb from Senate rookie to the 44th president of the United States.
The snows of New Hampshire led to that announcement in Springfield, Illinois in February, 2007, and then five days a week with Obama in Iowa.
“Basically, I moved to Iowa for five months, living in a room with seven other photographers with one bathroom,” she said.
The climax of that chapter of the saga came during back-to-back Oprah Winfrey events in December, a few days before Obama’s win in the January, 2008 caucuses.
“It was snowing like mad and I’m in car driving what should be 90 minutes and it took five hours,” she said. “I was convinced I was going to die on that highway. And, worse, I knew I wouldn’t get the shot.”
Spoken like a true news addict. Just 31, Tufankjian got her start at the New Haven Register, which quickly led to shooting politics and international crises for Newsweek, Time, the New York Times and other large outlets.
With that background, she quickly grasped the history in the Obama story. But the emphasis is on the word “story,” not “Obama.”
“People think the media is in the tank for Obama, but the only thing I was in the tank for was this story. You could see how historic this was. Not the speeches — when you hear them over and over again, you definitely have some eye-rolling moments — but you could see how he was inspiring people.”
You can see it in virtually all of the crowd shots in the 250-picture book, which will officially be published on Dec. 8 by powerHouse Books in DUMBO.
“One of my favorite shots is one of a girl in a pink dress along the rope line — you can practically see her shaking with excitement about Obama,” said publisher Daniel Power. “Scout captured those kinds of moments better than anyone. But there’s also a majestic quality that gets beyond the normal political stagecraft.”
Tufankjian’s favorite story from the trail offers an odd twist on the cliche of Obama’s power to inspire. One day, while Obama was campaigning in an inner-city neighborhood, she overheard three kids on the phone with a buddy who was at work.
“They were razzing him because he was at work, saying, ‘Your boy is here and you’re missing it! That motherf–er is going to be president!’ That sort of became our joke throughout the campaign. When things looked good for him, we’d say, ‘That motherf–er is going to be president.’ Then at the end, in Grant Park last week, we said, ‘That motherf–er is president!”
About one-quarter of her travels were covered by various magazines — but the rest was strictly on-spec freelancing. And when campaigns charge $500 for ever half-hour flight, the bills add up.
“I’m $32,000 in debt on my credit cards,” she said. “And two of my best friends had babies during the campaign that I’ve barely seen.”
“Yes We Can: Barack Obama’s History-Making Presidential Campaign” by Scout Tufankjian, is available at powerHouse Books [37 Main St., at Water Street in DUMBO, (212) 604-9074].