The Brooklyn-based photojournalist is taking trips to Moscow and Kolkata to document the Russian- and Indian-Armenian communities. She also once spent a month traveling to many of the Armenian villages in Anatolia as part of a diaspora project.
She continues to do freelance work in the New York area and never wastes an opportunity to promote her book Yes We Can: Barack Obama’s History-Making Presidential Campaign, which sold out its initial 55,000 copy run a month before its December 2008 release.
The prize winner topped a cache of 12,000 photographs she shot throughout the campaign in what proved a non-stop vigil on the trail with scores of cameramen jostling for competition. The image of Michelle and Barack embracing ultimately wound up being used by the president’s campaign on both Facebook and Twitter, alongside the caption, “Four more years.”
Within hours, the photo became Facebook’s “most liked” photo, sending Tufankjian into a twitter of her own with the instant popularity.
“I had no idea the response was going to be like this,” she exclaimed. “My friend e-mailed me on election night to tell me and I didn’t believe her. I had no idea about the Facebook thing until the next day. It’s been incredible.”
The photo was shot in Dubuque, Iowa, in mid-August, on the final day of a three-day bus tour across the state. The president hadn’t seen his wife in several days and when the pair met at an event onstage, the embrace was heart-rending.
It is in Iowa where the thought of running for office really gripped the president.
“I’ve always had a deep admiration for the Obamas as a couple,” said Tufankjian. “They have a deep love and respect for one another. It is truly one of equals. You see it in the way they speak and listen to one another. I find that deeply inspirational. So that’s why I chose to focus on just them, rather than the crowd in the background. I wanted to capture them as man and wife.”
Tufankjian doesn’t take credit for the popularity of the “shot that was seen around the world.” It had nothing to be about the image or the lens she chose.
“It’s all about how people feel about the Obama family,” she maintains. “And how they feel about them in that moment.”
The campaign trail was extremely long and tiring at times, including one 48-hour stretch with only a short respite between each event. Grueling as this was, Tufankjian felt the 2008-09 campaign trail was more demanding.
“The flight attendants on Air Force One took great care of us and made sure we were fed and had power to charge our laptops and camera batteries,” she recalled. “That’s the most important part of the job.”
Is there a side to President Obama that’s surprising?
“The thing that is most remarkable about him is that he’s exactly the same person on stage as he is off stage,” she agrees. “I was able to introduce my parents to the president, which was a wonderful experience.”
Born in Boston to an Armenian-American father and Irish-American mother, her ancestors escaped the genocide from Musa Dagh. Her Armenian ancestry has always remained transparent throughout her career, promoting it at every opportunity.
It wasn’t until her junior semester abroad in Northern Ireland that Tufankjian began taking photography seriously. She got an internship with the New Haven Register. When that ended, off she went to the West Bank and Gaza to cover the Second Intifada.
She split her time working in the United States and in Gaza over the next five years. In 2006, she began photographing then-Senator Obama’s presidential campaign, a full-time stint that extended the next three years.
From there, it was on to such international waters as Haiti, Syria, Lebanon, and Egypt, along with work on the Armenian Diaspora Project, a photo project aimed at creating a portrait of the global Armenian Diaspora.
She studies the work of other Armenian photographers like Karsh and Harry Koundakjian, along with those like Chris Hondros, Stephanie Sinclair, Gerda Taro, and Damon Winter. Her own pictures are a personal treasure. Many of them continue to remain viewable through the campaign’s website and Flickr page.
As to her name Scout, it came from the Harper Lee book and film, To Kill a Mockingbird.
“My parents were obsessed with it,” she admits. “They were going to name me Atticus if I was a boy. Scout is the name of the little girl in that book.”
Scout Tufankjian’s List of Favorites
Music: Akon and Gogol Bordello
Armenian singer: Charles Aznavour
Junk food: salt and vinegar potato chips
TV show: “Twin Peaks”
Movie: “His Girl Friday”
Screen Star: Dana Andrews
American song: “The Emperor’s Soundtrack” by Lupe Fiasco
Armenian song: “Aravat Luso” by Gevorg Dabaghyan
Form of relaxation: reading detective stories
Most embarrassing moment: turning bright red and babbling incoherently when being introduced to Jay Z
If you could trade places with anyone for a day: Sherlock Holmes
Pet peeve: people who stop at the top of subway stairs
Vacation spot: Istanbul
Day trip: Coney Island
American book: The Long Goodbye by Raymond Chandler or Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy
Armenian book: The Complete Armenian Cookbook by Alice Bezjian (I love to eat!)
Athlete: Boston Celtics star Paul Pierce
Armenian: My dad, along with the brave folks at PINK Armenia
Proudest accomplishment: My book, Yes We Can: Barack Obama’s History-Making Presidential Campaign
Quote: “The most important thing about photography is to like the people you shoot and let them know it” (Robert Capa)