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

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Photographs by 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

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.

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Maria Mehranian.

Calendar of Events

Maria Mehranian will speak on California's high speed rail on October 23 in Pasadena; for details about this and other upcoming Armenian happenings in America, consult the Calendar of Events.