Photography Spotlight: The Obama Phenomenon
What a camera and a chalkboard have to do with the political and cultural heritage of our time.
By Maria Popova
There’s no question the Obama campaign ignited some powerful human emotions. But it’s hard to grasp just how powerful by simply talking about them from the sidelines of abstraction. That’s why photographer Scout Tufankjian decided to dissect those most visceral, deeply moving elements of the history-making campaign.
Nearly two years ago, Tufankjian reluctantly took an assignment to shoot an Obama book signing, something she called “a photographer’s nightmare.”
But as soon as Obama walked into the room, the crowd became so transfixed that Tufankjian couldn’t help being intrigued and absorbed by the energy. Inspired, she set to explore this incredible phenomenon by following the candidate along the campaign trail, documenting not the stereotypical glamor moments of high-stakes politics but, rather, the Obama’s guy-next-door everyday, the immense emotional charge of his supporters, the most intimate moments of the Obama family.
What started as a reluctant assignment evolved into a rich and incredibly profound portrait of America.
You can’t help finding yourself absorbed and overwhelmed by Obama’s incredibly powerful presence — powerful not because he is now the leader of the free world, but because it appears to move people — everyday people — deeply, to touch them on a fundamentally human level so uncommon in politics.
Somewhere between Beatlemania and The Fallen, the collection captures those big human truths that Obama resonated with so deeply, the very resonance that got him elected in the end.
Indeed, it’s hard not to appreciate the strong resemblance, both photographic and cultural, to the incredible social force that was Kennedy captured in The Fallen, particularly in the eerie reminiscence of the images showing Obama’s arrival via the Pennsylvania rail.
It’s no surprise, really, since one of Tufankjian’s photographs shows a woman answering the question of why she was voting Obama with a simple yet momentous phrase: “The Kennedy Package.”
Perhaps the most powerful element of Tufankjian’s photographic feat is actually just that — his exploration of the vast spectrum of Obama supporters. Armed with a chalkboard and a camera, she simply asked people at Obama rallies to jot down why they were voting for him.
The book, featuring over 200 of Tufankjian’s most impactful photographs from this 2-year-long portrait of the Obama phenomenon, is available on Amazon December 8 — and what better holiday gift than a rich piece of political, cultural and emotional history?
Update: Thanks to a friend of Scout’s for pointing out Scout is indeed a she, not a he. The mistake has been fixed and we’re, needless to say, deeply embarrassed to have been even less accurate than GWAP’s infamous Gender Test.
Published November 25, 2008