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YES WE CAN: Barack Obama’s History-Making Presidential Campaign

By Scout Tufjankian

Published by Melcher Media/powerHouse Books

Reviewed by Sarah Coleman

Without doubt, we’re soon going to be flooded with photo books documenting Barack Obama’s campaign for the U.S. presidency. A few things make this a given, from the potency of the historical moment to the extreme photogenic qualities of the candidate. There’s also the desire, among photojournalists and news organizations, to recoup their large investments of time and money in the campaign. It was a long, exhausting two years. Who could fault them for seizing this moment of opportunity?

Showing an impressive grasp of the opportunity/economics matrix, powerHouse Books has come roaring early out of the gate with YES WE CAN, an extended essay on the two-year campaign by freelance photographer Scout Tufjankian. Press materials claim Tufjankian was “the only independent photographer to cover his entire nearly two-year campaign.” Certainly, her tenacity is impressive. There’s hardly a campaign stop she doesn’t cover, from a meet-and-greet in an Iowa cornfield to Obama’s July, 2008 speech in front of an estimated 200,000 people in Berlin. 
 

 
Copyright Scout Tufankjian
© Scout Tufankjian
 
 

Interestingly, though, the book almost didn’t happen. In the introduction, Tufjankian writes that she came close to blowing off her first opportunity to photograph Obama in late 2006. “I had plans that weekend that did not involve driving to New Hampshire to photograph what I assumed would be a deadly, dull book signing,” she writes. 

Tufankjian changed her mind when her agent told her that German magazine Stern was prepared to pay for the photographs, and after that first shoot, she was hooked. Canceling all other plans, she gave herself up, body and soul, to the campaign. She was prescient: Obama hadn’t even announced his candidacy yet. But, “I knew that this was going to be important, and I wanted to be there,” she writes. 

Of course, it’s intriguing now to look back on images from the early days of the campaign, when Obama was the long-shot candidate. One image, shot from behind Obama in a school gym, shows the candidate’s legs in the foreground while close advisors and Michelle Obama peer up at him with concern. Another, shot from behind the newly-minted candidate’s head at a February, 2007 rally in Texas (p.32-33), shows a surprising amount of grey already in Obama’s hair – countering news stories that he greyed significantly during the campaign.
 

 
Copyright Scout Tufankjian
© Scout Tufankjian
 

Copyright Scout Tufankjian
© Scout Tufankjian

 

Plenty of the material here is familiar: there are typical shots of Obama walking up the steps to his campaign plane, embracing his wife, and reaching out to grasp a hand in a crowd of supporters. All of these shots are well-executed, but, due to the number of excellent photographers on the trail, they seem almost generic at this point. 

 

Copyright Scout Tufankjian
© Scout Tufankjian

Copyright Scout Tufankjian
© Scout Tufankjian
 

 


More interesting are the unusual, offbeat shots Tufankjian captured along the way. I love the image of Obama in a pool hall in West Virginia, taking a flamboyant behind-the-back shot at a ball that’s just out of frame. (He knew he could easily mess it up, but risked it anyway.) And there’s a wonderful image of a young girl sitting at a rally in Pennsylvania, cradling two dolls – one white, one black – as she listens to the candidate.    

 

Copyright Scout Tufankjian
© Scout Tufankjian
 
                                                                                                     
 

In fact, the best thing this book does is to turn the camera away from Obama and onto his supporters, showing how people from all walks of life were inspired by the man and his message. From a young family of five sporting army t-shirts and Obama buttons in North Dakota, to a row of young, mostly African-American Las Vegas waiters kneeling down to take cellphone pictures of the candidate, Tufankjian shows how Obama achieved the seemingly impossible, reaching and motivating every known U.S. demographic. 

 

Copyright Scout Tufankjian
© Scout Tufankjian
 


No doubt, YES WE CAN will soon be joined by other, similar titles. There’s already OBAMA: THE HISTORIC CAMPAIGN IN PHOTOGRAPHS, a compilation of different photographers’ work that was published by Amistad Books in October. (Talk about early.) What distinguishes Tufankjian’s book is that it carries the sensibility of a single photographer, one who wasn’t beholden to a major news organization and who maxed out her credit cards to get the story. Somehow, it manages to be both joyous and low-key, in a way our new president would most certainly approve.


 
Copyright Scout Tufankjian
© Scout Tufankjian
 


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