Cameras

The Story Behind The Internet's Most Popular Photo

This photo, along with the simple caption “Four more years” because the most tweeted and most liked on Facebook photograph ever, and it did so with incredible speed. We thought you’d like to hear the story behind it. It’s probably not what you imagined.

To get the scoop, we went straight to the woman who snapped the photo herself. Ladies and gentlemen, meet Scout Tufankjian.

Giz: Tell us a little about your background.
Scout Tufankjian: I’ve been shooting professionally for about 12/13 years, and my career has been a real mix. I started shooting in Northern Ireland (I was 18 and wanted to go someplace where English was spoken but was cheaper than London), and since then I’ve covered international stories like the Egyptian Revolution and its aftermath, the Haitian Earthquake and its aftermath (as photographers, we tend to do a lot of aftermaths), and the Second Intifada.

Giz: How long have you been shooting Barack Obama?
ST: In 2006, I got sent to New Hampshire to cover a booksigning by the junior senator from Illinois, and decided to spend the next two and a half years covering what became his winning presidential campaign. So through sheer chance and pigheadedness, I became the only photojournalist to cover the entirety of the 2008 Obama campaign. After the campaign was over, I did a book, Yes We Can: Barack Obama’s History-Making Presidential Campaign, and went back to doing international work.

I started shooting exclusively for the campaign in August 2012. I think they probably remembered me and my work from ’08 and called me up when the campaign started ramping up. There are two photographers: me and Christopher Dilts. I focus on POTUS and he covers VPOTUS and FLOTUS.

Giz: How did “The Photo” come about?
ST: This picture was taken in Dubuque, IA on August 15. Iowa is always a pretty special place for the Obamas, since Iowans were really the first people outside of Chicago to embrace the Obama candidacy, and we had been on a bus tour for three days. This was the first event the First Lady had been at and they hadn’t seen each other for a few days. Because I’m a total sap and am also relatively recently married, I find their relationship to be totally inspirational in terms of the respect they have for each other, so I always try to focus on them as a couple, rather than as public figures.

Giz: How many shots did you take of “The Moment,” and how did you decide on that shot?
ST: I think I got one or two shots from that moment. I’m not a heavy shooter as a general rule, and almost never use the motor drive on my camera, so I wouldn’t have gotten more than one or two. I definitely had no idea that it would be as popular as it is, although I don’t kid myself that it’s popularity has anything at all to do with the framing of the image, etc. It’s all about how people feel about the Obama family.

Giz: What camera/lens did you use?
ST: I shot this with a Nikon D3 and an 85mm 1.4 prime lens. I really only shoot primes (I have an 80-200 lens that I carry and almost never use), and I mostly shoot wide open, which is high risk, but high reward. When you nail it, the picture can be beautiful and kind of dreamy with a three-dimensionality that I love, but when you don’t, it’s useless and out of focus. You have to be willing to miss things (and not get too caught up in the stuff that you missed) to shoot that way.

The rest of my kit includes a D700, a 28 f1.8, a 28 f2.8, a 35 f2 and a 50 f1.4. I’m also borrowing a D800 from Nikon, which is a quieter camera, so that the clicks don’t interfere with private backstage moments, and I’ve rented a Nikon 35 1.4 that I love with all my heart, but doesn’t currently fit in my budget.

Giz: Any tips for capturing spontaneous moments?
ST: My main advice would be not to pre-plan too much. If you try to give yourself a shot list or look for specific moments you could miss something amazing. Also, give yourself a licence to wander, but don’t second guess yourself if you want to sit on one person for 45 minutes waiting for that perfect moment.

Robert Capa once said (perhaps apocryphally) that the most important thing about photojournalism was to like people and let them know that you like them. If you are interested in people, that makes the job exponentially easier.

Other than that, a lot of it is luck and preparation. Like for the bear hug picture, which also went viral, I just happened to be in exactly the right place with exactly the right lens, which doesn’t always happen. And sometimes, embarrassingly, I don’t even notice that something is happening until afterward, like with the kissing kids picture that Gawker covered for some reason the better crop is not on the public Flickr, but we definitely tweeted it). I would love to say that I saw that happening, but I totally didn’t.

Finally, cast a wide net. I’m not saying to lean on the motordrive, which I think is kind of weird and alienating (you don’t want your subject to feel like they are being machine gunned), but the more pictures you take, the more often you are going to get something great.

You can check out a lot of Scout’s amazing work at her website, and her book Yes We Can: Barack Obama’s History-Making Presidential Campaign is available on Amazon.

Thanks Scout!

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