How a Campaign Photographer Captured The Most Liked and Most Tweeted Photo Ever

Scituate native Scout Tufankjian tells us how she got the Obama hug photo.

Image Credit: Barack Obama via Flickr

On 11:15 p.m. Tuesday evening, President Obama’s campaign team posted a single photo of him hugging first lady Michelle Obama on his Facebook and Twitter accounts, along with the words “four more years.” The race had just been called, and the photo provided a quiet, simple epilogue to a grueling campaign. Then it went viral, breaking every social media sharing record on the books. As of this posting, the image has been liked 4,065,608 times and shared 562,961 times on Facebook, and retweeted 794,331 times on Twitter, making it the most popular image ever posted to both sites. Scituate native Scout Tufankjian is a Brooklyn-based photographer who followed the President during his first campaign and later published a book of her images, Yes We Can. As an official campaign photographer, she took the iconic hug photo at rally in Iowa this August. Here, she tells us more about the shot and the overwhelming response to it.

Where and when was the image taken? What was happening at the time?

We’d been on a three day bus tour through Iowa. Iowa means a lot to the Obamas because that’s where his presidential campaign really started and took hold. It was Iowa that embraced him before anyone else did outside of Chicago. The first lady had not been on the bus tour with us, and this was the first event she was at. They had not really seen each other for more than a few minutes in a few days. I think, like most Americans, I find their relationship to be really inspiring and kind of remarkable…how much they genuinely love and respect each other in a non-political way.

What about that moment make you decide to take the shot?

I took a few images. There were moments around it. The reason that I liked it is the way they hug each other—and I just take pictures of them, I’m not an intimate in their relationship—but the way they hug each other, they seem so caught up in each other. It’s not just a pro forma hug at an event. I wanted to isolate them away from the crowds. I wanted a photograph of just the two of them as opposed to all of the other stuff that was going on around it. I love how much they seem to concentrate on each other.

Were you aware that the Obama campaign was going to use the photo on election night?

No, not a clue. I’m the campaign photographer so I had some idea that they might put it out somewhere, but I had no idea that they were going to tweet it or put it on Facebook on election night. I certainly had no idea that it was go as crazy as it did. I don’t kid myself that its popularity has anything to do with the composition of the image. It’s obviously entirely about the Obama family in that moment. Even as an accidental participant in it, it’s pretty remarkable.

Do you have any sense as to why the campaign decided to use the image?

I don’t know what their decision making process was on that. But my guess would be, and the reason that I as a citizen—as opposed to I as a photographer or an employee of the campaign—liked it so much is that it really is about them as people and the way people feel about them as a family as opposed to a more standard presidential image. And I think that’s one of the things that makes this campaign and him different from other political figures: it’s  how inspiring they are as people, beyond just the policies they believe in.

When did you learn it had been posted?

My best friend in New York emailed me, saying “Your picture is the most tweeted in history. You beat Justin Bieber. Congratulations.” I was standing in a loading dock outside of the hotel in Chicago waiting to get into a van about to go to election night, and I actually didn’t believe her. Four million is a little crazy. I’ve had other photos go viral: There was the picture with the president and the schoolkids where they’re kissing in the background. But nothing like this. It’s about the moment. It’s about the “four more years,” not about the framing of the image or the lens I decided to use. I am an accidental bystander, it’s all about how people feel about the Obamas.