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The Story Behind The Photo

I love stories like these, the back-story. A Paul Harvey “the rest of the story” story, sorta.

At about 11.15 pm Eastern Tuesday night, the Obama campaign tweeted and Facebooked a picture of Barack and Michelle Obama, a photo clearly not taken at that moment. (The sky was not dark; she was wearing a sleeveless dress.)

Twitter photo

The photo went viral, becoming the most “liked” Facebook photo ever and probably the most retweeted tweet ever.

As of this writing, the photo has 4,254,126 Facebook likes; 575,453 Facebook shares; 806,485 Twitter retweets; and 290,915 Twitter favorites. [Twitter has more than 500 million accounts; Facebook has more than 900 million.]

Is this the first election where an iconic image of the result resided not with a newspaper or television network but with two digital social networks … and where the photo was shot not by a photojournalist but by a campaign photographer?

Scout Tufankjian, a Brooklyn-based photographer, shot the 2008 campaign as a photo journalist and produced a book afterwards. The campaign hired her, and she started in August. That’s when she took this photo. On August 15. In Iowa during a three-day old-fashioned bus tour.

In a conversation with Slate, Tufankjian said:

It was the first day that the first lady had joined us so he hadn’t seen her in a couple of days. She came in on a bus that morning—it was the first event of the day—and they embraced on stage…

I decided to focus on them rather than taking a wider shot, because I think I’m not alone in finding their relationship to be totally aspirational. The obvious love and respect that they have for each other, and that the relationship is clearly one of equals, despite the fact that he’s the president, is remarkable. So I wanted to focus on them as a couple rather than on them and the crowd, or them and their position…

Tufankjian said that the campaign didn’t tell her it was using photo on election night. “I found out when a friend of mine e-mailed me to let me know that they had used it.”

In speaking with Boston magazine, she elaborated:

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.

Jenice Armstrong at suggests the power of the image lies in the fact that the photo feels real. It “isn’t some corny, staged photo op. There’s intensity in that hug. How often do you see that with politicians?”

Phillip Kennicott, at the Washington Post, thinks that there is a mix of the political and the personal in the appeal:

It has all the generic ingredients of a successful political image. With its moody and slate-gray sky, it encapsulated the drama many of President Obama’s supporters felt Tuesday evening: The Obamas had weathered the storm…

But the photograph has a remarkable and specific latent message, too. Unlike many images of political marriage in which the man lays claim to his wife through a symbolically possessive gesture — touching her shoulder, raising her hand up or kissing — the embrace between these two people seems mutual…

It’s impossible to know the reality behind this image, whether the president and the first lady are indeed in love in the way that photograph suggests. Perhaps this is just another very successful variation on the carefully staged depiction of love that is mandatory for political success. But regardless of the reality, that variation is significant. The photograph strongly suggests an ideal of mutuality in marriage, unencumbered by older ideas of possession and obedience that still hold sway in some deeply traditionalist religions…

[T]he president chose this photograph to tweet, disseminating an image that emphasizes neither the man’s power nor the woman’s beauty. The image that went viral, that clearly speaks to people, represents a more modern ideal of true equality in emotional relations.

I think all three are talking about the same thing.

There is a feeling of equality and vulnerability in this photo that is not politics — or marriage, for that matter — as usual.

Clearly the image touched an emotional chord with a lot of voters. The fact that this election also saw the first voter approval of same sex marriage in the country — in Washington, Virginia and Maine — may have contributed to the photo’s appeal. [Note: Minnesota voters rejected a ban.]

The fact that election rhetoric – on both sides – was particularly nasty may also contribute to its appeal.

It is a photo of togetherness, of promise, of faith.

We can all use a little more of each of these in our lives. Washington, DC … a lot more.

Here’s to hope.

By Kathy E. Gill

Digital evangelist, speaker, writer, educator. Transplanted Southerner; teach newbies to ride motorcycles! @kegill

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