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RFK's Shooting Turned Photographer into Historian

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RFK's Shooting Turned Photographer into Historian

RFK's Shooting Turned Photographer into Historian

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Photojournalist Bill Eppridge captured Robert F. Kennedy in every possible political setting - speaking through a bullhorn, signing autographs, hanging off the back of a campaign convertible, and always reaching his hand out to adoring crowds as many hands reached back to touch him.

And Bill Eppridge remembers well, the first photograph. He was on assignment for Life magazine with President Lyndon Johnson on Air Force One when he spotted Robert Kennedy doing something no candidate wants to be photographed doing: puffing on a cigar.

Mr. BILL EPPRIDGE (Photojournalist): And I took the camera very quietly and grabbed a couple pictures. The magazine ran one - not very big. Later on, about ten or eleven months later, the magazine then assigned me to photograph Bob Kennedy campaigning in 1966. I went and I introduced myself to the senator, told him what I wanted to do. I said I want to stick right with you, and he looked at me kind of funny, he says, okay. But no cigars, huh? And I just - he remembered me.

MONTAGNE: What was Bobby Kennedy like as a subject?

Mr. EPPRIDGE: He was a gentleman. And as a subject, he did something that I really love and it's the way I've worked all my life, is that he did nothing special for me. He ignored me. And by ignoring me he allowed me to photograph moments that were really true moments; not set up, not photo ops, but just moments that happened, and I loved it.

MONTAGNE: One of those moments would turn out to be the most tragic of them all. Bill Eppridge was with Bobby Kennedy the night he was shot 40 years ago and he would end up taking an iconic photograph showing a fallen Bobby Kennedy. His arms are outstretched, a glow of light illuminates his head and a young man kneels beside him.

Senator Kennedy had just given a victory speech at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles after winning the California presidential primary. He was poised to become the Democratic nominee. And as always Bill Eppridge was on assignment for Life.

Mr. EPPRIDGE: It was a closing day for the magazine. Time was tight; film had to be out on the plane. And they said shoot nothing but black and white. And they said stick as close as you can. When the senator was finished speaking, the exit that we were going to go out was across the ballroom, and the photographers usually formed a wedge in front of the candidate so that we backed through the crowd and gave him room to shake hands.

Senator came off the stage, the bodyguard said, senator, this way, pointing to the door. And I remember, 'cause I was right next to him, Bob Kennedy said, no, this way, and turned and went to the right to the kitchen. And he had no protection in front of him.

MONTAGNE: And then the shooting started.

Mr. EPPRIDGE: I got through the curtain into the kitchen and I first heard two shots. And I just turned to my left and there was the senator lying there and at that point my profession changed. I became a historian.

MONTAGNE: You shot the picture really that showed him down and dying.

Mr. EPPRIDGE: I was standing there, looking, and suddenly realized that what I was seeing there was an icon, almost. It was almost like a crucifixion.

MONTAGNE: A key part of the picture: there's a busboy with his white shirt and his arm kind of cradling Bobby Kennedy's head.

Mr. EPPRIDGE: Yes. The busboy who was holding him, Juan Romero - I made three frames of that situation. In the third one he's looking up and there's this look of, you know, help on his face. And that was the one. That was the picture that grabbed everybody.

MONTAGNE: When Ethel Kennedy came into that space, you write that she asked that all the photographers leave.

Mr. EPPRIDGE: Yes.

MONTAGNE: You didn't.

Mr. EPPRIDGE: No.

MONTAGNE: And you didn't stop shooting pictures either.

Mr. EPPRIDGE: What I did, in respect, was I backed up into the crowd to hold them back. People were pressing in and they needed to be held back. But every one in a while I would reach around and click the shutter on the camera that was hanging around my neck. I never put it up to my eye. I shot from the hip and came up with one quite acceptable picture.

MONTAGNE: Do you feel like it was the right thing to do, to take those last pictures when you weren't even supposed to be taking them?

Mr. EPPRIDGE: I know it was the right thing to do. I think that that kind of a situation has got to be documented, it has to be told, and it has to be told to people who do not understand the horrors that we can face.

MONTAGNE: Robert F. Kennedy's assassination wasn't the end of the story for you. As...

Mr. EPPRIDGE: No.

MONTAGNE: ...a photographer, there are other pictures that came later, of crowds gathering as the train that carried Bobby Kennedy's casket passed by.

Mr. EPPRIDGE: One in particular that shows the whole thing, was a picture taken in Baltimore. As a train passed through, and it goes over a rather wide street, down below are cars lined up, many people standing in the middle of the street. And these people had probably waited for a couple of hours, yet they couldn't see the inside of the train. And for them to wait that long is a sign that he affected many, many people, many ways.

MONTAGNE: Thank you very much for talking with us.

Mr. EPPRIDGE: Well, you're welcome, Renee.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: Photojournalist Bill Eppridge. You can see those photographs and hear more about his travels with the candidate at NPR.org. Robert F. Kennedy died 26 hours after he was shot on this day 40 years ago.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: It's NPR News.

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