Witness to history: Harry Benson’s Robert F. Kennedy assassination images

Famed photojournalist Harry Benson has always prided himself on “being at the center of things” and “getting the goods” when it comes to an assignment. That commitment to return with great pictures, no matter how harrowing the conditions, was in evidence when he received the June 1968 assignment to cover Sen. Robert F. Kennedy after he won California’s presidential primary.

“I was standing on a chair photographing Bobby in the Ambassador Hotel and followed him as he headed for a kitchen exit,” remembers Benson. “Suddenly, even though I didn’t hear any gunshots, I heard people screaming and saw Bobby lying on the floor, blood running from his head. My instincts immediately kicked in, and I said to myself, ‘Let me fail tomorrow, not today’ and ‘1.4, wide open,’ I took a picture of him on the floor and the others you see in this series. It was bedlam all around me, but I did everything I could to keep my head.”

Benson photographed Ethel Kennedy as she screamed at bystanders, “Give him air,” and he followed with other pictures of the scene and its tragic aftermath. Some people have criticized Benson for taking the pictures, and that fateful night still haunts him. But he has no regrets: “Other photographers who were there held back, but I knew I needed to record this. History was happening right in front of me. I am a photographer and this is what I do.”

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Robert Kiener is a writer in Vermont.