When Robert Kennedy was struck by Sirhan Sirhan’s bullet at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles on June 5, 1968, Harry Benson was one of the few photographers on the scene. Now the Scottish-born Benson, 88 — whose historic and celebrity subjects have included every U.S. president since Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Beatles, Martin Luther King Jr. and countless others — is releasing his gripping images from that night and the national mourning that followed in a new book, RFK: A Photographer’s Journal.
We talked to the world-renowned photographer recently about what it was like to cover Kennedy before and during the tragic event.
The book opens with your photos of Kennedy and his family camping in Idaho on July Fourth weekend in 1966. How did you get that kind of access?
They’d seen me around before, and I just wandered in.… They were just behaving like kids, trying to catch snakes and things like that. You would have the Secret Service there now, but there wasn’t even a security guy. It was after Bobby’s assassination that all changed.
Tell us about that night at the Ambassador Hotel.
Bobby had won the California presidential primaries, and the party was very happy, everyone jumping up and down. You have to remember, Bobby had become a rock star. People loved him. And not just the young people. People are shouting, “Sock it to 'em, Bobby!”
Bobby makes a speech and everyone cheers. Then he goes down steps to the kitchen [to leave the party]. I am about four yards behind him. I see another exit, and turn to go to it. A girl screams — a blond girl wearing a “Kennedy for President” boater on her head. I turn, and Bobby is three-quarters of the way down to the ground. Then the room turns to absolute panic, people screaming, “Not another Dallas! Not another Dallas!”... Ethel [Kennedy] is over him, and saying, “I’m with you. I’m with you.”
What is your most memorable picture from that night?
It’s Ethel screaming. To me, that’s a nightmare. The screaming will always stay with me.
What was going through your mind?
Basically, I said to myself, “This is for history. This is important. This is what I came in the business for. Don’t mess up.” It was painful, but you don’t let your emotions get in your way. This is beyond your emotions.
Sometimes I’ll give lectures and this will come up; [somebody will say,] “Mr. Benson, do you ever have nightmares about it?” I say, “The only nightmares I’d have would be if I hadn’t taken the pictures.”
What motivated you to publish these photos now?
It was the 50th anniversary of a tremendously important moment in history — [but] had RFK lived and become president, the world would be a different place today.