Robert F. Kennedy Funeral Train – The People’s View ___ a wall installation, a film and a book
SFMoMA, Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco, 2018 Exhibition with Paul Fusco and Philippe Parreno
The Robert F. Kennedy Funeral Train—The People’s View presents a reflection on the Robert F. Kennedy Funeral Train, that rode from NYC to Washington, D.C. on June 8, 1968. This project is entirely based on memories, snapshots, home movies, and sound, recorded by bystanders standing along the tracks that day.
On board the train was photographer Paul Fusco, who photographed the many bewildered mourners paying their final respects. A cross-section of American society—Black and White, city-dwellers and country folk —all stared at the slowly passing train, which itself stayed mostly outside Fusco’s lens.
This ongoing project takes as its starting point the reversal of Fusco’s photographic perspective. Here, the mourners do not merely play a role in someone else’s pictures but are the photographers and filmmakers themselves. With their cameras, they gazed back at the train and recorded it in their fashion. Until now, I spent eight years searching for the people who lined the tracks to bid farewell to RFK, and the photographs and home movies they made. I began my inquiries at historical societies, archives, and libraries local and national, but no American institution had ever collected these images.
Therefore, the more significant part of my endeavor consisted of fieldwork. I made appeals on social media and in local newspapers, followed the train’s route, knocked on doors, hung around train stations, and talked to as many people as I could. Especially in the lead-up to the 2016 elections, I saw how the cross-section of the American people in Fusco’s photographs had played out over the interceding 50 years, as I met everyone from blue-collar workers to white-collar business owners, from a homeless person to a self-made billionaire. Often, I was their guest, and they would share their images and memories of June 8, 1968.
Many of the conversations brought up topics such as the social and political unrest of that year. Not only was it an important year for the Civil Rights Movement, with the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the subsequent riots, but it also saw student protests and an increasingly hopeless Vietnam War. And just like today, the world watched America with a mixture of fascination and disbelief. I sensed how strongly 1968 in general—and RFK’s positive message about civil rights and racial justice—is still present in the minds of many Americans.
The choice of a funeral train, a conscious nod to the tradition that began with Lincoln’s in 1865, seems to have been intended to impress an epic image on the collective memory. But during my research, I was surprised to discover that it was not easy to find pictures of the RFK funeral train. Most of these images are still in the private domain, in slide cases and family albums. Many people, including myself, had only the vaguest idea about what the train must have looked like—an idea above all informed by the facial expressions of the citizens immortalized in that exceptional photo series by Fusco. This type of inversion fascinates me: onlookers bearing witness to an event intended to enter into the collective memory, who were themselves turned into an icon of this same event.
Photography always inherently involves an element of the “lost and found.” A photograph is a peculiar blend of discovery and construction, to begin with. And, by my project, the people who responded to my request not only retrieved their photographs but often their memories of the event. Could these unassuming photographs, these residues at once historical and personal, have the potential to form a collective memory when brought together? Could they constitute an image of loss, an image of the unfulfilled promise of a new hopeful era?
All the RFK funeral train images were shot within an eight-hour time frame along a single railroad line, but today lie scattered across the United States. I collected a few hundred photographs and a dozen home movies that I could retrieve and assembled them along a timeline, an echo of the people who lined the railroad tracks looking at these same scenes.
The exhibition and the accompanying book contain a section with ten unpublished photos taken by Paul Fusco from aboard the funeral train. These images set the proper context for The People’s View, are a source of inspiration and present the reversed perspective.
This project was on show at the Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco, in Les Rencontres D’Arles (France 2018), the International Center of Photography (New York City 2018), and the Nederlands Fotomuseum, Rotterdam (2019). This exhibition has been chosen as the Best Work of Art in 2018 by NRC Handelsblad (by Sandra Smallenburg).
The project isn’t finished yet. Sensing that there still must be so many images, memories and insights keep me from saying goodbye to this undertaking. I will continue the search for new material, although not as intensely as I did before. Additional material will be forwarded to the SFMOMA so to keep this project alive.
And hopefully, the other components of this exhibition, complemented with new footage, will travel throughout Europe in the years to come.
More information about the book
This book has been granted a gold medal for The Most Beautiful Book in the World by the international jury of the Stiftung Buchkunst (Leipzig). The book was also selected for De Best Verzorgde Boeken 2018, for which it was displayed at the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam (September 2019)
Quote from the jury about the book:
“…as the train glides past, it is mirrored chronologically by the images and sequences of one amateur photographer after another… As a project and concept, this book about remembering and observing is breathtaking, its execution flawless. The result leaves one lost for words.”
All image rights belong to the owners of the images and are published with their full consent.
The book also features the names of all the participants who had confidence in this project and helped me by sharing their images, films, and stories.
Furthermore, the book is one of Volkskrant’s top 10 best 2018 Dutch Photo Books ((by Mark Moorman). The book has also been nominated for: the Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize 2019 Best Photography Book Award, the Kraszna-Krausz Book Award, and the 2019 Prix Livre d’Artiste, Association Bob Calle.
This book presents a pull-out section with never-before-published photographs from Fusco’s RFK series (thanks to his daughter, Marina Fusco)
The American art critic and poet David Levi Strauss and the Dutch writer Taco Hidde Bakker wrote a comprehensive essay on the relationships between photography, history, and contemporary politics in light of the people’s views of the RFK funeral train as collected for this project. I wrote the preface.
This photo book (limited edition, 2018) is a joint publication between two non-profit publishers of photography and art books: Fw:Books (Amsterdam) and the Magnum Foundation (New York City).
Project Facebook page: www.facebook.com/RFKfuneraltrain