RFK Funeral Train: The People’s View

Photographer: Alan Virta, Ardwick MD_June 8 1968

Rein Jelle Terpstra lives and works in Amsterdam, Netherlands. In his artistic practice he makes use of photography as a way to explore connections between memory and perception. Faced with the mass production of photographic images, Terpstra advocates rescuing images that linger on marginally, directing his work as well as our attention to the use of vernacular photographs, expanding the photographic spectrum that forms our collective imagination, as if it were a counter view that complements historical events.


In contrast to the functional construction of collective memory, Terpstra raises the ghosts of personal memories, typical of a subjective, fluid and organic memory, as the author tells us. The amateur photography that Terpstra rescues allows us to see the motif above the technique and photographic medium. Terpstra’s editing and exhibiting strategies to show these vernacular images give us, as spectators, a way of looking beyond the photographic medium itself while also allowing us to reflect on its power as a constructor of realities. Terpstra not only broadens our imaginary with images, but, through a collaborative work process, lets us peer into the subjective, sometimes marginal, voices that accompany these photographs, and that were silenced by the flood of images that make up our history.

Archivo Platform (AP) | Over time, mass photographic production has shaped society’s perception as well as its relation to both past and present events. In a contemporary context, some artists and writers decry the excessive production of photographic images, highlighting the need to reflect on the already existing ones and the relationship established with social, cultural and political contexts. Today, in the age of the digital image, statistics show that 300 billion photographs are uploaded every day. What opinion do you have about this reality and how do you think this can influence our perception?


Rein Jelle Terpstra (RJT) | Although this reality has existed for a decade already, it is still a difficult one that makes me think about it again and again. One of the biggest changes we could see is the shift from so-called iconic photography towards photography as a social medium. A relatively slow trickle-down distribution has transformed itself into a fast and endless dispersion. A permanent coverage came into being, making everyone a chronicler of his own life nowadays. But in the continuous stream something important may surface. In general, I feel our perception moved from being impressed by the image to having an impression of the image. Surfing instead of diving. 


AP | In an opposite attitude, your work seeks to reflect on the relationship between the photographic image and perception, memory and history. In this context, and before we turn to your artistic work, I’m very curious about your personal archive of vernacular images. Can you tell us about the origin of this archive and how it influenced your artistic work?


RJT | My attitude towards photography is ambivalent; for many years of course I’ve seen that vast streams of images are passing by. Along the road I became detached from the production of images and started to focus more on the possible meanings of photography. 

That is when I became interested in amateur photography. It is the uninhibited way of looking, which I particularly find in photographs taken by people who have no particular interest in photography. 

As soon as a photograph has an artistic ambition, there is an idea about what constitutes a good photograph. The artistic approach is inevitably coupled with reflection on the medium. 

The amateur looks straight through the medium and is only interested in the subjects in front of the camera. It is often the man, looking at his wife, his dog or that mountain scenery. These photographs are often a strange mixture between documentary and posing. You see the codes that tell us about what we see if we are looking through a lens and who we become when a camera is pointed at us.

Vernacular, and especially amateur photography is often nearby and servient. Like the original meaning of the word vernacular, that stems from the Latin word verna, which means home born slave. 

You see the codes that tell us about what we see if we are looking through a lens and who we become when a camera is pointed at us. 


AP | Turning to your artistic practice, projects such as RFK Funeral Train: The People’s View (2018) or Dark Dunes (2020) offer a counter plan of historical events. Non-official photographs such as ones you used in these projects sometimes hide or soften the context in which they were made (Dark Dunes), while on other occasions they broaden our perspective on a certain event, showing us the out of field, what is missing from the official record (RFK Funeral Train). Your projects work towards activating those hidden imaginaries that co-exist with our collective memory, wouldn’t you agree?


RJT | Although they are so tightly intertwined, I try to differentiate collective memory from autobiographical memory. My thoughts on this are rather ‘home grown’, but I do sense some important differences. Autobiographical memory I see often as fluid, organic and perceptive to other memories; it can be overgrown and deformed. Moreover, these personal memories are not intentional. On the contrary, they can haunt us like ghosts. On the other hand, I see the collective memory more as a construction. The original memory is to be preserved. Its meaning (or its subsequent meaning) is often functional and intentional, intended to help construct a feeling of identity, of a person, a group or a nation. 

The historic journey of the Robert F Kennedy funeral train was a conscious nod to the Abraham Lincoln funeral train in 1865, and seems to have been intended to impress an epic image on the collective memory. But many of us only know the RFK train by the facial expressions of the bystanders who became famous thanks to that exceptional photo series by Paul 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 very event. By turning Fusco’s perspective around, we see what this epic image of the train actually looked like. In a strange sort of way, it was the images of this collective memory that ended up in the private domain, in shoeboxes and family albums.  

RFK Funeral Train: The People’s View

Annie Ingram, [Elkton, Maryland], June 8, 1968. From Rein Jelle Terpstra’s The People’s View (2014–18). Courtesy Melinda Watson.

SFMOMA Museum of Modern Art San Francisco - The Train 2018

AP | The appropriation of vernacular images seems to defy notions of authorship, but also of privacy and ownership. How do you deal with this ethical question in your work?


RJT | The question of who owns the object (e.g. a piece of paper, or a negative) and who owns the image is very relevant. As we know, a Western museum may have the legal ownership of a physical part of the photograph but the image depicted on that piece of paper may belong to a descendant of a child who lived a century ago on the other side of the world. 

I think awareness of the ethical element of appropriating photos is growing, and that is a something positive. I always felt that the ability to move from one context to another is a powerful characteristic (or actually a lack of characteristic?) of photography. By changing the context, the original meaning shifts as well. The act of collecting and presenting vernacular photography to me is transformational one. This notion had been a thread running through the whole RFK funeral train project. But I kept the photos as close as possible to their original purpose. Virtually, I only stitched these pictures together in a line, in analogy with the line of people who stood along the tracks that day. More than creating a typology of photographic records of a train, I wanted to cast a light on the sense of loss in many snapshots, felt as efforts to hold onto a moment, and I wanted to connect them with a bigger story, of a loss of an era and a dream. 

Dark Dunes, 2020

Dark Dunes, 2020, Book

AP | How can these perspectives help change historical consciousness?


RJT | Reflecting on history is reflecting on something that is not there anymore. We, as human beings, have only two ways to deal with absence: our memory and our imagination. In my photographic work, I want to appeal to both at the same time. Not by presenting new images, but by presenting new thoughts on what is already known and while also saying something about the times we are living in.


AP | Mental images seem to be very relevant in your work. ‘Photographs’ that were never taken, but exist as mental representations that we try to communicate through other means (After Images. The photos that were never taken, 2002; 2010); or the importance of the survival of images as memories, beyond photographic materiality or visual perception itself (Retracing, 2013). These mental images coexist and are formed together with collective representations, often being determined by the latter, and giving rise to what we call culture, myth, belief or ideology. Can these mental images act as a form of resistance to historical narratives that shape our perception?


RJT | I think you are right, mental images are often determined by collective representations, maybe in the same way autobiographical memories can be overgrown by a collective memory, which is, of course, more present and visible and therefore apparently more legitimate. Nevertheless, these mental images have a huge creative potential, just because of their fluidity and unstable form; they can work like a kind of antidote to those 300 billion photographs that are uploaded every day. 


Nabeelden, Nederlands Foto Instituut

(former Nederlands Fotomuseum) 2001


Retracing, 2013, diaporama


Retracing, 2013, Book

AP | Your work presents an anthropological interest. There is a concern to understand what brings us to producing certain types of images and which ones we wish to retain, to remember. It could even be said that there is an ethnographic approach in your work process, such as the one developed in Retracing (2013), After Images. The photos that were never taken, (2002; 2010) or RFK Funeral Train (2018), projects in which there is fieldwork where communication, understanding and sharing are fundamental. Can you comment on the importance of the investigative process that you develop in your practice?


RJT | Indeed, communication, understanding and sharing are essential. There is a strong participative element in my all my photographic projects. Almost all my work in some way embodies the human need to preserve and share. In the end, I think it is all about loss. Or trying to hold on to something, often an image. 


AP | In the case of RFK Funeral Train (2018), there was a strong involvement with people who witnessed the passing of the funeral train, including several interviews with them. Can you share a story or experience that left a stronger impression on you regarding these testimonies?


RJT | I'd like to share the story of Michael Scott, who narrated his experience.

“I remember that it was a very hot day, and very muggy, humid. It was about five o’clock in the afternoon as we stood by the tracks. I could see the train coming around a bend. The engine looked huge, but it moved very slow and it was obvious that it was a special train. I recall the very last car, seeing a casket with a flag draped over it. A woman was sitting next to the casket in a veil—it was Ethel Kennedy, his wife. I knew that we had experienced the passing of someone who was willing to stand for social justice, and I felt, even at the age of 15, a connection to this man. 


Keep in mind that I am one of the few Black people in this community of North East, Maryland, and I must say that I never really felt any intentional insults against me, whether verbal or physical. But I knew living south of the Mason-Dixon Line that I was living in a very precarious area of the country. My father was also head of the local NAACP. 


One morning in July about two o’clock in the morning I heard, just for a millisecond, a very high-pitched whistle like zzzzand then boom! It was a bomb—a bomb intended to level the house as a result of my father’s activities in the Civil Rights Movement. The explosion itself literally blew out the window panes, and as the glass hit the Venetian blinds, it began to trickle down and create an effect almost like crystals, almost like rain. When you wake up at two thirty in the morning as a result of a bomb going off, your mind tries to connect the dots. I thought that my mother was in the kitchen washing dishes and had dropped all the china, because that was what it sounded like. 


The next several nights, my father would sit in the attic window next door in his father’s house with a rifle. My grandfather and older brother would take turns, and they had their rifles trained on any car that looked suspicious. Nothing ever happened, but a month later I came back from a Sunday school outing and there was a very official car in front of my house. There was a man in a dark grey suit in the kitchen talking to my mother. I remember these words quite clearly: he said, “Get what is important to you, because they plan on blowing you off this hill tonight, but we are going to take you away.”


So, I got my little metal box that I had made in high school. In there I had my savings account book, a bible, and a few dollars. I just got the box and said I was ready. I didn’t take any clothes. I didn’t take any records. I knew just what I needed to be getting on with my life. 


I never thought I’d see the house standing, but about six or seven hours later, I heard police sirens and jeeps pulling in, and there were all these troopers. They had a gentleman in handcuffs. I found out later that he had 12 sticks of dynamite to blow down the house and kill everyone. That was literally a terrorist, a gentleman from the Ku Klux Klan: Cheney Charles Johnson. All praise above, we were spared.


I know I am Black and I am proud of it, but that is not how I identify myself. I identify myself as a man who wants to navigate through his life with a sense of elegance, a sense of ease, and manners. That is how I saw Bobby Kennedy. I think maybe that is why I knew in my spirit I needed to pay honor and see that train.”


Michael Scott, transcript from an interview held in North East, Maryland, June 2016

All images courtesy of Rein Jelle Terpstra

Interview conducted by Ana Catarina Pinho and Andrés Pachón.