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Photographer John Filo discusses his famous Kent State photograph and the events of May 4, 1970

May 4, 2000
Web posted at: 5:00 p.m. EDT

(CNN)— May 4, 1970 has become a day forever etched into American history. On that day, four Kent State University students were killed and nine students were wounded by National Guardsmen who were called onto the campus in response to protests and demonstrations against the Vietnam War. John Filo was a senior at Kent State working in the student photography lab when the shots rang out just after noon on that day. During the confrontation and ensuing chaos, he photographed a then 14-year-old runaway named Mary Vecchio as she kneeled over the bleeding body of Jeffrey Miller. Filo received the Pulitzer for his photograph while still a student at Kent State.

Filo joined the Associated Press in Chicago in 1971 where he worked as a photographer for 10 years. He has also worked at the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Baltimore Evening Sun, Sports Illustrated, and has served as the National Picture Editor for Newsweek. For the past five years, Filo has held the position of manager of photo operations for CBS.

Chat Moderator: Good morning John Filo. Welcome to CNN News Chat.

John Filo: Good morning.

Chat Moderator: The picture (of the girl kneeling in front of the killed student) you took at Kent State became one of a few that visually symbolized the Vietnam War era. Do you remember what was going through your mind when you took that picture?

John Filo: I think what was going through my mind, quite frankly, was that I was just shot at, and I was doing a self-check. "Was I shot?" And I wanted to take a picture of the guard shooting because I thought they were using blanks. And as I was about to take the picture, and this was after dodging students who were running off the steep walkway away from the guard, I remember that.

  ALSO
 

The bullets were supposed to be blanks. When I put the camera back to my eye, I noticed a particular guardsman pointing at me. I said, "I'll get a picture of this," and his rifle went off. And almost simultaneously, as his rifle went off, a halo of dust came off a sculpture next to me, and the bullet lodged in a tree.

I dropped my camera in the realization that it was live ammunition. I don't know what gave me the combination of innocence and stupidity... but I never took cover. I was the only one standing at the hillside. After I did that self-check and turned slowly to my left, what caught my eye on the street was the body of Jeffrey Miller and the volume of blood that was flowing from his body was as if someone tipped over a bucket. I started to flee--run down the hill and stopped myself. "Where are you going?" I said to myself, "This is why you are here!"

And I started to take pictures again. And the picture I made then was of Jeffrey Miller's body lying in the street and people starting to come out of shelter, and then a picture where Mary Vecchio was just entering the frame. I knew I was running out of film. I could see the emotion welling up inside of her. She began to sob. And it culminated in her saying an exclamation. I can't remember what she said exactly … something like, "Oh, my God!"

Question from cap0cap: Did the National Guardsmen seem to care what they had done?

John Filo: No. That was evident in that the squad that came over to examine the body of Jeffrey Miller was armed -- six or seven of them. No one even bent down to get a closer look. The sergeant who did not have a rifle rolled the body of Jeffrey Miller over with his boot. That incensed some people. The soldiers regrouped and backed away from the body and away from the crowd of people ... It could have taken 5 minutes. It is hard to calculate time.

Question from Jane: Did you know Miller?

John Filo: No. The only person who I knew was killed was Bill Schroeder… And that was through a mutual friend. I met him in the student union several weeks prior to the shooting.

Question from Milo: Does John remember the technical aspects of the photographs from that day (i.e., type of film, camera, exposure, etc.)?


John Filo: Yes. It was a Nikkormat camera. It was Tri X film. And most of the exposures were 1/500 between 5.6 and f 8 depending on if the sun was behind a cloud or not.

Question from DoggBerry: Can you talk about the sense of pride in taking the photo, mixed with a sense of "why must this be the photo I am known for"? Are those thoughts you consider?

John Filo: As you work as a photographer, it is a constant learning experience. I am a far better photographer now than I was then, but also I know the unique thing about the medium of photography is its ability to freeze a moment in time. On so many of the great news photos, a lot of these moments have come from amateurs. As a photographer, it is nice to know that there is a photo that you have taken that will live a little longer than you will.

Question from gaeschl: Over the years there have been rumors that the SDS and other students had attacked the guardsman. My question is did you see evidence of that and also what was the SDS like at Kent state ?

John Filo: I saw no evidence of an attack. All through the day there was some rock throwing. I saw guardsman struck with a rock on the helmet, heard the clunk ... but that was a minute or so before they ascended the hill . . But no real cause and effect, action or reaction that warranted a shooting. The SDS ... was on campus, but, I don't know how large the following was. I wouldn't say it was a pervasive greatly numbered organization. This was middle America and most of the students were from working class backgrounds like mine. It was there, but I don't know how much influence it wielded among the student population.

Question from Brent: I understand a professor or professors helped defuse the situation. Is this true?

John Filo: That is true. It was after the shooting. After the wounded and the bodies were removed, the guardsmen that did the shooting returned to their perimeter around the burnt ROTC building. A group of students, I would say several hundred...sat down on the commons and asked: "Why did they shoot?" The reply that came back, from the leader of the National Guard, was "Disperse or we'll shoot again." And no one moved. And that was the most afraid I was that day. That is the situation that was diffused by some really great professors.

Question from cap0cap: It must have been a dream like experience, the unbelievability of it all. I was born after this happened. Were there any investigations as to what went wrong? And if so, were you ever called to testify?

John Filo: There were many investigations, it seems to me. There was a grand jury, the Scranton Commission, and then the court cases. The only time I was asked to testify was in the court case.

Question from Milo: Tell us about where the film was processed and under what circumstances, presumably outside of Kent?

 

John Filo: I didn't know where to go .. I sort of did but ... all my roommates who were photographers ended up stringing for various news organizations based on the events of Friday and Saturday. Since I was out of town, I was committed to no one, and I had been working as a photographer since high school as a vacation and holiday replacement in Tarentum, Pennsylvania, and I elected to drive there with the film. It was about a two hour and twenty minute drive, and I called the paper to let them know I was coming back.

On the technical aspect, we processed the lesser role to make sure the chemistry was correct and then developed the Mary Vecchio role. That was the first picture we scheduled on the AP network.

The reason I had to get the pictures out was that the initial radio reports, while the students were camped in front of the guardsman, said that two guardsmen and two students were killed in a shootout at Kent State. And those incorrect reports stayed for a number of hours -- at least enough to convince me that this was going to be whitewashed. So I had to get my pictures out.

Question from Sunny1-CNN: John, is there any kind of memorial on the Kent State campus now?

John Filo: I believe there is. They dedicated it last fall

Chat Moderator: As a student there myself in the late 1970s, a lot of people felt that the KSU administration wanted to ignore or bury the incident, but now it seems that the university is coming to terms with its history. What are your thoughts?

John Filo: I don't know. I will have to talk to people that are there today. I had a lot of trouble with the 25th anniversary-- the reason being that, in all those court cases and investigations, no one ever found out who burnt down the ROTC building. But on the 25th anniversary I got a letter from the university which was an invitation. In an explanatory paragraph of the letter, it alluded to the May 4 incident as: For those of you who don't remember, it was when the students burned the ROTC building.

For those of us who were students .. there was never a distinction between the Friday night crowd that came from the streets of Kent and the students who came out on Monday to see if they could get the guard to leave or call a student strike and shut down the University until the trouble left.

I don't think you can throw the same lasso around both groups. The town had numerous bars and was a gathering place for a lot of college students from the area drawing from Akron, Cleveland, and Ohio State in Columbus. So given Friday night, you had everything from …gangs to frat and sorority members on the streets of town.

Question fromCould: Could you comment on the "objective" character that a journalist is asked to assume while covering a story, and how was this challenged during your career, especially during the incidents at Kent.

John Filo: A photo is never objective. If it is, it is real boring. It is the nature of freezing a moment. Simple example: you hit me, no one takes a picture. I hit you and someone takes a picture. Who is the villain in the picture? If you look at most photography, especially the pictures that grab you, they are not objective at all. Sometimes gut wrenching and sometimes lovely, but the moment someone decides to release the shutter, it is an editorial statement.

That is the job of the photographer -- simplify all that visual space, and put a frame around all that space, and say: "this is what is important." You try to balance your coverage and you do try to show both sides if there are not many sides of a story, but that is extremely difficult in one photo

Chat Moderator: Do you have any final thoughts or observations for us today?

John Filo: No not really. It is sort of a somber day. Try to be a little more tolerant and more patient . . . that is all.

Chat Moderator: Thank you John Filo.

John Filo: It was a real pleasure.

John Filo joined the chat via telephone from New York. CNN provided a typist for him. The above is an edited transcript of the chat.


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