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The assassination of Robert F. Kennedy

The assassination of Robert F. Kennedy

June 5, 1968: Presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy lies on the floor at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles moments after he was shot in the head. He had just finished his victory speech upon winning the California primary.

Times photographer Boris Yaro was standing 3 feet from  Kennedy when the shooting began. “The gunman started firing at point-blank range. Sen. Kennedy didn’t have a chance,” Yaro recounted in a June 6, 1968, story for The Times.

The Democratic senator, 42, was alive for more than 24 hours and was declared dead on the morning of June 6. The shooter was later identified as Sirhan B. Sirhan, who was found guilty of Kennedy’s assassination on April 17, 1969. His motives remain a mystery and controversy to this day. Additional photos are in this gallery.

Boris Yaro wrote this report for From the Archives.

By Boris Yaro/Los Angeles Times (retired)

I had gone to the Ambassador Hotel on my own with the idea of making a photo of Bobby Kennedy for my wall. The idea went further than I had expected.

When the shooting started I thought someone was tossing firecrackers because I was being hit in the face with debris. I grew up playing with fireworks, and this was not an unusual thing to happen.

Then the crowd parted, and I watched in horror as Sirhan emptied his revolver at Robert Kennedy. I had my camera at chest level, but I didn’t make a photo during the shooting.  It was dark, and I think I was afraid.

When the shooting stopped there was a pregnant pause, and then two men, one in a tuxedo, grabbed Sirhan and forced him face down on a metal countertop and shook his revolver loose.

Sirhan kept trying to reach the revolver, and I was afraid he might get it, so I stuck my hand in under the guys holding him and picked up the gun.

I turned away from the scuffle and was thinking, “It’s warm. The gun is warm,” and all of a sudden it was taken from me.  I didn’t see who grabbed it, but I saw the back end of a sport coat and figured it might be a cop.

When I turned back to the scene, RFK was slowly sinking to the floor, and I realized I had better make pictures. I used my Nikon FTn and a 28mm lens.

When I covered the RFK shooting, I owned the camera and two lenses, one of which was a 50mm 1.8 lens that I left in the car.  I didn’t bring a flash with me, since I wasn’t on assignment and wanted to make only natural light photographs.

The pantry area was dimly lit, and I recall thinking that I should go get my flash unit, but I didn’t.

I did use Kodak Tri-X film. It was the film of choice by most press photographers, and I felt comfortable with it in badly lit situations. When things quieted down a bit, I aimed my camera and at the same time a television photographer turned on his very bright light, which made it possible for me to make photographs.

The FTn meter was not working, so I had to make my exposures by guesstimate.  I ended up making the photographs at 1/30 of a second and the lens set wide open at F 2.8 (this was the maximum aperture).

There still was some pandemonium, and at one point, when I tried to make pictures, a woman grabbed hold of my coat sleeve and began yelling, “Don’t take pictures. Don’t take pictures. I’m a photographer, and I’m not taking pictures.”

My response was, “Dammit, lady, this is history.”  I pulled my coat sleeve loose from her grasp but lost some visual space because people began crowding around the fallen Kennedy.

I moved in to make a “sure” shot (one that I knew would show his face).  I made a total of six shots in that mess, and then the alarm went off in my head.

Earlier I had talked with another Times photographer, Steve Fontanini, who had mentioned the paper was “holding” deadline waiting for art.

I knew I had to get out of the Ambassador Hotel and get down to the office.  As I ran into the city room, I shouted at Bill Thomas, the city editor at the time, that “my fingerprints are all over that gun.”  Thomas yelled back, “Knock it off,” and I continued into the photo lab.

William S. “Bill” Murphy was waiting, and I handed him the film. I told him the lighting was terrible and maybe to double  the development time.

Murphy, a veteran photographer, processed the film “by safelight.”  (The film is checked during development by using a dim green safelight. This is also known as development by inspection.)

It did the job, and we had printable images, albeit somewhat contrasty.

I was told to talk with one of our rewrite men and unload whatever I could remember.  I did so, but omitted the gun retrieval because I felt Thomas didn’t want the paper directly involved.

When I had finished with the rewrite man I went back to the photo lab as Murphy was coming out.  He said the pictures were fine. I took a quick look at the photos and the whole incident began to take over my feelings.

I went back into my darkroom.

And I wept.

[Additional link: 2012 video Boris Yaro reflects on the R.F.K. assassination.]

16 Comments

  1. August 10, 2010, 9:28 am

    As sad as this was, I’m glad you were determined to record this. Not sure the tv light improved your shot much, maybe a half stop, but it is a dramatic photo.

    By: Don Miller
  2. August 10, 2010, 9:31 am

    Facebook Links are not working.

    By: halfmac@mac.com
  3. August 10, 2010, 9:43 am

    The day America died.

    By: kimtgreen
  4. August 10, 2010, 12:15 pm

    Ugh, that picture is tragic.

    By: ace1
  5. August 10, 2010, 1:53 pm

    Why would the Los Angels Times reporter write, "His motives remain a mystery and controversy to this day."?
    As I recall from the time of the event, Sirhan Sirhan was paying Kennedy back for his support of the U.S. selling fighter jets to Israel.

    By: Bob
  6. August 10, 2010, 2:51 pm

    Chilling.

    By: mmk
  7. August 10, 2010, 3:15 pm

    Thanks for printing Boris' story. It is incredible. I'd like to hear many more behind-the-scene stories from all of the LA Times photographers.

    I was in 8th grade in 1968 and old enough to feel the profound changes taking place in the USA at that time. I remember that my mother woke me up on the morning of June 5 and said that Robert Kennedy had been shot. I was stunned for most of the day. It was the first time I think I had felt actual anguish and innocence was lost. It was hard for me to process why a good man was hated by so many.

    That observation still baffles me. We have become a country who hates way too much.

    By: macZiggy
  8. August 10, 2010, 3:15 pm

    Boris, your very human responses as this shooting occurred are of course consistent with the kind of fine person you are. It is an honor to have known you. You are a person who would give someone the jacket off your back — and in fact I still have the one you gave me. Thanks for these reflections.

    GAF
    SF Valley Edition 1986-1990

    By: GAF
  9. August 13, 2010, 8:52 am

    [...] LA Times debuts new photography blog. First up, a striking photo of a wounded Bobby Kennedy lying on the floor of the Ambassador hotel after being shot by Sirhan Sirhan. The LA Times photog who took the picture comments LA TIMES [...]

  10. November 22, 2010, 10:51 am

    [...] Next to RFK” and the story behind the photo by retired Times photographer Boris Yaro, “The Assassination of Robert F. Kennedy.” Photographs by Carolyn Cole of Romero’s visit to Arlington can be seen in the photo [...]

  11. December 29, 2010, 12:16 am

    [...] posts deserve special recognition. Former Los Angeles Times staff photographer Boris Yaro wrote the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy.  Current Times staff photographer Myung Chun wrote O.J. Simpson found not [...]

  12. October 21, 2011, 2:38 pm

    Thanks for taking these historical pictures. They are important to study the case.

    By: Amnah Khan
  13. October 13, 2012, 12:03 pm

    Boris…WHERE IS HIS HAND?

    By: JOSEPHVELDER
  14. June 6, 2013, 7:36 am

    This is the one photograph that the world saw and remembers of RFK's assassination. Thanks for your recollections. I was a student at UCLA at the time and working all night on a paper for one of my classes, with the television turned on while watching the primary results, and recall well the immensity of that night. Your picture captures the shock of Kennedy in his eyes. Incredible!

    By: rafachavez
  15. June 6, 2013, 7:59 pm

    The Noguchi autospy shows clearly that Thane Cesar, the "Ace" security guard shot RFK execution style- search for the Golden Globe nominated movie"The Second Gun"- it tells it all but has been suppressed by the accessories for decades.

    By: tedhuntington
  16. June 6, 2013, 8:01 pm

    Like the JFK murder, all the evidence points to a different murderer, in that case, Frank Fiorini, and in this case Thane Eugene Cesar. Searching for ten minutes will show anybody more than enough evidence.

    By: tedhuntington

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