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Robert F. Kennedy Funeral Train - The People’s View

Exhibition curator Rein Jelle Terpstra.

The exhibition takes us to the United States of the 1960s, to a particular moment and place in history, and reminds us of the role of photography as an intermediary between memories and collective remembrance. As Robert Kennedy's funeral train traveled from New York City to Washington D.C. in June 1968, about a million people gathered alongside railroad tracks and at stations to pay their respects and bid farewell to the murdered Senator. Shock and grief brought people together, which is not uncommon during extraordinary events. A sense of historic significance was present.

Accompanying the funeral train was Paul Fusco, who worked for LOOK magazine. Decades later, artist Rein Jelle Terpstra took an interest in Fusco’s photography series. He noticed especially how numerous people standing next to the railroad tracks in Fusco’s photographs paying their last respects and expressing bewilderment and sorrow. They show a cross-section of American society people from different backgrounds—city-dwellers and country folk—all staring at the slowly passing train. It was this gazing, looking so mesmerized, which triggered Terpstra. What were these bystanders looking at and what did they see? In many photographs by Fusco, he spotted bystanders holding a photo camera, or sometimes a film camera, in an attempt to hold on to a pivotal moment in history.

The only way to find out what these bystanders were looking at and what they saw, was to look -as it were- through their cameras and start searching for the people’s view: the photos and films they had made of the RFK funeral train itself. Terpstra published ads in newspapers and on social media, hung around train stations, and went from door to door along the route the train had traveled. Using the memories, photographs, and cine films he collected, Terpstra reconstructed the memorial train's historic journey. The Robert F. Kennedy Funeral Train comprises opposite viewpoints. The series taken for a magazine by a professional photographer, Fusco, shows the people gathered alongside the tracks, while the photos and cine films from the onlookers represent private memories and experiences.

A lot has changed in the taking and sharing of photographs since then, but the role of the photograph in remembering is still unique. The exhibition encourages us to think about what sort of shared memories we have and about the significance of shared experiences and emotions. In sharing grief, people have the chance to grieve publicly at a time when grief has often been hidden, private.

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