A funeral train is something usually reserved for presidents. That which honoured assassinated senator Robert F. Kennedy in 1968 was a practical way to take mourners from New York to the capital, his final resting place, and also to pass through working-class communities along the railway tracks. Kennedy had made a huge effort to speak up for the less fortunate in the US. Few, however, expected so many people to show up by the rails to pay their last respects. Paul Fusco’s famous photographs taken from the train show people of all colours and ages watching it go by; some hold up signs, some wave or salute, and some take photographs.
In 2014, Dutch artist Rein Jelle Terpstra was given a copy of Fusco’s book. He noticed that many people were holding cameras and some even camcorders. This, said Terpstra, gave him an idea: what if he collected photographs from family albums or stored away in shoeboxes in the private domain, and put them all together? Would that constitute an image of loss, of a person or of an era? To find out more about this ongoing project, Speak Up met with Terpstra. As the artist explains, as historical societies, national archives or local libraries in the US did not collect amateur images, he had to reach out to the people themselves.
Rein Jelle Terpstra (Dutch accent): I became a member of about five hundred Facebook groups in the neighbourhoods, the towns, the little villages of all the places where the train passed by. I went to the United States many times, I followed the train route, I hung around train stations, I knocked on doors, I tried to talk with as many people as I could and bit by bit I was able to collect snapshots, home movies and stories as well.
WAITING FOR HOURS
Of the thousands of people who helped Terpstra, many told him wonderful stories.
Rein Jelle Terpstra: In New Brunswick, in New Jersey, reporters were covering the train journey but they had to wait for hours for the train to pass by, so they asked a high school band, young kids about fifteen, sixteen years old to play high school songs again and again and again. In the months after, family members received two thousand letters from all over the United States [saying] “Thank you for playing for hours on that warm muggy day in June”.
A SNAPSHOT OF AMERICA
At first mainly white Americans from rural communities shared their memories, but then members of the Black community began to come forward, too. We asked Terpstra what he had learned about America.
Rein Jelle Terpstra: I found a very polarised United States. Sometimes I found [that] parents who were crying along the tracks and saying goodbye to Robert F. Kennedy, who stood for social justice, social equality… they now voted for Trump. There’s a wilingness to believe in a story.
The evolving project became a book and a travelling exhibition. We asked Terpstra about the role of photography in helping us come to terms with loss.
Rein Jelle Terpstra: They are often entangled, the notion of photography and the notion of death, of loss maybe, or absence — when you look at a photograph you also are aware of what is not there because you see not a presence but a representation, and I think we as a human beings, we have two ways to deal with this absence thanks to photography, one way is memory and the other is imagination.