Photographer Paul Fusco rode Robert F. Kennedy’s funeral train from New York to Washington, D.C. after the young senator and favorite candidate for the presidential nomination was assassinated. On this train ride, Fusco photographed people waiting in the summer heat along the train tracks to watch as the train passed, saying their farewells to their beloved politician, or “Bobby,” as many called him.
I first saw Fusco’s series in the Magnum exhibition at the Harry Ransom Center in Fall 2013. What drew me to this series of photographs was Fusco’s imaginative approach to memorializing a well-known and respected public figure. The resulting series of photographs paints an intimate portrait of a generous man who touched thousands of lives, as evidenced by the large number of people who lined the tracks of the funeral train’s route. These images will forever stand as testament to RFK’s generous and kind character. Fusco captured thousands of hands raised in farewell, faces with set jaws, and mourners looking on as the train passed. He captured how a nation felt about a man, as thousands paid their last respects.
The evocative power of these photos is overwhelming: I, who knows essentially nothing about Robert Kennedy, his presidential campaign or his assassination, feel sadness, grief even, over a man I never knew because of the affection and heartfelt attention of thousands of people paying their last respects to a clearly beloved man. That his death was a national tragedy, affecting thousands of individuals, is evident in Paul Fusco’s photos.
In my own photographs, I used Fusco’s basic idea of capturing people on the sidelines of a moving vehicle, though I reinterpreted the original intent. I did not aim to capture people mourning or saying farewell. Instead, I wanted to create a series of photographs that showed people waiting at crosswalks. While Fusco’s series was a special case, showing ordinary citizens’ reactions to a national tragedy, mine focuses on the opposite: ordinary people’s reactions to everyday life. I think it is fascinating to watch people as they wait for something because their faces can be so expressive, either betraying what they are really thinking about or having nothing to do at all with what is going on in their minds. On the other hand, their faces can be totally expressionless. Their body language is also fascinating, with crossed arms, snapping fingers, bent legs—indicating all sorts of emotions, like reluctance and impatience. Interactions between people waiting to cross were also interesting to photograph, as these interactions are like bursts of animation in an otherwise mundane sea of stillness in waiting.
To make my images, I had a friend drive me down the Drag, a major street near the University of Texas at Austin, as I took photos of students waiting to cross the street out of the passenger side window. Looking at Fusco’s photographs, it is clear he was able to pan a little in most of them, creating images in which the subject is mostly in focus while the background is blurred in motion. However, taking pictures out of a car window did not allow me much time to pan, as I did not have the kind of visibility a big train window allows. I could not follow through on the pan, as I could not easily twist in my seat. The car doorframes also hindered my picture-taking ability: I did not want the frames in my pictures and so was restricted to merely looking out the window. The result of not being able to pan is that my images have blurred subjects but mostly in-focus backgrounds. These results are fine with me, however, as I think they lend a fleeting quality to my subjects, who will disappear from their spots in a matter of seconds as the crosswalk signal urges them to hurry across the street.
Initially, I tried to select only two or three images from the pool of photos I took along the Drag. However, I soon realized that I had to choose more than that. I had to curate a series of photos that, taken as a whole, told a story, like Fusco’s RFK Funeral Train. It is only when Fusco’s photos are viewed together that they become powerful and moving. In my series, it is only when they are viewed together as a series that they tell a story of human habit. It is only when these photos are viewed as parts of a whole that they show what humans do when faced with the mundane task of waiting, with nothing to entertain them. In probably the quietest moment, the most still moment, of their days, some people choose to stare, some choose to look mindlessly at their phone, some choose to talk. It is interesting to see what people do in the moments they think do not matter.