From a young age, Guillermo “Bill” Eppridge knew he wanted to be a photographer. While studying journalism in Missouri, he won a picture competition and was awarded a week-long internship at Life. Bill became one of the magazine’s most illustrious photojournalists, chronicling history with his images of the arrival of The Beatles in the USA, the Vietnam War and, most famously, the assassination of Senator Robert F Kennedy.

Rankin: What was your first encounter with Life?

Bill Eppridge: My first visit to that office was as a junior in college, about 19; I’d won a picture competition. I spent a week with the photographers, one being Andreas Feininger. We went to the navy yard in Philadelphia. Andreas found a spot, set up, and waited for hours. At one point, a flock of pigeons started gathering overhead, and then flew right past him. I heard the camera go click, once. Andreas said, “Ok guys, let’s go home, I got it”. It blew me away. He knew then he had it. One frame. I did nothing but learn at that magazine; every one of those guys was a teacher.

Had you grown up with the magazine?

Yes. I think it was Friday that Life came through the door. I remember lying on the dining room floor, underneath the table, and watching the mail slot. The photographers were my heroes, like W Eugene Smith. It seemed that every week, the man had extraordinary pictures from the war. George Silk was another, and Ralph Morse.

Do you remember your first picture?

My first job, during a summer internship, was to photograph Núñez Jiménez, the Cuban Minister of Agrarian Reform. I photographed it for Life, but the picture ended up running in Time.

Tell me more about the photographers’ room.

You’d walk in and Eisenstaedt may be sitting there, or Gordon Parks, or Yale Joel – or Richard Avedon, for heaven’s sake. Everybody was welcome. I remember Ralph Morse coming back from Cape Kennedy, right after Apollo 13, with some incredible pictures. Ralph told these 15 or 20 guys what he had done and how he had done it; how he had electrified the cameras. I sat there with my mouth hanging open, and later said, “Ralph, what are you doing? You just gave away all of your secrets.” He said, “Bill, don’t worry. I’ve done it once; I’m not going to do it again. I’ve got something else up my sleeve for next time, so these guys can have it.” That generosity was certainly welcomed.

You contributed so much to Life.

Working for Life required youth and stamina, and I think the magazine used us like cannon fodder; when the bombs went off, send in the fodder.

Talk us though your famous 1965 story, ‘We are animals in a world no one knows’.

The writer, Jim Mills, and I started doing research on the heroin culture that had crossed over from subcultures and was quite seriously affecting the white middle classes. We spent three months learning everything we could about it. It took us that long to find a couple, after contacting every agency we could. When we found them, we had to persuade them to do it for free; we couldn’t have paid them – it would just support their habit. I went and lived with them for three months, and tried to be invisible. I’ve been skinny and gaunt all my life, so I fitted in with that society. It got to the point when they just ignored me and didn’t care whether I was there or not. As a matter of fact, I got stopped by the cops more than they did. They wanted to know where I got the cameras.

Often we would lead a story with a question rather than a statement. There is a statement here, but it asks a question… ‘We are animals in a world no one knows’: What is the world? How are the people like animals, they look like a normal couple, crossing the street? It brings the reader in. In the next spread you see who they are: heroin addicts. We did not show the needle very often; we had to be aware of our readership, so we didn’t want to show a lot of gore.

“I constantly faced situations that bordered on illegal.”

Karen came from a very fine family, on Long Island, but to make money to support her habit, she wasa prostitute. She was a beautiful woman. The police referred to her as the actress. She could change her looks at a whim, but when she did too many drugs, she started to look bad. John came from a very fine family in New Jersey, but to make money, he stole, boosted from cabs – he was a petty thief. Karen found that she couldn’t support her habit anymore, so she checked herself into a hospital, and was able to cut back to a habit that was affordable. I don’t think that’s possible today. I went in with them and photographed things as they happened. None of this was ever set up, I just lived with them and I waited until things happened.

They were on the street looking for a dealer; I looked over their shoulder and there was a gentleman standing there who looked like he didn’t belong. It was a cop, an undercover narc. He and his buddy came along, they spotted Karen and John were addicts, and they proceeded to search them. John was put in jail. I went to the judge and asked if we could photograph him in jail. I don’t know if it’s possible to have that access today. So, John’s in jail and Karen’s got to go and get drugs. She goes to see a dealer.

I was sitting in the lobby of the hotel, waiting for her to come down, and I got a phone call. It was Karen, she said, “You’d better come up here, we got a problem”. Her dealer had overdosed. The guy could have died. It was a big dilemma; should I call the police or should I photograph it? I asked Karen how she felt about it and she said she could bring him round. So I took her word for it and didn’t call 911. And she brought him around. I constantly faced situations that bordered on illegal. It was hard having to make these kinds of decisions, but I think I made the right ones most of the time.

One of the things we highlighted was that this was not a physical addiction as much as a psychological problem. We also said that it was difficult, if not perhaps impossible, to totally deal with this problem. Those addicts still exist in one form or another.

Do you think that a photograph can change history or society?

I think it can; sometimes it happens immediately, sometimes it takes longer. Look what Eddie Adams’s picture of General Nguyen killing the Vietcong did. That picture alone shortened that war by a great length of time. This story on heroin; maybe it accelerated thought patterns. It might not have solved anything, but it got people thinking about it.

Did you feel a burden of responsibility?

I did. We were in a unique position because we had the ability to influence an awful lot of people, looking into things they knew nothing about. I felt like I was on a mission that would perhaps do a little bit of good for somebody in this world. You became a representative of the people. I felt privileged that somebody might feel what I saw and understood that I may be right.

If you didn’t cover the story in an objective way, would the editors be critical of you?

If you tried to influence it, the editors would question you. We were not one political party; we were many. I believe it’s best to keep all your options open.

When you were in Vietnam and you saw the marine shoot the guy in the back, where did those pictures go?

We had an editor who had been a marine, Eddie Adams. We were standing right next to each other, and we both got the shot. We got the sequence of this Vietcong running away from the marines – there was a little fight, he ran away, and then they shot him. Eddie’s film was, interestingly enough, lost in his office. When my film came back, only one picture was used. I called up to find out why the whole sequence wasn’t used, because it was the first time we had ever seen this, first time anybody had ever seen it. The director of photography said to me, “Bill, you really want to know what the editor said? Marines never shoot anybody in the back.” And that was it.

What do you think when you see your photographs of Bobby Kennedy’s assassination now?

It brings back the worst memories. I’m sorry that I had to make the picture, but it had to be made. Historically, this moment is so important and I knew it at the time. We knew what that campaign meant and we, the press, had spoken about the fact that assassination was a possibility. It came up in conversation, the fact that there may be someone out there looking for him. His brother had been murdered. Bobby had very little protection – he didn’t want it. We would have normally ushered him through the crowd, formed a wedge in front of him, acted as his protection. But he turned and went back and he became the point man.

You captured what was going on in one moment in a very different way to Harry Benson.

There’s something to be said about looking at it from two different directions. Harry’s picture is important as it shows the way Ethel [Kennedy] felt. I’m sure there was anger there, she was trying to throw the photographers out. It’s a natural instinct, but I was just as determined to stay. I knew that this had to be documented.

“I’m sorry that I had to make that picture but historically it was an important moment.”

I’ve been a photographer for twenty years and I don’t think I could have taken that photograph. I don’t think very many people could have, but you seemed to seize the moment.

I went into a state of mental overdrive; everything became instinctual. I knew what had to be done, and which angle to shoot from, through many years of training.

Did you know you’d got the image?

Frankly, no. When that moment happens, the mirror on the camera is up. You don’t see that moment. You see a split second before and a split second after. I did not know I had it.

Can you tell us what had happened during the day leading up to his assassination?

I called my office in New York and asked the director of photography what he wanted. He said, “First off, you have to shoot black and white, because the magazine’s closing tonight and we don’t have time to process colour. Second off, the editors of this magazine, Republican as they are, have decided that if Bobby wins and he takes that State of California, he will be the next President of the United States.”

That night, I saw him in the hotel suite and told him what the editors felt and I said, “Look, they have told me they want me to stick as closely as possible”. He said, “Ok, Bill, you are in the immediate party, tell the bodyguard you’re with me.” When he went down to give the acceptance speech, I followed him.

We went through the kitchen; Bobby stopped and shook hands with the kitchen help and chatted a bit on the way out to the stage. I was directly behind him during the speech, photographing him looking out into the crowd. Just before the end, Bill Barry, the bodyguard, me, and Jimmy Wilson, a signal, went down into the crowd. We all formed a wedge then back-walked through the crowd so that the Senator would be in the centre of a V formation. He could move from left to right, shake hands, do whatever he wanted – he had the freedom to move.

Bobby came off the stage, found us, and Bill Barry said, “Senator, this way”. Bobby said, “No, Bill, I’m going back, I’m going this way.” Barry said to him in a very stern voice, “No Senator, this way”. He refused, and turned on his heel in the opposite direction, back towards the kitchen, because he had previously been criticised for not talking to the writing press enough. As he went, people filled in between him and us.

We scrambled to try and catch up.

I had just entered the kitchen when I heard the first shots – there were eight. I knew that it was an Iver Johnson revolver. I knew the caliber of the gun, because I was a hunter, I had been in Vietnam, and had been shot at many times. I was 12 feet behind him. People were going down in front of me. I thought they were diving for cover, they weren’t; they were being shot. The busboy, Juan Romero, was still holding the senator, and I took one frame, which was totally out of focus. The second frame, I made sure he was in focus, but Romero was looking down at him. I took the third as quickly as I could, and Romero looked up towards me with a look of “Help me” in his face.

I was devastated after Bob Kennedy was killed.

I went from the funeral train to the office, and my boss called me in, and said, “You have to get out of here. What do you want to do?” I said, “I want to go to the mountains.” Six hours later, he handed me a note from a writer named Don Jackson, saying there were wild horses in the Pryor Mountains. I asked when I should come back – “When you’ve got it.” They bought me a pickup truck; I drove it into the mountains and stayed for three months. I photographed the wild horses early in the morning and in the afternoon when the light was good. In the middle of the day
I sat in the middle of this desert, sifting for bones and arrowheads. It was perfect. We ran 12 pages. Funnily enough, the guy that shot Bobby Kennedy, Sirhan Sirhan, was featured in the same issue.

Do you ever look at the photograph and think, “I can’t even believe I was there”?

Yes, and for that reason, I’ve never been able to hang that picture on the wall. I’ve shown it, but not in my home. I can’t put it up because it brings back memories that I don’t want. That picture still terrifies me; it makes me think about what happened in this country afterwards. I think we’ve gone through great angst because of one man’s deed.

There was only one print of the original image. I took it back to LA thinking that I would put it on my wall, but I couldn’t do it. To preserve it, I put it behind a sofa in my apartment and it stayed there for a couple of years. One evening, my house caught fire – there was a canyon fire in Los Angeles – and the whole place burned. I went back the next morning to see what was there and there was virtually nothing. My original transparencies were burnt. Two thirds of my cameras were burnt. The house was totalled.

In the middle of the living room was a small piece of that sofa, still in its place. I looked behind it, and there was the print, still there. It was a little charred, but essentially the image was intact.

See more of our exclusive interviews with the photographers from Life magazine in Issue One of The Hunger, and on