For One Pulitzer Prize Winning Photographer, Some Days Are Never Forgotten
The Vietnam War produced a new kind of college student—an activist, a revolutionary and an independent thinker. Students on college campuses nationwide protested the Cambodia Invasion, and on May 4, 1970, National Guardsmen firing into a crowd would kill four unarmed students at Kent State University, the closest of whom was 270 feet away.
John Filo was there. He stood at the top of a hill watching as National Guardsmen aimed their guns at student protesters.
“They just started firing downhill…I thought these were blanks,” he said. “The way people were running and knocking each other over I thought, ‘This is a great scare tactic firing blanks because you could really hurt someone.’”
The student journalist put his 35 mm Nikkormat camera to his eye, heard a shot from a guardsman’s gun and watched as a bullet struck a metal sculpture that “exploded into a cloud of rock.”
“I thought, ‘Oh my God, that guy’s using live ammunition,’” he said. “I never took the picture. I let the camera hang around my neck. I thought, ‘Holy damn, that’s live ammunition.’ I thought someone was dumb enough to put live ammunition in it.”
And then he realized the worst. All of the guardsmen were using live ammunition.
Forty years later, Filo often thinks of the events that day. He remembers the fear, the numbness of his body and the blankness in his mind. He ponders the effect his photos would have on his life and the lives of countless others.
When chaos erupted on campus that Monday, Filo reacted first as a human being, then as a photographer.
Filo recalls looking down from the top of Blanket Hill and seeing people trying to hide from the National Guardsmen.
And there, in the middle of the driveway into Prentice Hall parking lot, was the body of Jeffrey Miller.
But something stopped him when he got to the bottom of the hill and stood close to Miller’s body.
“I said, ‘Why are you running now? It’s all over.’”
And that’s when he saw 14-year-old Mary Ann Vecchio running up the street to Miller.
He pressed the shutter on his camera, but it would be hours before he realized the emotion he captured.
The photo is often described as a picture of Vecchio crying over the body of Miller, a 20-year-old student. But Vecchio wasn’t crying, Filo said. She was screaming.
He angled himself to take a more horizontal picture but changed his mind when he saw her face.
“I could see the tension building in this girl and finally she let out with the scream, and I sort of reacted to the scream and shot that picture.”
As a photographer at the scene, Filo had trouble blending into the background. Students were ever aware of the presence of law enforcement and assumed he was doing surveillance for the FBI or the CIA, Filo said.
Protesters screamed in his ears, asking him why he was taking pictures. Though he originally didn’t want to respond, Filo said one girl pushed him over the edge.
“I finally said to her, ‘No one is going to believe this happened.’ I remember just yelling back at her and continuing.”
And during what started as a one hour-long lunch break from his job as a lab assistant in a photo equipment room, Filo would see things he says have taken him years to get past. The photograph transformed him from a 20-year-old senior studying journalism at Kent State to the Pulitzer Prize winning photographer of a photo so iconic it appears in history textbooks across the world.
“The biggest event of my college career, and I wasn’t even anywhere near it,” he said.
Filo’s roommates at the time were freelance photographers for national publications like Life and Newsweek, while he had no prestigious gigs or connections—just a job at the Valley Daily News and Daily Dispatch in Pennsylvania where he worked on school vacations and summer breaks.
Filo said he believed he had missed the photographic opportunity of a lifetime.
When he expressed his disappointment to two of his professors, they encouraged him to continue following the story, which they said would have larger repercussions, and suggested he pursue the angle of student protests in America.
A protest was scheduled for that day, a Monday, at noon. Students were saying they wouldn’t go home until the guardsmen left.
Equipped with his roommate’s Nikkor 43-86 mm camera lens (because the equipment room where he worked as a lab assistant was out of lenses), his camera and six rolls of hand-rolled Kodak Tri-X film, Filo headed out.
Although the university tried to stop the rally, estimates placed nearly 3,000 people in the Commons by noon. National Guardsmen used tear gas in an attempt to clear the students who then moved up and over Blanket Hill toward the Prentice Hall parking lot. Though the guards followed them at first, they soon retraced their steps and stood at the top of the hill. In the next 13 seconds, a reported total of 67 shots would be fired. Four students were killed and nine wounded, one of whom was paralyzed and several others maimed.
When things appeared to have calmed down and students began to disperse, Filo made his way to his car—numb from the day’s events. He looked on as guardsmen severed the phone lines.
“The paranoia at the time said I just wanted to hide my film, got in my little VW, drove away from my parking spot…I thought, ‘You know what? I’m going to go back to my apartment, grab some clothes and just continue driving to Pennsylvania—about an hour drive. For some reason I thought that would protect me.”
At a Pennsylvania Turnpike rest stop, he called the photo desk at the Valley Daily News and Daily Dispatch in Tarentum, Penn.
He spoke to Chuck Carroll, director of photography, and rehashed the events of the day.
“He said, ‘Did you get anything,’ and I said, ‘I think so.’”
During the drive to Pennsylvania, the day became a blur in Filo’s mind, and he wasn’t sure if he’d taken any publishable pictures at all.
“My biggest fear…I couldn’t remember shooting any of those pictures. I remember seeing those pictures but I couldn’t remember if I’d actually shot them,” he said. “The adrenaline rush of being shot at and surviving, being out there and surviving. It was quite a tedious emotional day. That’s why when I called that day I said, ‘I think so.’ I didn’t say, ‘Yeah, I did!’”
That feeling would end up being a teachable moment for Filo.
“I started the day with six rolls of film in my right pocket, and I ended the day with six rolls of film in my left pocket. That’s what I learned in my career, you have to be automatic.”
When Filo arrived in the newsroom, the entire photo department had stayed to help process the film. In the ‘70s—the days before digital photography, putting photos on the wire was hardly instantaneous.
“It took eight minutes a photo with the chatter in between,” Filo said. “You could physically maybe move 120 pictures in a day.”
But before the work with the film began, Filo had a fight with the staffers who wanted to hold the photo and the story for the next day’s print edition to make it an exclusive.
“The local paper had already uploaded photos on the wire of tear gas, guardsmen, by the time I got to Pennsylvania,” Filo said. “But there was nothing on the wire from the other side of the hill where the shooting happened.”
Even though the students were unarmed, initial radio reports described the situation as a “gun fight,” Filo said. He knew there was a gap in the information reaching the public.
“I said, ‘No it has to go now.’ I was really afraid of everyone catching up with us and a cover up. Still no one knew exactly what was going on, the radio reports were still erroneous.”
Filo finally convinced the staffers and began prepping the photos for transmission. Getting a photo on the wires was difficult for smaller outlets, especially since the process operated on a strict schedule with a “network traffic cop” keeping everything moving.
The Akron Beacon Journal, an Ohio paper, was trying to submit photos so quickly they were bubbling, and the wire’s traffic cop told the paper to cut its transmission and instructed Filo’s paper, the Valley Daily News and Daily Dispatch, to begin.
The first photo they sent was the Mary Vecchio picture.
And then Filo heard something he didn’t expect to hear.
“I turned up the speaker and I heard nothing—white noise…I thought, ‘Oh my god, did I screw up?’ Usually this is the time when you hear people all over the world trying to schedule their picture, it’s like the stock market,” Filo said. “Finally the guy that ran the network said, ‘Wow, kid, that’s a great picture. Do you have any more?’”
Filo then sent what he had thought was his best picture of the day—one he took of a student with a black flag approaching a guardsman before the shooting began.
“I thought, 'Wow that’s a great photo. This is it, this is my picture,'” he said. “Best picture I’ve ever taken in my 20-year-old career…This is the lone individual against the masked men in gas masks, army helmets and fatigues…That was the one I felt I really worked for, I used my brain for. The Mary Vecchio was a reaction shot for me.”
The next few days were a whirlwind.
“I wrote a first person story, and then I had FBI in my house the next day,” Filo said.
The Valley Daily News and Daily Dispatch and the Associated Press submitted Filo’s photo of Jeffrey Miller and Mary Vecchio to the 1971 Pulitzer Prize contest. He was 21 years old when he got word that he’d won.
It wasn’t until he met Vecchio 25 years later that he realized the rare opportunity depended on Vecchio’s youth and sheer terror.
“It dawned on me that I wouldn’t have had that story unless she was a 14-year-old,” he said. “Other women at the time they did come up to Jeffrey Miller, but no one reacted like Mary. That was the first time she saw death up close. That horror that she took in and let out in the scream didn’t come out in the older people.”
Though Filo said the Kent State massacre taught him to be “automatic,” the effects of the photo lingered.
“We had no grief counselors, we had no counselors for post traumatic stress,” Filo said. “It took years.”
And though he learned as a photographer that every day means covering something new, sometimes something tragic, he said it still affects him.
“There is that isolation you have with your camera as your shield, and you never get personally attached to things but they do wear on you…Kent State was weird because I had a leg in both worlds—I happened to be a student there. It’s always been a bittersweet thing, I’m glad I did it, but by the same token, it’s sad.”
Vecchio has said she too made every effort “'to outrun that picture.’”
Filo said he received hate mail from people across the country who suggested it was staged.
“You come to a realization that no matter how truthful you try to be people are not going to believe it.”
And the picture still resonates—especially when he’s interviewed for “Living History” projects or asked to speak to journalism students.
“It sort of serves as a high-water mark in history,” he said. “It’s in my daughter’s history books…It’s always nice to have a piece of work that lasts longer than you will.”
But whatever helped Filo tame his fear and stay put on that May afternoon in 1970 is a gut instinct that can’t be taught.
“You have to go over the hill. You have to see it,” he said. “You can’t take someone’s word for it.”