Since the 1950s, photographer Harry Benson has documented some of the most historic moments and people of the modern world. From the Beatles to Amy Winehouse to capturing every US president since Dwight D. Eisenhower, Benson’s pictures are notably intimate and always brazenly close to his subjects.
At times, too close — Benson is noted for having been standing next to Robert F. Kennedy the moment he was shot on June 5, 1968. Setting aside his fear, Benson captured the unfolding scene with the precision and expertise that’s become synonymous with his name.
His new book, Harry Benson: Persons of Interest, compiles a lifetime of history, moving from his earliest pictures as a young photographer in Scotland to his more recent work on the US presidential election. Here, Benson shares several of his most iconic shots and speaks with BuzzFeed News about some of the lessons he’s learned along the way:
I always wanted to be a photographer. I was heading toward photography basically all my life and I knew it. They didn’t have lessons or any classes when I started out, but as far back as I can remember, I was committed. I made every step on this journey as important as the last, whether I was working on Fleet Street in London or with the local papers in Scotland. I didn’t really care what I was shooting as long as I was shooting.
You’ve got to have respect for both the magazine you’re covering and the person who you’re photographing. And I haven’t changed.
I’ve covered all kinds of things in my life and made all sorts of photographs, including the last twelve US presidents, civil rights, and the race riots during the 1960s, and even Bobby Kennedy when he was shot, but I never regret taking a picture.
I do get asked occasionally if my experiences give me nightmares. What they’re really talking about is Bobby Kennedy’s death. I tell them I would have nightmares if I hadn’t taken the picture, meaning, this is the business I’m in and I have to do it. When Kennedy was shot, I was thinking, “I can’t fail, this is it. I can’t fail.” And I’m talking about somebody I knew and liked.
“Don’t mess up.” That was basically going through my head when Bobby was shot. Basically, mess up tomorrow, not today. This is it.
There were times when I did feel like my life was in danger, but you do this work not for the action, but because you’re ambitious. That’s why you do it. Also, I’ve always stayed away from other photographers when working in danger zones. When photographers get hurt or killed, they’re usually in a bunch. There’s usually like three or four of them in a bunch, which leads to an “if you do it then I’ll do it” mentality. When I work alone, I’m not much of a target and I can pick my own moments to document.
What really kept me going all those years was just making a living — wanting to stay on the payroll until the end of the week. Nothing has changed, either. I still want to get as close as I can, then get out of town and stay on the payroll! When someone is paying you, you’re a professional, no matter how small it may seem.
With the Beatles, I was very lucky to get them right at the beginning, and that makes a big difference. It was easier for me to make good pictures of them! Everything was candid, including my favorite shot of them having a pillow fight in a Paris hotel. I like this picture because, not only is it of the greatest group in the world, but it also meant that I was coming to the US.
It was there that the Beatles were told that they were going to be on The Ed Sullivan Show and I was coming along! I never came back to the UK after that. I returned just to pack up my place in London; since then, New York has been my home.
It’s not good to be close with celebrities in this industry and that’s not my purpose when I set out — I’m not there to be part of their propaganda. I’m there to do a job, photograph them, then get out of dodge. I want to be as quick as I can. If I miss a shot and my subjects are upset, it doesn’t bother me. Tomorrow is another day.
A lot of times, celebrities won’t even know your name, too. I’ve always been aware of this. I mean, you can’t kid yourself. I keep a boundary with celebs, but I go through that boundary whenever I get a chance for a shot.
In this industry, people like me to keep their image alive, but that comes with a price. They should know that they have to work to keep their image alive, too — and if they don’t know that, then they’re not going to get what they expect to get. Nobody is going to get six pages in a good magazine for just looking at me. I want to see something going on.
What makes a great photograph is that it makes people want to look at it. It’s a moment, it’s a glimpse, then it’s gone. It’s something that can never happen again.
Of all the presidents I’ve photographed, the easiest to shoot was Reagan. He was a very likable man and would do really nice things during the shoot. For instance, he would dismiss the official White House photographer, which meant that there would be no other pictures going out on the wires; it would just be me and my camera.
Whereas the most difficult president to work with was Obama. I never worked with him much, but my problem really came down to the official White House photographer. Obama let the official White House photographer dish out the pictures, and there were very few pictures taken by outside photographers. Nobody had access to the Obamas doing private, personal things. If Obama was out playing a game of golf, then photographers would get one shot and it would be one crappy shot.
Not a fan of Donald Trump, either. In the picture of Trump with all the cash, we were at his casino in Atlantic City and he said to me, “Harry, I can walk in there and I can get a million dollars if I wanted to.” I said, “Wow, that’s great, Don. I’ve never seen a million dollars.” So he goes in and we piled it up, making sure it was exactly a million dollars. I know for a fact that he doesn’t like that picture now. A year ago I photographed him for Time and he said to me with an attitude, “You did that picture with the money, huh?”
I don’t care.
I’ve photographed the bastard for 40 years. I know him, but he doesn’t like me now, and that’s fine with me, because I don’t like him either. America doesn’t deserve this.
This goes back to what I was saying about the Beatles — you get them at the beginning and that’s where people are wanting to be liked. They’ll do anything, then later they’ll think, “Well, maybe I shouldn’t have done that.”
When I’m giving a lecture or a talk, a young photographer will always get up and ask, “What advice would you give to someone starting out today in your footsteps?” You know what I say? “Buy a guitar!” I say that because there’s no Life magazine out there now, and the amount of business is very slim.
I would also say that dressing properly played a huge role in allowing me to get close to people. If I wanted to get into the second floor of the White House, I’m not going to get in there dressed like a maintenance man. And photographers in particular are usually dressed awful! You have to dress well. You don’t want to show up looking like you’re going to repair the sink or something.
Also, don’t have too many cameras around your neck! Some people carry three cameras, maybe four. That makes people nervous! You’ve also shown that everything that moves in the room, you’re going to photograph it. And that’s not true. Basically, I have two cameras — one is in a small bag and the other is by my side — so they know what I’m there for, but it’s not menacing. And I want to get as close as I can to this person, then catch the next flight home! To me this has always been quite obvious.
Most importantly, as a young photographer you should always work hard — meaning that you’re the first in and you’re the last out. Hard work is important. Sure, there’s a bit of luck, but your camera should be ready for it.
Robert F. Kennedy was shot on June 5 and died on June 6. An earlier version of this article misstated the date Benson was standing next to RFK when he was shot.
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