The Kent State Massacre Photo and the Case of the Missing Pole

Recognize this photograph? It shows 14-year-old Mary Ann Vecchio screaming and kneeling over the body of 20-year-old Jeffrey Miller, shot during the Kent State Massacre. Kent State photojournalism student John Paul Filo — just 22-years-old at the time — captured the image, and was later awarded the 1971 Pulitzer Prize for Spot News Photography.

What you might not know, however, is that the widely published photograph at the time was actually manipulated. Here’s what the original photograph by Filo looked like:

Notice how in the original photograph there’s a fence pole rising straight up from Vecchio’s head. Somehow, major magazines (e.g. Time, People, and LIFE) around the country get their hands on the secretly-manipulated version of the photograph, publishing it as the original.

When people began noticing the discrepancy, there was major controversy on online bulletin boards regarding the ‘shopping.

Here’s how David Friend, Director of Photography at Life Magazine, responded at the time:

There has been some heated back-and-forth discussion on the net concerning an allegedly manipulated image in the May 1995 issue of LIFE magazine (John Filo’s Kent State Pullitzer-winning picture). The original photo shows a fence post appearing behind the head of protestor Mary Ann Vecchio; the photo in the May issue of LIFE does not. As LIFE’s director of photography, I wanted to respond directly, clearly and put the matter to rest. LIFE did not and does not manipulate news photos. The photo we published was supplied to us by our photo library, the Time-Life Picture Collection, the second largest such repository of catalogued images. Amazingly, the fence post had been airbrushed out by someone, now anonymous, in a darkroom sometime in the early 1970s. The picture had run numerous times, without the fencepost, and without anyone taking notice: in TIME (Nov. 6, 1972, p. 23) PEOPLE (May 2, 1977, p. 37), TIME (Jan. 7, 1980, p. 45), PEOPLE (April 30, 1990, p. 117), to name just a few publications.

On deadline, while closing our May issue, the LIFE photo department contacted photographer John Filo, hoping to secure a repro quality print, as is customary at LIFE. Since we could not obtain a print from him directly in time to make our run, we went with the photo we had, not realizing a pole had been removed. One can only wonder why the missing pole hasn’t been noticed the previous times it has appeared, even though literally millions of people have seen the fence-post-less photo in publications dating back 23 years. At no time would LIFE’s photo, art or production department intentionally alter a news photograph.

Now you know: if you ever see a version of the photo that doesn’t have an unsightly fence pole, it’s ‘shopped.

(via ZoneZero)

P.S. The Wikipedia article on John Filo has interesting behind-the-scenes details of how the image was made. Filo was equipped with a Nikkormat loaded with Tri X film, was exposing at 1/500s at f5.6/f8, and had initially dropped his camera and begun to flee before gathering himself and documenting the scene.

Thanks for sending in the tip, Ofer!

Image credit: Photograph by John Paul Filo/Valley News-Dispatch

  • Riko Gonzalez

    The Pole just makes the photo look weird, for me it’s one of those cases that the work done to the picture is done to improve, and or enhance the message of the image, the main subject is the girl, not the pole.

  • John Kantor

    You’re really f****** up if you think massacre is the correct term – or that a random dip**** with a camera should get a Pulitzer Prize for something like this. But that’s just par for the course for liberal bias.

  • Toadman

    Massacre =
    to kill unnecessarily and indiscriminately, especially a largenumber of persons.
    I would say this was a massacre per its discription. It’s called a dictonary, look it up on that computer of yours.
    As for for the Pulitzer… perhaps all the other photos submitted sucked.

  • Manuel Smirnoff

    I can’t say that I get too excited about a missing pole. The issue is ENTIRELY symbolic, not real and doesn’t matter one bit to the message of the photo.

    Panties in knots: Zzzzzzzzzzzz. None of the purists seem bothered by the fact that it’s cropped. Maybe next year.

  • Billy___Bob

    “It used to be a respectable profession”

    Hah. Walter Duranty of the NY Times helped cover up the massacre of 10 million and got a Pulitzer.

  • vale1005

    Dude your a real piece of art. Im pretty sure you would of knocked Mr. Filo over, as you ran away to cower. He, like many Pulitzer winners WAS at the right place at the right time, BUT they also had the where for to gather himself and record the events.
    AND YES it was a massacre, trigger-finger guardsman opening fired on unarmed students. Your obvious small mind prefers the to deal with Constitutionally protected dissent like Stalin. Not in my America, buddy.

  • vale1005

    I believe the point of this piece, like most on Petepixel is strictly of photographic interest. NOT political mumbo jumbo. Shess.
    Life was simply clarifying their editorial process of never manipulating published photos. There was no public uproar over the non-pole photo, at the time. Just the killing of American students by American soldiers on a college campus.
    The internet has given every loon with a keyboard (including myself) the ability to yell, “oh look what you did”.

  • Cathy

    I find it somewhat amusing and highly ironic, especially in this day and age of auto correct, that you quoted a dictionary definition yet misspelled the word DESCRIPTION. Perhaps you should practice what you preach.

  • Toadman

    Clearly I was making reference to the description, there it’s correct, of the word Massacre. But since you’re splitting hairs, it’s AUTOCORRECT, not auto correct. Would you like to be the Pot or the kettle?

  • Toadman

    Massacre =
    to kill unnecessarily and indiscriminately, especially a largenumber of persons.
    I would say this was a massacre per its description. It’s called a dictonary, look it up on that computer of yours.
    As for for the Pulitzer… perhaps all the other photos submitted sucked.

  • marctobolski

    Based upon the explanation above, what David Friend seems to tiptoe around is that someone at Time-Life manipulated the original image. He does not cite any other published source other than those directly attached to Time-Life. Also, if it is SOP for Life to obtain an original print from the source then why did they wait until up against deadline? The explanation and the evasiveness of the answer all seems odd.

  • Erik Lauri Kulo

    “was exposing at 1/500s at f5.6/f8″ wut?

  • Michael Zhang

    changed to “was exposing at 1/500s at between f5.6 and f8″

  • mlcred

    While I understand that policy regarding no manipulation of news photos must be absolute, I still maintain that this particular manipulation is OK. It does not alter the truth of the image, just makes it more easthetically pleasing.
    Now, shifting the position of a pyramid, on the other hand…. ;-)

  • Jim Grady

    We need the second amendment,because sometimes when there is a shooting on a college campus,it’s the government pulling the trigger.Its amazing how quickly people forget.

  • [email protected]

    thats a lie he THE PHOTOGRAPHER didnt flee MY friend is in that pic in the center , the guy was told by my friend to put the camera away , cause the natl gaurd was busting cameras he told my “friend fuk you hippie I got what I wanted “, the photographer was never in any danger , my friend did tell the photog to fuk off , my friend is the guy looking back over his shoulder , center on grass

  • disqus_e0X3EigZfk

    You are the F@@Ked up one. You don’t think that soldiers killing 4 unarmed students peacefully protesting, constitutes a massacre? Well I guess your fake titties interferes with the minute portion of grey matter you have in your cranium. F**K YOU RWNJ.