Forget for a moment that the picture is among the most famous in US history, or that the photographer—a 21-year-old Kent State journalism student named John Filo—risked his life to document the tragedy.
Consider what the photo captures: Our own military occupied a public university and then opened fire on a crowd of unarmed citizens—students no less—killing four and wounding nine. One student was killed while walking to class.
Filo’s photo is a striking reminder of how quickly the world can turn upside down and how people in trusted, powerful positions can commit the most horrendous acts. –Sam Roe, CJR
See also the Washington Post’s “The Girl in the Kent State Photo.” I had always assumed she was a Kent State student, but it turns out she was a teenage runaway who had just met student Jeffrey Miller, and had been chatting with him for about 25 minutes when the National Guard opened fire without warning.
“I was kind of mad at [John] for a long time,” Mary Ann says. “He’s lucky. He’s done very well. He’s got a nice house. He’s got everything. He got the pony.” She laughs at that. “I got the crap.”
John says he “dreaded ever meeting Mary Ann,” but he accepted Payne’s invitation to the retrospective, unsure, until the last minute, if he would go through with it. When Payne brought the two of them together for a private meeting before the opening ceremony, no one knew what to expect. “John looked so scared,” Payne says. But Mary Ann surprised everyone. “I saw the anguish in his eyes,” she says of John, “and, you know, I felt sorry for him.” She smiled, took his hand and hugged him. They both cried.
Even though they’d never before met, Mary Ann says that she and John had the instant bond of a pair of old army buddies. “It was kind of a war,” she says. And neither of them had ever really been recognized as among the casualties. Kent State had haunted them both, from opposite ends of the lens.
Later that day, as Mary Ann spoke to the assembled group about the trauma of the Kent State shootings, John had an epiphany about the power of his photo. “It was because she was 14, because of her youth, that she ran to help, that she ran to do something. There were other people, 18, 19, 20 years old, who didn’t get close to the body. She did because she was a kid. She was a kid reacting to the horror in front of her. Had she not been 14, the picture wouldn’t have had the impact it did.” –Patricia McCormick, Washington Post
After the retrospective, John gave her a signed copy of the photo. The inscription: “For the courageous Mary Ann Vecchio, I cannot fathom how this photograph affected your life. I’m proud to call you a friend.”