A Vietnam War protester recalls a seminal ‘60s image, part of a new book celebrating French photographer Marc Riboud’s 50-year career
Thousands of antiwar activists, hippies, students and draft resisters streamed into the capital on one of those balmy Indian summer days that can make autumn in Washington, D.C. seem magical. October 21, 1967, wasn't the first gathering in the capital to protest America's involvement in Vietnam and wouldn't be the last, or even the largest. But the rally, which came to be known as the March on the Pentagon, was the first with such clear purpose: the protesters hoped to do nothing less than shut down the war effort, if only for a day.
Converging on the world's largest office building late that Saturday afternoon, the crowd of some 100,000—estimates vary widely—encountered more than 2,500 rifle-wielding soldiers blocking their way. French photojournalist Marc Riboud noticed a lone girl posturing inches from the soldiers' sheathed bayonets. "She was just talking, trying to catch the eye of the soldiers, maybe try to have a dialogue with them," recalls the 80-year-old Riboud, whose distinguished career will be marked this spring with a new book and a photo exhibition in Paris, where he lives. "I had the feeling the soldiers were more afraid of her than she was of the bayonets."
Riboud crept close, snapping away in the soft, dying light of the late afternoon with the last of his film. He wouldn't learn the girl's name for three decades, but one photograph he took—a gauzy juxtaposition of armed force and flower child innocence—soon became a defining image of the antiwar era, reprinted in newspapers around the world. It remains a fixture of museum exhibitions and appears regularly in print.
The girl, Jan Rose Kasmir, was 17 when the picture was taken, a high-school student who'd bounced from foster home to foster home in the nearby Maryland suburbs. "I was a good heart trying to follow the light," she recalls. "I just hopped on a D.C. transit bus and went down to join the revolution. None of this was planned. This was before we were all media savvy." Kasmir, now 54 and a massage therapist, has lived for the past three years in Aarhus, Denmark, with her 12-year-old daughter, Lisa Ann, and her Danish husband.
The key to the appeal of Riboud's seminal image may be Kasmir's empathy for her adversary. "All of a sudden, I realized 'them' was that soldier in front of me—a human being I could just as easily have been going out on a date with," Kasmir says. "It wasn't a war machine, it was just a bunch of guys with orders. Right then, it went from being a fun, hip trip to a painful reality."
Georgetown University history professor Michael Kazin says "one of the reasons that photograph became famous is that there was an effort to talk to the soldiers, to convince them to throw down their guns and join us." Kazin, a fellow Pentagon protester in 1967, wrote the 2000 book America Divided: The Civil War of the 1960s. The protesters' plans ranged from the earnest to the absurd: organizer Abbie Hoffman held a mass exorcism, hoping to levitate the Pentagon 300 feet off the ground, turn it orange and vibrate out any evil spirits. (It didn't work.)
The rally didn't stop the war, of course, or even shut down the Pentagon. Instead, it resulted in some of the first violent clashes of the antiwar movement. Soldiers and federal agents lobbed tear gas into the crowds trying to force their way into the building. Six hundred eighty-one protesters were arrested, and dozens were beaten as they were pushed off the Pentagon's steps. The violence, memorably chronicled in novelist Norman Mailer's firsthand account, The Armies of the Night, focused the world's attention on the peace effort as never before.
More than 30 years after the protest, a French newspaper tracked down Kasmir, and last February Riboud followed her to another antiwar protest—this time in London, against the war in Iraq—and captured an image of a woman still committed to the ideals of her youth. She took with her a poster-size copy of the 1967 photograph, invoking the activist legacy of the 1960s against the looming conflict in Iraq; Riboud captured that moment too.
Born in Lyon, France, in 1923, Riboud first picked up a camera at age 14 and has spent the past half-century as a photojournalist. His many assignments have included war zones, protests, independence movements and street scenes from Asia and Africa to France and the United States. Mentored by the pioneering photographers Henri Cartier-Bresson and Robert Capa after World War II, Riboud joined the elite Magnum photo agency in 1953. He traveled to North and South Vietnam before and after the Pentagon march.
His work is currently being exhibited at the Maison Européenne de la Photographie in Paris, and a book, Marc Riboud: 50 Years of Photography, is due out this May. Brian Wallis, chief curator of the International Center of Photography in New York, says Riboud is a "concerned photographer," not an impartial observer of events but, rather, "one of those photographers who uses pictures to try to right wrongs they see in the world." Whatever one's politics, it's hard to look at Riboud's latest photograph of Kasmir and not admire the consistency of her passion—and his.