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Fragments of May 4: A Photo That Foretold What Was to Come

The moratorium photo

Taking pictures of students marching to downtown Kent on an early spring day in 1970, Howard Ruffner had no idea the campus would soon be occupied by the National Guard.

When an editor at Life magazine asked him to share some pictures from the weekend leading into May 4 and of “any rally or activity that takes place” that Monday, he never imagined one of his photographs would be the front cover.

Fragments of May 4: Howard Ruffner's photo of students protesting

Howard Ruffner enrolled as a student at Kent State in March 1969, after serving in the Air Force after high school. While Ruffner began working towards a degree in broadcast journalism, he immediately wanted to put his photography skills to use, so he started working for the yearbook. 

When Ruffner photographed the first protest leading into the events of May 4, he didn’t think much of it because he had taken so many photos along the way. As the weekend continued, Ruffner said he took pictures of everything from the ROTC building burning down and the arrival of the National Guard to the governor of Ohio visiting the burned-down ROTC building and people breaking curfew late at night. He included many of these in his 2019 book, “Moments of Truth: A Photographer’s Experience of Kent State 1970.”

On May 4, Ruffner tried to capture as much as he could no matter what happened. But once the guard opened fire, Ruffner said he took one photo before ducking for cover. 

“I walked down the hill again and took pictures of crowds around people giving them, what they hoped were, life-saving help,” Ruffner said. “... Several girls came up to me and said ‘You gotta stop taking pictures. You can’t take pictures. You’re intruding on people’s private space.’ But at some point in time, what is it that people have to know and not know, and intruding on private space is something that had to be done.” 

Sarah Sheiman and Rachel Karas are students in Kent State University's journalism program.

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