Excerpted interview with Rein Jelle Terpstra conducted by Clément Chéroux and Linde B. Lehtinen on August 10, 2017 in San Francisco, California via Skype with the artist in Amsterdam.
I had friends of mine give me the book of Paul Fusco’s photographs published by Aperture in 2008, and that’s the same book I carry with me every time I’m in the United States. This book was amazing. For me, it’s a kind of epic story. It’s a cross-section of American society—black, white, poor, well-to-do families. But this act of staring and looking was the most compelling thing for me; that all the people were gazing at the train. And the train itself doesn’t appear in the book at all.
There is something where many images are centrifugal, moving from the center to all directions. And I think that has to do with the way Paul Fusco photographed. He’s made a panning movement with his camera so there is motion that takes it beyond the frame. You can see in the center that one person or a certain area is sharp, and the rest is moving away. It’s almost like a star. And that’s a formal quality that gives these photographs a kind of motion and temporality which would not be there if all the photos were completely well focused, without any blur or movement. That would make them more static, as though the train was standing still. And thanks to that movement, there is continuity in the photographs.
The day that Robert F. Kennedy died, someone in the White House must have made the decision to create a collective memory, to imprint an image in the minds of all the American people, with reference to the famous Abraham Lincoln funeral train. The really fascinating thing to me is that we see only the expressions of people looking at the train and at what had been an icon, but now they become icons themselves. So there is a reversal that is really fascinating.
As I was browsing through the Fusco book, I became curious about what these people were looking at. And then I realized that the only way to find out is through their cameras. I looked through Fusco’s images again and saw a lot of people with a camera in their hands. I thought, “How would it be if I could look through their eyes, through their cameras?” And that’s where it started.
I first conceived the idea in 2012 as a book and then formally launched the project in December 2014. I began by researching historical societies, libraries, museums, and archives in various cities, but no one ever thought about collecting that material. Since no one could help me, I had to find a way to bring myself directly to the people. This was something I had to do by myself entirely. It was challenging, but I liked that part of it.
And then I discovered social media was a research tool. There are some Internet train groups on Reddit and Yahoo, but I found Facebook to be the most useful for my purposes. To find people though, I had to develop a Facebook searching strategy. First I wrote down all the names of the places along the train route. Not only cities, but also towns, townships, neighborhoods, little communities—everything I could find— using Google Maps to locate places where the train passed by. I decided to combine locations such as Trenton, Elizabeth, or Princeton with other key words and phrases like “memory” or “photographs” or “I grew up.” Quite a few Facebook groups popped up and I applied to be a member, and a lot of them accepted me. I am in a total of about four hundred different public and private Facebook groups. It’s crazy, but that was the only way to get the project done.
Excerpted from Clément Chéroux and Linde B. Lehtinen, “Through Their Eyes: Interview with Rein Jelle Terpstra,” in The Train (Paris: Textuel, 2018), 63–65.