I Should Have Shot That: Martha Cooper’s Mary Jo Kopechne

05.16.12 Marina Galperina

ANIMAL’s new series asks photographers about that one shot that got away. This week, Martha Cooper describes a would-be portrait of Mary Jo Kopechne, who died in a car crashed by Edward M. “Ted” Kennedy in 1969.

In 1968 I was one of three summer photography interns at National Geographic. I moved to Washington DC for two months and shared an apartment with four young women who were working on Robert Kennedy’s presidential campaign. Interns could borrow any equipment from Geographic and I took home a strobe to practice bouncing the light off the ceiling and walls-a technique new to me at the time. I used my roommates as models and shot portraits of three of them. The fourth girl was quieter than the others and for whatever reason I didn’t take any photos of her. In June, Kennedy was shot, my roommates were devastated and disbanded and I moved to another apartment for the rest of the summer.

A year later Ted Kennedy drove his car off a bridge after a reunion party on Chappaquiddick Island with women who had worked with his brother Bobby. Sadly his passenger drowned and his role in the incident created a national scandal and probably cost him his chance ever to run for president.The passenger was 28 year old Mary Jo Kopechne, the roommate that I never photographed. Pretty much the only existing photo of poor Mary Jo was one from her yearbook. Do I have my own self-interest at heart — of course — but damn — I could have and should have shot that!

Martha Cooper is a photographer and photojournalist who has made invaluable contributions to documenting New York graffiti and street art culture. I Should Have Shot That! series is illustrated by James Noel Smith.