Behind the Photos: the Attempted Assassination of President Reagan Revisited

Reagan reacts
Ron Edmonds—AP
Of the first frame he made of the President, Edmonds recalled: "Just as I got ready to press the shutter down and take the picture, he waved, [and] the first shot rang out. I didn't know they were shots initially — they sounded like firecrackers. I saw him grimace, and that's when I pushed the shutter down, and I held it down."

Thirty years ago today, Ron Edmonds was on his second day as White House photographer covering President Ronald Reagan for the Associated Press. Edmonds had photographed much of Reagan’s presidential campaign the year before, and the two knew each other well.

That day, Edmonds had been photographing the president giving a speech inside the Washington Hilton Hotel, and after the speech was over, he rushed outside to get a shot of the President waving to the crowd before getting into his limousine. “That day was the first day I was going to cover him where he was President of the United States,” Edmonds says. “I’d photographed him thousands of times getting in and out of a limousine, but never with a Presidential seal.”

Edmonds had the camera to his eye when the President started to wave, and as would-be assassin John Hinckley, Jr., fired his gun, Edmonds made the famous sequence of three images that would be published around the world. “Sometimes you make your own luck, and I just happened to be at the right place at the right time and ready when this happened,” he recalled. “The most important job is to watch the President. I did everything I was supposed to do.”

As an AP staff photographer, Edmonds did not own the negatives or the copyright to the photographs he had made. “I have never seen all of the negatives. I couldn’t tell you how many outtakes there are.” So unlike some freelance photographers at the scene, Edmonds did not make much extra money from his employers. “I got a $50 a week merit raise,” he says.

Initially, Edmonds was convinced he had upset his employers because he had failed to get a picture of Hinckley. When Edmonds returned to the office, he was told to call the head of the AP, and he assumed the worst. On only the second day of his six-month probation as a new hire, he feared he would be let go. Instead he was told, “You nailed it, kid,” and “We’re lifting your probation — we’re going to keep you.”

Edmonds won the Pulitzer Prize for news photography as well as many other awards that year.

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