With the unveiling of the National Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in Washington, D.C. set for October 16, I’ve been thinking about the most memorable portrait photography project I worked on at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, which in the end yielded a non-portrait photo that has proved to be one of my favorite images.
Almost 40 years to the day after the tragic assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. I hopped into my car on a chilly spring morning in the South and drove to Memphis, Tenn. My goal? Take a photo of the door of Room 306 – the room where MLK stayed the night before. The motel – now the home of the National Civil Rights Museum – is still standing and looks just as it did then.
I wanted this image of ROOM 306 to serve as the iconic lead photo for a package I had been working on at the AJC. Along with Jim Auchmetey, Ernie Suggs and Ryon Horne of the AJC I had interviewed a number of people in King’s inner circle who were either at the motel or back home in Atlanta forty years ago. (Some of the portraits can be seen here and here).
One editor had told me it wasn’t worth the cost in terms of mileage to send me back for a photo of a door…I eagerly set out the morning to prove him wrong. Another editor, the talented Alysia Burton, whole-heartedly encouraged the trip. She knew that any subject given time and some luck can make a great photo.
Sitting outside for a few hours yielded a great variety of shots from every angle of the motel. But just as I was packing up a splash of light fell onto Room 306, I dropped the video camera in my hand and quickly grabbed my still camera. I knew I had what I needed. Twelve hours of driving, six hours of waiting and three seconds of great light…