Jonestown by David Hume Kennerly, 1978

Peoples Temple Agricultural Project it was called.

In the ’60s, Jim Jones was a respected Pentecostal reverend, who preached a gospel of social justice and inclusion to  integrate churches, hospitals, restaurants and theaters and attract followers to his San Francisco-based congregation, the People’s Temple. By 1977, however, with a damning article about abuses within his church about to break, Jones and nearly a thousand of his followers fled into the jungles of Guyana, onto the land the Temple had previously purchased.

White, black, and Latino members of his religious movement wanted to found a utopia of racial harmony and equality rooted in communism, but Jones’ egomania and paranoia grew, as did his dependency on pills. Jones staged faith healings, consolidated his power within only a small circle of trusted faithful, and began referring to himself as God.

Life in Jonestown was harsh, with members subjected to strict discipline, isolation, and indoctrination. Family members and former members contacted authorities, prompting Congressman Leo Ryan to visit the place in November 1978 to investigate and bring out several members who expressed their desire to leave.

On November 18, as Ryan and his delegation attempted to leave, they were ambushed by armed members of the Peoples Temple, resulting in the deaths of Ryan and others. Back in Jonestown, Jim Jones ordered his followers to commit an act of “revolutionary suicide,” and drink cyanide-laced fruit punch (despite later associations with Kool-Aid, the actual drink used was a generic fruit-flavoured drink mix, not Kool-Aid). Over 300 children were made to drink it by their parents, poisoned syringes being emptied into infants’ mouths. Some were forcibly injected, and others tried to run for the surrounding jungle were by Jones’ armed guards. All told, 918 people died that day — the largest loss of civilian American lives pre-9/11.

Jones shot himself. The only living thing left in Jonestown after the suicides were two parrots.

(Book recommendation on Jonestown: Julia Scheeres’ A Thousand Lives: The Untold Story of Jonestown)

David Hume Kennerly, one of the first photographers to arrive on the scene (and also photograph Jim Jones’s autopsied body on boardwalk) remembers:

Time Magazine’s New York bureau chief Don Neff and I were in Miami, working on a Colombia-related drug story for the magazine that day, and word hadn’t yet reached the outside world about what happened in Guyana. Sunday morning’s edition of the Miami Herald changed all of that…

Neff and I immediately decided to head down there. Having an American Express card proved valuable, we chartered a jet, put the charge on my card, and off we went…

As we winged toward the scene, the pilot said he would fly over Jonestown. We were still at a distance, but it appeared to me that there were scores of people alive and gathered around a big tin-roofed structure in the middle of what appeared to be a small village or compound. As we drew closer it turned out I was wrong.

I’ve seen a lot of shit in my life, more than two years in Vietnam covering the war guaranteed that, but nothing prepared me for the shock of what I witnessed that day.  The people who I thought were gathered around the pavilion were dead. They looked like colorfully dressed but lifeless dolls strewn along the ground, most of them facedown, many of them huddled together in groups.  There were hundreds of them.  I don’t wish that sight on anyone….

Kennerly’s photo of giant vat filled with a purple liquid, where people lined up to fill their cups made the cover of Time magazine. Time also published the photo of the body of Jim Jones inside the magazine, but cropped and slightly darkened it from the original to make it appear more ready for general audience.

On the cover, Time hid Jim Jones’ body under the masthead letter “E.” but his bloated stomach was visible — see the original photo used for cover here.

Notes: Other photos of the vat and the area did not feature Jim Jones’ body. Presumably, they were taken by other photographers who arrived after Jone’s body was taken away by authorities. Kennerly’s photo of Jim Jones’ body, the cropped version of which appeared inside Time magazine: link


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18 thoughts on “Jonestown by David Hume Kennerly, 1978

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