Tuesday, December 14, 2010

View to a Kill

NBC Cameraman Bob Brown
For all the thought posited upon the tragedy at Jonestown, it's a pity so little has been written about NBC Cameraman Bob Brown. After all, he alone provided irrefutable proof of the madness that first overtook members of the People's Temple in November of 1978. In doing so, he recorded his own death. It was late in the day when Brown and other members of the media covering Congressman Leo Ryan's visit to Guyana tried to fly out of that troubled land. But Jim Jones wouldn't allow it, sending his henchmen to gun down Ryan's group at the Port Kaituma airstrip. Bob Brown's TK-76 was rolling when the gunmen arrived. Witnesses say the 36 year old news vet immediately moved forward, lens up...
"Bob Brown stayed on his feet and kept filming what was happening, even as the attackers advanced on him with their guns. He was incredibly tenacious."
Seconds later, the gunmen cut Bob Brown down, first wounding him from afar before moving in and executing him and others at point blank range. His footage, both of the splintering village itself and the last few seconds of his life, helped a shocked planet grasp the events that led to the mass suicide of 909 Temple members. But who WAS Bob Brown? A cursory search of the internet uncovers few details of the man before the massacre. The most I was able to discover comes from this dated NBC profile of Brown and slain on-air partner Don Harris. It describes Bob Brown as an former local TV reporter turned network photog; a man known for his sense of style and flair for human interest stories.

Bob Brown reportedly expressed concern over the Jonestown trip, but it didn't stop him from showing some Guyanese children the wonders found inside his camera's viewfinder. It's the photo of that encounter that has stuck with me long after I finished 'Raven', Tim Reiterman's exhaustive history of Jim Jones and his doomed followers. The picture shows a man in his prime, bending at the waist to share his everyday view with a child who most certainly has never seen such a thing. That alone makes me want to know more about Bob Brown, a dashing photog from another era who deserves a far better legacy than the flickering images leading up to his violent demise. I'm not sure anyone reading this can help me in this endeavor, but I'll gladly share whatever I learn. Now do me a favor and go hug a cameraman.

Above Photo: NBC Cameraman Bob Brown shows his TV rig to Guyanese children as NBC sound technician Steve Sung looks on. Brown was among the journalists killed by Jonestown members shortly before the mass suicide. (Photo by Ron Javers, San Francisco Chronicle)


Amanda Emily said...

Can't find anything on Brown, but I really haven't been digging into 60s-70s yet...though I have two books written by NBC photogs who knew and worked with Brown sitting on my shelf.

And yes, there are a lot of photogs who deserve a better legacy beyond just the stories they shot. I'm working on that...

Anonymous said...

This is one of those images etched in my brain. I can remember watching it on tv clearly as if it were yesterday. It had a big impact on me as to the importance and tenacity of news photog

Mal James said...

Met Steve Sung the sound tech a few years back , working for NBC as a producer . Great Guy still carried the scars of the events that day
Good Post

Mal James said...


Amanda Emily said...

Went through the archives of the major US papers I have access to and I've found many inches of articles on Harris, but Brown I found barely anything asides from a three paragraph obituary in the Washington Post and LA Times.

Having seen the accolades printed about other photogs who have made headlines, Brown's minor footnote in history I fear is a cross between him being both a photog and a bit of racism on part of the public at the time.

Though from his book, this retired NBC/ABC/CBS photog knew and was good friends with Brown


Lea said...

I remember this photo. It is as poignant and haunting to look at now as it was all those years ago. Only a couple of days after it was taken he calmly faced-and apparently filmed-his own murder.

Of all the members of that doomed group of journalists who went to Guyana, Bob Brown fascinates me most. And yes, it is so frustrating that we cannot find out more about him BEFORE Jonestown...what was he like? What kind of life did he have?

Something tells me there is a fascinating story there.

Anonymous said...

I think he was my cousin. I knew him from well before this incident in the early 70's. I knew "my" Bob Brown as a TV cameraman from Los Angelas California where he lived with his mom my great aunt. That's why I think this one is him. We are Louisiana Creoles (mixed ethnicity often confused with Cajun). My cousin was very smart and worldly. He taught me how to play poker. The Brown family is my mother's paternal side of the family. We only knew Bob briefly when he came to Opelousas LA to visit us. I've been trying to get more information ever since this disaster. All of his limited bio information seems to match my cousin so I think it's him. If anyone has more data please email me at: homersilliad720-00q@yahoo.com

Anonymous said...

THE detail I remember most about the massacre was a newspaper text description of Brown's death -- "brains splashing his blue NBC camera"; at least I hope that's what the description is of -- you wouldn't want two such incidents ...
So help me out -- was his camera blue?