By Mike BowersJune 7, 2012
The kidnap and murder of Israeli athletes during the 1972 Olympics brought terrorism into the world’s consciousness. Australian photojournalist Russell McPhedran recalls how he shook as he shot the image that showed the world what was happening.
The terrorist attack on the 1972 Munich Olympics is etched into the world's collective consciousness.
Eight members of the Black September group scaled a chain-link fence around the athletes' village and broke into an accommodation block, taking 11 Israeli hostages. Just after midnight, 11 Israelis, five terrorists and a West German police officer were dead after a botched rescue attempt.
Framing Terror: Munich Olympics, 1972
The images of an anonymous, balaclava'd man standing on the balcony of the Israeli athletes' apartments at 31 Connolly Strasse will forever represent that event.
These photographs are surely among the most powerful taken in the 20th century; everyone of a certain age knows them. Less well known is the person who took those first pictures, Australian photojournalist Russell McPhedran.
Early on September 5, 1972, some 11 days into the Games, McPhedran was having breakfast with his Sydney Morning Herald colleague, journalist Jim Webster.
The feeling within the press pack was one of relief because the bulk of their work at the Games of the XX Olympiad was over. To this point the Olympics had been a great success: American swimming phenomenon Mark Spitz had won a record seven gold medals, and Australia's Shane Gould shone, winning three gold medals, one silver and a bronze in the pool. In just five more days it would all be finished for another four years and everyone would be able to go home and see their families.
McPhedran and Webster had risen early to file for the Herald's first-edition deadline. The normally packed canteen at the press centre was quiet this morning; it was a track-and-field rest day.
In this pre-mobile era, reports of what was unfolding reached the two Australians the old-fashioned way, by word of mouth. The early details were vague. "Shots have been fired at the Olympic village," was all they were told.
McPhedran scrambled to collect his long lenses while Webster changed into his "jogging gear". Hustling on foot, they covered the kilometre to the athletes' village in minutes. It was still only about 7am.
The whole area was in the process of becoming an armed camp, but the athletically dressed Webster talked his way into the village, to a closer vantage point outside the building that housed the New Zealand team.
McPhedran meanwhile, who could not pass as an athlete thanks to his camera gear, found a vantage point outside the fence. He was still quite a distance away, in photographic terms, from the Israeli apartments. He attached all his tele-converters to a 400mm lens, giving him a working focal length of around 1,000mm.
McPhedran knew where, in which building, the hostage drama was unfolding; a helpful policeman had pointed it out to him. However he did not know at this stage which room in the block he needed to keep his eye on. As sharpshooters arrived and started to take up concealed positions, the tension grew. The possibility of missing a big picture at a moment in history fills you with a fear only a fellow photojournalist can fully understand. McPhedran found himself, heart in his throat, at a career-defining moment.
Scanning the whole building for any sign of movement, McPhedran was shaking by the time he saw it and focussed his lens. For less than a minute a masked terrorist stood on the second-storey balcony, talking to the authorities below.
McPhedran says he managed "about half a dozen pictures". He believes this to have been the only appearance of the masked man on the balcony.
The oversupply of adrenaline coursing around McPhedran's body had made his knees weak, but he raced off to rouse the Associated Press photographic bureau into life. McPhedran had had an arrangement with AP to use its facilities to get his pictures back to Sydney.
In the analogue days of press photography, access to what AP could offer — processors and international transmission equipment — often made the difference between making an edition of your newspaper or having a lot of explaining to do the next day as to why you missed the deadline.
That morning, McPhedran's were the first pictures to be transmitted to a stunned world.
The best of McPhedran's frames went exclusively to his employer back in Australia, the Fairfax group.
In return for using their facilities McPhedran allowed AP to transmit some of his other "masked man" frames. These went to the rest of the world in the kind of deal still known today as "Australia out". This agreement allows publications in other countries to use the pictures while excluding rival newspapers and magazines within Australia.
Webster's story on the Olympic tragedy ran under the heading "GUNS, POLICE AT VILLAGE OF PEACE". Both he and McPhedran continued to cover the events of that day, which came to a fatal end at Fürstenfeldbruck airport, west of Munich just after midnight, when, in the bungled rescue attempt, all nine remaining Israelis and five of the eight terrorists were killed along with the German police officer.
The President of the International Olympic Committee, Avery Brundage, halted the games for a day of mourning, and thereafter insisted that "the games must go on". They did go on, although some nations' teams returned home.
As the 40th anniversary of the Munich Games approaches, a passionate debate has erupted in the press over whether to hold one minute of silence at the opening ceremony of this year's London Olympics.
Russell McPhedran believes it would be only fitting and right to commemorate those murdered during what was billed at the time as "the carefree games".
The Munich attacks changed the Olympics — and all large public events — forever. Planning for big events is now undertaken with one eye on security needs. No city would want to be remembered for graphic images like these. The security costs for London's 2012 Olympic Games are estimated to be a dizzying GBP553 million.
Entrance to every Olympic venue today involves the ritual photographers call "mag and bag". This involves stripping yourself and your clothing of any bits of metal such as rings and belts and passing through a magnetometer (mag), often repeating the exercise, and removing some hitherto undiscovered bit of metal, until the machine doesn't buzz. Meanwhile, your bags are x-rayed and searched (bag), and then you're made to fire off all your cameras to prove they're working gear and are not stuffed full of explosives.
Of course the tragedy at Munich would be remembered without any imagery at all. However McPhedran's masked-man photograph brings the menace of the moment home and shows terror as more than a concept — it has burned the event indelibly into our visual memory.
I spoke to McPhedran in The Global Mail's studio about his memories of the events of September 1972.