The attack began in the early morning hours of Sept. 5, 1972, when eight armed Palestinians affiliated with the Black September Organization snuck into the Olympic Village in Munich. They made their way to 31 Connollystrasse, where the Israeli delegation was housed, killed two men and took nine others hostage.
Television coverage of the standoff transfixed the world for 21 consecutive hours. Pre-9/11, this shocking and seminal moment introduced the modern age of terrorism to a global audience.
Today, the most enduring image from the Munich Massacre is the black-and-white photograph of a balaclava-wearing terrorist standing on the balcony at 31 Connollystrasse. He has been called “a masked figure of doom.” One reporter described his “hangman-like visage,” while another referred to “that specter with cut-out eyes.”
“The sight of a ski-masked terrorist peeking out from a white-paneled balcony amidst the long, tedious negotiations became a symbol of the times,” wrote former New York Times sports editor Neil Amdur, who covered the Games for the Times in 1972. It is “framed to the world’s soul, the last splice to the politics-and-sports-don’t-mix axiom.”
Several photographers took pictures of the masked man. And yet no English-language caption that has accompanied these photos over the past 45 years has identified him, either by name or alias. That’s a mystifying oversight given that there were only eight terrorists in Munich, all of whose names are well known. Faceless and nameless, his anonymity has become his identity.
I decided to try and find out the name of the masked man, if possible, beginning with the photographers who took the iconic picture. The most widely published photo is credited to Kurt Strumpf, a German photographer working for the Associated Press. His is the one you see in the countless books and films about Munich, primarily because many media outlets subscribed to AP’s popular wire service. But Strumpf died in 2014; efforts to speak with former colleagues in Germany were unsuccessful.
Another photojournalist, though—Russ McPhedran with the Sydney Morning News—took a photo that is eerily similar, but his work has been overshadowed by Strumpf’s iconic image. McPhedran, now 81, was happy to talk about that fateful day, and why the photo’s ambiguity guaranteed its immortality.
Russ McPhedran was born in Scotland and came to Australia with his family in 1950, when he was 14. He quickly found work as a copyboy at the Sun newspaper in Sydney. One of his first jobs took him to White City Stadium, where he helped out the paper’s staff photographers at the Davis Cup, which in the all-amateur, all-wooden-racquet, all-white-clothing era was the most prized tennis trophy outside of the Grand Slams. Australia and the United States enjoyed a fierce rivalry, meeting in the Davis Cup finals for 16 consecutive years, from 1938-1959, with an interruption for the war. The matches were a matter of considerable national pride.
As McPhedran ferried rolls of film from the stadium to the newspaper’s offices, he glimpsed a future. “I thought, ‘Those photographers actually get paid for doing this?’” he told me in a recent interview over Skype. “That’s when I decided: I want to be one of them.”
Someone at the Sun gave him a Graflex, the photojournalist’s camera of choice at that time, and he began accompanying the senior lensmen, shooting breaking news and sports alike, watching everything they did and learning the tricks of the craft: Never panic while working a big news story; always look after your gear; anticipate the action by “reading” the story in your mind even before showing up to the assignment.
Cameras didn’t have motor drives or automatic focus back then; photographers learned to edit as they shot—there was no sense wasting valuable film stock. Having quick reflexes was vital, as was an instinct for storytelling: the ability to take in the scene, artfully frame the most important elements, snap the picture, keep moving.
McPhedran absorbed the lessons well and soon moved up the ranks. “Having been on the staff of the Sydney Morning Herald for more than 30 years, I can honestly say Russ is the best photographer I ever worked with,” reporter Jim Webster told me. “He had a mind of his own, didn’t have to be directed at all and often he would see a story developing, take a picture and then tell the journalist about it.”
In search of more experience and exposure, McPhedran left Australia for a staff position at a paper in Hong Kong. Then off to Fleet Street, the center of print journalism in London, where he wrangled a job at the Daily Express, a formidable sheet for photojournalists. He covered major stories—the Profumo Affair, the Great Train Robbery—and learned more tricks from war photographer Terry Fincher.
“Terry and I were in a pack of photographers shooting [prime minister] Harold Macmillan,” McPhedran recalled. “We got back to the darkroom, and I had one photo and thought, ‘Great, I got him.’ Well, Terry had five! He had a camera that he took the main picture with and around his body he had four other cameras with different lenses all linked to the first one. When he took one snap he got five photos. I thought, ‘My god. I know nothing.’”
McPhedran returned down under in 1968 and immediately shot a prize-winning photo of the Buckingham’s department store fire. He also gained a new title: senior photographer at Fairfax Media, the owner of the Sun and the Sydney Morning Herald.
In the summer of 1972, Fairfax assigned McPhedran to go to England and cover The Ashes, the intensely competitive series of cricket matches between Australia and Britain. Cricket photographers are required to stand far from the action at venues like Lord’s and The Oval, either behind the boundary ropes or in the stands. So, McPhedran made sure to pack his longest lens: a 400-millimeter. He took plenty of Kodak Tri-X, the black-and-white film that all the pros used, and his Nikon F2 camera. He fashioned a portable darkroom inside a tent to develop the film and make prints of the best shots. Then, from inside the media truck that accompanied the journalists on the tour, McPhedran slipped the prints into a transmitter (which was like a fax machine for photos) to wire them back to Sydney.
McPhedran was scheduled to be away from home for about three months. He’d arranged to take a vacation in Spain with his wife, Shirley, after the tour concluded in mid-August. But as soon as Shirley arrived in England, Russ received instructions to go to West Germany.
The holiday was canceled, and Shirley returned to Sydney. McPhedran headed to Munich to cover his first Olympic Games – the first in Germany since 1936.
The context of the Munich Olympics can only be explained by what happened in Berlin and Garmisch-Partenkirchen (site of the winter games) 36 years prior. From the swastika flags that flew on every street corner to the banning of Jewish athletes from competition to the hiring of Leni Riefenstahl to direct the documentary film Olympia, Adolf Hitler sought to turn the 1936 Olympics into a propaganda showcase for Nazism and the Aryan race. “Hitler’s games” marked the moment when the Olympic Movement was irreversibly co-opted by politics.
Like Rome (1960) and Tokyo (1964), Munich organizers viewed the Olympics as an opportunity to burnish a new progressive image for West Germany. A dozen miles from the site of the Dachau concentration camp, organizers stressed unity and peace: They created the first official Olympic mascot (a cute dachshund named Waldi) and hired prominent artists like David Hockney and Jacob Lawrence to design festive posters. The motto was Die Heiteren Spiele, or “The Happy Games.”
As the 7,134 competitors gathered in Munich, they found an Olympic Village designed to encourage the intermingling of nations and races (although men and women stayed in separate dorms). It was a veritable wunderland that featured a disco, a miniature golf course, a giant outdoor chess set, plenty of food, and superb training facilities nearby.
In their efforts to redeem Germany’s reputation, Munich organizers relaxed security precautions. Officers patrolling the Olympic Village wielded walkie-talkies, not guns. There were no metal detectors or security cameras. If athletes blowing off steam at a local beer hall returned after dark, they easily scaled the six-foot chainlink fence that was left unmonitored.
The games themselves proved to be frustrating for American athletes and fans. There were certainly moments of glory, led by Mark Spitz, who churned his way to seven gold medals and a bestselling poster that highlighted his Marlboro Man mustache and stars-and-stripes Speedo. Frank Shorter became the first American to triumph in the Olympic marathon since the controversial race of 1908, and wrestler Dan Gable and boxer Sugar Ray Seales powered past Eastern Bloc opponents to win gold medals.