Life magazine photographer John Dominis, who died Dec. 30 of a heart ailment at the age of 92, is often remembered for the iconic image from the 1968 Olympic Games depicting two runners raising their fists in a symbol of protest.
But if photographing a medal awards ceremony at the 1968 Olympic Games would lead him to make a career-defining photograph, he’d have been surprised to hear it.
“I didn’t think it was a big news event,” Dominis told Smithsonian magazine in 2008. Later, as reported by The New York Times, he called it “not much of a photograph.”
But as history has recorded it, his shot of athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos on the medal podium following their performance in the men’s 200-meter dash was a decisive moment of racial protest. Their gloved hands, fists clenched in a black power salute, forever linked their status as American heroes and civil rights activists, and became a defining photograph among the strong imagery of the civil rights movement.
That the moment wasn’t much to Dominis speaks to his talents as a photographer. Former editors praised his calmness as news broke, and a series of bold moves in his early days solidified his stature as a photojournalist at Life. He joined the staff of the magazine when he volunteered to cover the Korean War, and was one of the magazine’s first photographers to report from Vietnam.
He also saw his share of important moments in times of peace as well.
He covered President John F. Kennedy’s 1963 trip to Berlin, President Richard Nixon’s 1972 trip to China, and photographed rock history at Woodstock in 1969.
Dominis was one of the few photographers close enough that day to get the shot of Carlos and Smith, standing twenty feet away as they raised their fists in solidarity. If it was the practiced reflexes of a photojournalist that helped get the shot, the timing was perfect.
“We had to be seen,” Smith told Smithsonian magazine, “Because we couldn’t be heard.”