Photo essay: Iconic (and never before seen) images from the 1996 Summer Games

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This story is part of WABE and ArtsATL’s Cultural Olympiad coverage. 


In 1990, when Atlanta pulled off the impossible and won the right to host the 1996 Summer Olympic Games, photographer Charlie McCullers recognized history was in the making and began a seven-year project to document the Games. Except those photographs were never published … until now. “I think these shots needed the weight of history,” McCullers says. “And 20 years after the fact now makes them history.”

An Atlanta native, McCullers graduated from the University of Georgia in 1980 and soon opened a commercial photography studio. While he worked with many Fortune 500 companies, he also followed his muse with trips to Africa, Asia and other exotic locales to hone his aesthetic style. In the ’90s, he began to photograph the Atlanta Braves in black and white images. Many of those photographs were featured in Atlanta magazine and, in 1996, were exhibited at Turner Field for the next four years. McCullers was then commissioned by the High Museum of Art to be the principal photographer for the much-heralded Sir Elton John Chorus of Light exhibit in 2000-01.

McCullers began to photograph Atlanta Ballet in 2000 and is now the ballet’s principal photographer. He also recently completed his Master’s studies at SCAD Atlanta.

These photos of the 1996 Games remain close to McCullers’ heart, even though they were never published. “The photos were not commissioned,” McCullers says. “Six months before the Games, a book publisher offered me tickets to every event if I’d let him use some of my images for a coffee-table book. So a few of my shots were published there.”

For the most part, McCullers was shooting for himself, experimenting with artistic styles and taking photographs that spoke to his own experience with the Games. “I had no press credentials,” he says. “I jumped a fence or two during construction, but by and large I shot what I had access to. Some of my tickets were upper level, some were down front. I had front row seats to the gymnastics finals; the whole Kerri Strug saga happened right in front of me.”

But McCullers didn’t photograph the most striking moment he witnessed during the Olympic festivities, which happened during the closing night of the Paralympic Games that soon followed the Olympic Games.

As Jerry Lee Lewis performed “Great Balls of Fire,” McCullers spied two athletes from different countries, a man and a woman. Neither had arms, yet they stood on the field and hugged with their torsos and necks. “I couldn’t take the picture,” McCullers says. “I couldn’t impose on that moment. Fireworks were exploding, and these people realized they were about to fly back home and leave behind the single best connection to humanity they’ll ever know.”

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