Senator John F. Kennedy and fiancé Jacqueline Bouvier go sailing while on vacation at the Kennedy compound in June 1953 in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts. The photo, which appeared in Life magazine, helped to make Kennedy a national figure.
Today’s digital cameras capture images in a fraction of a second, and boy, do we take a lot of them. Thanks in large part to the proliferation of smartphones, humans capture unimaginable numbers of images — to the tune of perhaps 1.7 trillion each year. By some estimates, every two minutes our snap-happy selves create more pictures than existed in all the world 150 years ago [sources: Cakebread, Eveleth]. But how many of those pictures are really all that memorable?
Silly pet shots aside, once in a while we humans really do take a few legendary pictures. Eleven construction workers sitting on a crane and the V-J kiss picture at the end of World War II in Times Square are both examples of iconic pictures. But so is the hooded Abu Ghraib detainee standing on a box and connected to electrical wires. And the Chinese dissident standing steadfast in front of a heavy tank in Tiananmen Square. And President John F. Kennedy and various members of his family creating Camelot.
In 1953, John F. Kennedy was an up-and-coming young senator when his father Joseph P. Kennedy invited a sports photographer called Hy Peskin to the family compound in Hyannis Port. The elder Kennedy thought some photographs of the handsome senator and his beautiful fiancé (later wife) Jackie would build his son’s career. The picture of the radiant couple on a boat appeared on the cover of the very popular Life magazine and went a long way to introducing Kennedy to a wider audience and setting the stage for his future political ambitions.
Images like these have not only outlasted their photographers, but they’ve also wormed their ways into our collective cultural consciousness. These two-dimensional pictures have the ability to shake our imaginations and sometimes inspire real change in our three-dimensional world. Here are the stories behind 13 of history’s iconic photographs, in chronological order. (Warning: Readers may find a few of the pictures disturbing.)
- 'Cotton Mill Worker'
- 'Migrant Mother'
- 'Raising the Flag at Iwo Jima'
- 'Bikini Atoll Mushroom Cloud'
- 'Muhammad Ali vs. Sonny Liston'
- 'Black Power Salute'
- 'The Terror of War'
- 'Afghan Girl'
- 'Diana at the Taj Mahal'
- 'Gorilla in the Congo'
- Ellen Degeneres' Oscar Selfie
- 'Alan Kurdi'
13: 'Cotton Mill Worker'
This photo of a girl of 12 or 13 who worked at a cotton mill in North Carolina was taken by Lewis Hine. Hine’s pictures were instrumental in the passage of laws restricting child labor in the U.S.A.
In the early 20th century, it wasn’t unusual for very young children to work very hard — and very dangerous — jobs. In 1908, investigative photographer Lewis Hine set out to capture images of impoverished kids in perilous work environments on behalf of the National Child Labor Committee, an organization working to reform child labor in the U.S.
Hine often pretended to be an industrial photographer, or even a Bible peddler, to gain access to his subjects. At a cotton mill in North Carolina, he came upon a small girl with braided hair and a worn dress working at a loom.
The cotton mill girl was just one of many children that Hine photographed using his duplicity and wiles. Across the country, he made pictures of kids, often younger than 10, slopping through grease, hawking newspapers, working with dangerous machinery and stomping through dark, musty mines [source: Taylor].
Those pictures made a difference. Thanks to Hine and the National Child Labor Committee, angry citizens and their legislators stepped up and passed laws that provided more protection for young workers. In 1938, the Fair Labor Standards Act passed, prohibiting the employment of any persons under the age of 16, a law still in place today.
12: 'Migrant Mother'
Florence Owens Thompson, 32, with her young children gazes off into the distance. This photograph, commissioned by the Resettlement Administration, came to symbolize the Great Depression for many Americans.
The Great Depression crushed the lives of people around America. In 1936, photojournalist Dorothy Lange was working on behalf of the Resettlement Administration, a government agency helping poor families relocate. She spotted a destitute mother near Nipomo, California.
Florence Owens Thompson was a 32-year-old woman with seven children, who had been scraping for cash as a migrant field worker. In the image Lange captured, two filthy, tousle-haired children shyly turn their faces from the camera while their mother touches her fingers to her face, staring vacantly into the distance.
Thompson and her family were stranded alongside Highway 101 thanks to a broken-down car when Lange stumbled upon them. Thousands of starving migrant workers lingered in a nearby camp, hoping for work — or food — of any kind. Despite her less-than-glamorous appearance, Thompson allowed Lange to take her photograph because she hoped that maybe it would make a difference somehow [source: Phelan].
The picture was immediately published by the San Francisco News, along with a story detailing the prevalent hunger in the work camp. Federal workers rushed food to the area, but by then Thompson and her family had already moved on [source: Gutierrez and Drash].
They eventually settled in Modesto, California where she worked a variety of jobs and living conditions improved. Thompson, a Cherokee, later said she felt exploited and ashamed of that photo. However, when she had a stroke in 1983, her family was able to raise money for her medical care on the strength of that image. The admiring letters and donations she received from strangers at that time caused her to start taking pride in being part of that iconic photo [source: Dunn].
11: 'Raising the Flag at Iwo Jima'
Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal captured the second flag-raising atop Mount Suribachi, Iwo Jima, one of the most famous war photographs in U.S. history.
In February 1945, photographer Joe Rosenthal was on the Japanese island of Iwo Jima covering World War II for the Associated Press. He took pictures as he watched Marines raise a U.S. flag among rocks on the peak of Mount Suribachi at the southwestern tip of the island. The bloody Battle of Iwo Jima was far from over, but the flag that the Marines hoisted — the second one raised on the summit that day — marked their capture of that important position. Rosenthal snapped a photo with his Speed Graphic camera, one of dozens of images he took during his time on the island. Only one, though, earned him a Pulitzer Prize: "Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima."
In the black-and-white photo, six Marines struggle to raise the flag, which cuts across the cloudy background at a diagonal. The image immediately struck a chord with Americans, tugging at the heartstrings of civilians who saw the image as a symbol of hard work, determination, triumph and national pride. It made it to the cover of newspapers across the country, to the U.S. postage stamp and to shop windows. The Treasury Department even plastered the image on a poster for a war bond drive, and the photo has inspired many artworks and parodies [source: The Pulitzer Prizes].
"Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima" wasn’t the first photo of a U.S. flag-raising to circulate in newspapers during World War II, but politicians and everyday citizens found hope in it. Some Americans were optimistic that a victory was around the corner, and Rosenthal’s photo reflected this optimism with its perceived overtones of unity and perseverance. In reality, the Battle of Iwo Jima raged for another month, and World War II continued for several more months until the U.S. dropped atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945. Despite speculation, there’s no way to tell whether the attention the photo garnered increased support for the atomic bombs [sources: Pressman and Kimble, International Photography Hall of Fame and Museum].
But there was another, albeit less complex, debate regarding "Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima": whether it was staged. Rosenthal debunked those rumors — which started when he misunderstood a journalist’s question. Film footage taken that day showed the famous Iwo Jima shot was not staged. Sorry, conspiracy theorists.
10: 'Bikini Atoll Mushroom Cloud'
This image shows the enormous mushroom cloud generated by a nuclear weapon test by the American military at Bikini Atoll, Micronesia.
Following World War II, the Cold War rapidly increased tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union, and both nations stepped up their nuclear weapons programs. At Bikini Atoll, in the remote Marshall Islands of the Pacific Ocean, America resolved to test its newest bombs.
In 1946, as part of Operation Crossroads, U.S. officials forcibly removed the 162 residents of the atoll in anticipation of two large nuclear blasts meant to test the bombs’ effects on warships. This was the first-ever underwater nuclear explosion and everyone was curious to know what the effects would be.
The bomb (code-named Test Baker) displaced 2 million tons (1.8 million metric tons) of water, as well as generated an enormous mushroom-shaped cloud that arced far into the sky, as you can see in the photo, which was taken from an observation tower on Bikini Island 3.5 miles (5.6 kilometers) away [source: CNET].
More than six decades later, Bikini Atoll is still an unlivable mess wrecked by radiation. And the pictures from that day show exactly why [source: The Guardian].
9: 'Muhammad Ali vs. Sonny Liston'
‘Get up and fight sucker!’ Heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali stands over Sonny Liston and taunts him during their title fight in Lewiston, Maine in 1965.
On May 25, 1965, at the Central Maine Youth Center in Lewiston, Maine, 34-year-old Sonny Liston and a 23-year-old champ named Muhammad Ali faced off in a fight for the ages.
Just one minute and 44 seconds into the match, Ali smacked his right fist against Liston’s chin. Liston went flat on his back. And as cigar smoke swirled in the area above the ring, photographers all around the small arena leapt to immortalize the scene. Many of them captured images that were very similar, but only a couple made it into widespread circulation. One of the most famous depicts Ali standing over Liston, with his right arm cocked, muscles rippling with power [source: Araton].
The images from the fight seem to tell a tale of triumph by jaw-shattering blows, but the truth is more involved. Fight spectators say that Ali landed one rather minor blow, which sent Liston to his back. "Get up and fight, sucker!" Ali taunted. Liston rose and began throwing more punches [source: Emmert].
But Liston’s persistence was futile, as the referees had already called the match in favor of Ali, who’d enter the event as a slight underdog. The fight lasted all of two minutes and 12 seconds, with people wondering if Ali really knocked Liston out or whether it was a "phantom punch" and Liston took a dive. Thanks to his unexpected win, and the powerful image, Ali’s legend quickly gained momentum, eventually turning him into one of the 20th century’s most famous sportsmen.
8: 'Black Power Salute'
American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos raise their fists and give the Black Power salute at the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City. The salute was a symbolic protest against racism in the United States
In the late 1960s, the counterculture movement was well underway, the Vietnam War was shredding America and the quest for minority rights was adding to the tumult. At the 1968 Summer Olympic games in Mexico City, two black American athletes — Tommie Smith and John Carlos — won gold and bronze medals in the 200-meter race and decided to make a statement at the medals ceremony.
Both men raised a black-gloved fist into the air in a Black Power salute for the entirety of the national anthem, their heads bowed toward the ground. Their salute was a preplanned demonstration meant to call attention to the issue of human rights and inequality [source: BBC]. "I had no idea the moment on the medal stand would be frozen for all time," Carlos told The Guardian in 2012.
Their rebellious act immediately drew boos in the stadium, as well as worldwide headlines and the wrath of millions of angry Americans when they saw the picture of the runners’ upraised fists [source: Cosgrove].
The picture of the protest reveals more details. Smith removed his shoes and placed them on the podium, his black socks a symbol of African American poverty. Carlos unzipped his jacket to represent steadfast alliance with downtrodden blue-collar American workers. And all three athletes, including Australian silver medalist Peter Norman, wore Olympic Project for Human Rights badges. (Smith and Carlos were pallbearers at Norman’s funeral in 2006) [source: Younge].
In the firestorm that followed, the International Olympic Committee banned the offenders from the rest of the Games, although they kept their medals. But the indelible picture of open rebellion on an international stage provided more fuel for activism back home.
Astronaut William Anders took this shot of the rising Earth greeting Apollo 8 from behind the moon. Apollo 8, the first manned mission to the moon, entered lunar orbit on Christmas Eve, 1968. That evening, the astronauts held a live broadcast, in which they showed pictures of Earth and the moon as seen from their spacecraft.
As the space race accelerated during the 1960s, NASA’s Apollo 8 mission set out to put American astronauts into lunar orbit. On Dec. 24, 1968, they did just that. Three lucky men became the first humans ever to orbit the moon … and see the entirety of Earth from afar [source: Neuman].
As the spaceship rotated, they were able to take pictures of their home planet. One famous image, by astronaut William Anders, became known as "Earthrise." The photograph depicts Earth as a blue orb swirled with massive white clouds, hanging in the blackness of space over the cratered horizon of the moon [source: Chaikin].
Anders described it as "the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen" and noted that even though they were there to study the moon, "it’s really the earth as seen from the moon that’s the most interesting aspect of this flight" [source: Chaikin].
The picture immediately zoomed around the world and was published in countless papers. It also graced the cover of the Whole Earth Catalogue and formed the backdrop of the "CBS Evening News."
6: 'The Terror of War'
Children run along Highway 1 after an accidental napalm attack on Trang Bang, 26 miles southwest of Saigon, by South Vietnamese government aircraft. The photo was taken by Vietnamese-American photographer Nick Ut.
On June 8, 1972, the South Vietnamese air force accidentally dropped a load of napalm — explosive jellied gasoline — on a group of people fleeing a village named Trang Bang, which had been occupied by the North Vietnamese. The pilot who dropped the incendiary weapon mistook the group as enemy troops deploying from the village. He was wrong. Very wrong.
Instead, the weapon struck friendly soldiers and civilians. In the chaos, Associated Press photographer Nick Ut captured a picture of Vietnamese children screaming and running for their lives [source: Time].
Nick Ut and Phan Thi Kim Phuc stand in front of their famous photograph at the exhibition "From Hell to Hollywood" May 5, 2022 in Milan, Italy.
In the center of that picture was Phan Thi Kim Phuc, a naked 9-year-old girl, shrieking both from terror and the pain of enduring severe burns to her back. Ut didn’t merely stand by. Instead, he jumped into the fray, poured water on her burns and helped Phan Thi to a local hospital, where doctors expected her to die [source: Harris].
Despite the long odds, she survived her injuries (and the rest of the war) and went on to immigrate to Canada with her husband and have two children of her own. She now runs a foundation to help child victims of war [source: Tong]. The picture of her worst moments survived, too, and went on to win the 1973 Pulitzer Prize for Spot News Photography.
5: 'Afghan Girl'
‘Afghan Girl, 1984’ by photographer Steve McCurry was on display for auction as part of ‘The National Geographic Collection: The Art of Exploration’ at Christie’s Nov. 30, 2012 in New York.
It is sometimes called the most famous picture ever. It is "Afghan Girl," a portrait of an adolescent girl that made the cover of the 1985 issue of National Geographic. The image — and the story behind it — is one that resonated with people the world over.
In 1984, photographer Steve McCurry traveled to a refugee camp near Peshawar, Pakistan, where he took many pictures of men, women, and children existing in extreme poverty. There he snapped a photo of a young girl in a red headscarf with unforgettable piercing green eyes. Instantly, he knew that the image was a memorable one, and he hoped that film would survive the camp’s blowing dust [source: Wallis Simons].
It did. When National Geographic editors saw the picture, they immediately knew it was a shot worthy of the cover. But no one could have guessed then that the photograph would become so famous [source: Newman].
Sharbat Gula in 2016, when she was welcomed by Afghan president Ashraf Ghani at the presidential palace in Kabul, Afghanistan.
"People volunteered to work in the refugee camps because of that photograph," McCurry told CNN. "Afghans are incredibly proud of it, as the girl is poor but shows great pride, fortitude and self-respect.
McCurry didn’t know the girl’s name. In the 1990s, as the image became a worldwide icon, he set out to find her but failed. Finally, in 2002, the magazine sent a group of researchers, who ultimately located her, now a grown woman named Sharbat Gula.
Gula’s parents were killed during a Soviet strike in Afghanistan when she was just 6 years old. She wandered with the rest of her family and eventually wound up in the refugee camp where McCurry took her picture. In 2016, a widowed Gula and her children were welcomed back to Afghanistan where the president gave her a large house and a monthly stipend for living expenses. However, after the fall of the Afghani government and the takeover by the Taliban, nonprofits helped her to move to Italy in 2021 [sources: Strochlic, Maslow].
4: 'Diana at the Taj Mahal'
Diana, princess of Wales, wearing a red and purple suit, poses alone outside the Taj Mahal on Feb. 11, 1992, in Agra, India. Twelve years earlier her husband, Prince Charles, posed in the same spot vowing to return with his wife
The marital woes of Princess Diana and Prince Charles were front-page news for over a decade. Tabloid media and readers around the world scrutinized each photograph of the couple together or separate for "clues" as to the state of their union. One unmistakable sign was a well-publicized photo of Princess Diana seated in front of the Taj Mahal in India.
The Taj Mahal was built by emperor Shah Jahan to honor his beloved wife who had died. Historically, "the Taj Mahal exists as the eternal monument of a husband’s love," photographer Anwar Hussein told People magazine years later. "I photographed Charles there [in 1980] just before he got engaged. He said to us then, ‘I’d like to bring my girlfriend or future wife here one day.’"
By the time the couple visited in February 1992, Diana had to make her way to the historic monument alone — Charles was attending a business meeting. "She looked sad, and she knew which way the story would go. She was very clever," added Hussein.
Hussein took the famous photo of Diana sitting solo on a bench in front of the Taj Mahal, enveloped by the grandeur of the gardens and towering white mausoleum. Everyone knew that Diana and Charles’ marriage was on the rocks, and Hussein’s photo effectively confirmed Diana’s discontent. The media published the image with sensational headlines like "Temple of Loneliness" [source: Perry and Petit].
When a reporter asked her about her experience at the Taj Mahal, she stated that it was "very healing." Asked to elaborate, she said, "Work it out for yourself" [source: Hunt]. It was a vague statement that allowed for plenty of intrigue and speculation. In May 1992, the tell-all book "Diana: Her True Story" was published, which laid bare Charles’ affair with Camilla Parker Bowles. By December 1992, the royal couple was officially separated, divorcing in 1996.
3: 'Gorilla in the Congo'
Conservation Rangers from an anti-poaching unit work with locals to evacuate the bodies of four mountain gorillas killed in mysterious circumstances in Virunga National Park, Eastern Congo in 2007.
In 2007, Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo was a dangerous place for both people and wildlife. The park was swarming with rebels, paramilitary groups and units of the Congolese army. Despite the dangers, wildlife rangers still ran patrols, hoping to keep precious animals, particularly mountain gorillas, safe from harm.
The mountain gorillas at Virunga are among the last of their kind. About 880 of them survive in the wild, and 220 of them live in this national park [source: Virunga National Park].
Unfortunately, in one instance, seven silverback gorillas were slaughtered by unknown persons, an act that seemed politically motivated rather than for poaching. Photographer Brent Stirton was on the scene to capture villagers and rangers carefully carrying the bodies from the forest for a proper burial. (The gorillas’ mouths were stuffed with leaves to prevent fluids from leaking out.) His heartbreaking images, which cast the gorillas in a near-human light, enraged wildlife lovers and conservationists around the world.
Stirton managed to take just a few pictures before he fled the area, worried that soldiers would apprehend him. The photographs he did make, though, became famous, sparking an investigation that ended in an arrest of a corrupt ranger. And three months after the photos’ publication, nine African countries passed measures meant to create better protection for the remaining gorillas [source: Andreasson].
Stirton told The Guardian that his pictures of the murdered gorillas got a much bigger response than any of his pictures featuring Congolese people in desperate situations.
2: Ellen Degeneres' Oscar Selfie
Academy Awards host Ellen DeGeneres poses for a selfie taken by Bradley Cooper with (clockwise from L-R) Jared Leto, Jennifer Lawrence, Channing Tatum, Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Kevin Spacey, Brad Pitt, Lupita Nyong’o, Angelina Jolie, Peter Nyong’o Jr. and Bradley Cooper during the 2014 Annual Academy Awards at the Dolby Theatre, in Hollywood, California.
This photo might be considered the most famous selfie ever. Host of the 2014 Academy Awards Ellen DeGeneres had plans to venture into the audience and snap a photo with Meryl Streep. Using a Samsung smartphone — the company was one of the show’s sponsors — DeGeneres grabbed a selfie with actress Liza Minnelli, first. She then asked Meryl Streep to take a selfie with her, explaining that she wanted to break the record for the photo with the most retweets. Streep obliged, and as DeGeneres invited nearby stars like Julia Roberts, Bradley Cooper and Lupita Nyong’o into the photo (and others joined in), the selfie quickly became a who’s who of Hollywood stars. In fact, Cooper ended up taking the shot rather than Degeneres because he was in a better position [source: Graver].
She posted the photo to Twitter with the following caption: "If only Bradley’s arm was longer. Best photo ever. #oscars" What resulted was a Twitter outage, a barrage of response memes and an official confirmation that DeGeneres’ bid for the most retweets of all time was successful.
The post racked up around 3 million retweets, and it held on to its top spot for three years, an eternity by internet standards. What toppled the tweet? A teen’s plea for an annual supply of Wendy’s chicken nuggets [source: Victor].
1: 'Alan Kurdi'
A Turkish police officer stands next to the body of little Alan Kurdi off the shores in Bodrum, southern Turkey, on Sept. 2, 2015 after a boat carrying refugees sank while reaching the Greek island of Kos.
In 2011, the Syrian Civil War began in earnest, creating scenes of mayhem and murder across the country. Millions of people fled in horror, desperate to survive and hoping to start better lives someplace new. Not all of them made it.
During the summer of 2015, Turkish photographer Nilüfer Demir captured an image of a Syrian toddler who’d drowned and washed ashore in Turkey as his family attempted to flee to Europe. The picture of the boy’s lifeless body, carefully dressed in a red shirt, blue shorts and sneakers and lying face down on the sandy beach touched people’s hearts [source: Walsh].
Eventually, journalists determined that the boy was a 3-year-old named Alan Kurdi, who was flung from a capsized boat bound for Europe. His older brother and his mother also drowned, as did more than 3,600 other refugees who tried to escape to safer European lands in 2015. Demir’s photo first appeared in Turkish media and then was shared on social media by Peter Bouckaert of Human Rights Watch and others. It ended up going viral, as well as appearing on the front pages of newspapers globally [source: Bloch].
Boukaert said that many people admonished him for sharing the image. "But I think we should be offended that children are washing up dead on our beaches because of the failure of our politicians to provide safe passage … rather than by the photo itself," he said to NPR.
The photo led to Germany taking in many more refugees. Though some of the fighting has subsided in recent years, Syrians are still dying and being displaced due to the civil war. Social services like schools and hospitals have been severely disrupted, and the country’s economy has taken a huge hit. The humanitarian crisis in Syria is ongoing, despite the waning interest of international media outlets. Like so many of his countrymen, Alan Kurdi’s father is bitter, and said the photograph of his son’s body did "nothing" to stop the brutality of the Syrian regime [sources: Ensor, Sherlock et al.].
Originally Published: Apr 6, 2018
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