The invention of the photograph was so much more than a mere technological innovation. It enabled the human species to graphically document their own existence while simultaneously allowing photographers the unique ability to express themselves in a manner that forced the viewer to experience their perspective. This kind of multi-faceted engagement with the viewer created a level of intellectual stimulation, and often provocation, as well as emotional stimulation, and sometimes manipulation, that carried with it the power to shape our perception of individuals and events. Lives were forever captured on film and preserved. Occurrences were frozen in time for all the world to see and to study. And ideas were proliferated through print.
Indeed, it’s said that a picture is worth a thousand words, maybe even more depending on the picture, but more importantly, what words and how they are expressed is ultimately what determines their effect on us. Whether a photo accurately reflects its subject matter is largely dependent on the context in which we see it and how the image is in turn stored in our memories. Equally important is the intent of its author, the photographer, and how the photo is treated after its taken, whether its colours are heightened or muted, or whether the image had been cropped. Each alteration to the image can reveal so much about both the photographer’s own mindset and what they want viewers to see.
Collected here are some of the most iconic and socially significant photographs of the 20th Century and the stories behind them. While I am sharing these primarily with the intention of education, some of these images are graphic and may be considered disturbing, so view them at your own discretion.
Also known by its Library of Congress title, “Destitute pea pickers in California. Mother of seven children. Age thirty-two. Nipomo, California.“, Migrant Mother is one of the most iconic photographs on this list. Taken by Dorothea Lange in 1936, along with six other photos shot over the course of ten minutes, Migrant Mother shows Florence Owens Thompson with two of her seven children. This iconic photograph became emblematic of the Great Depression, and in particular, of its socioeconomic and psychological toll on single mothers. Lange’s works during this time, which helped to pioneer what would be called documentary photography, came about when she and her new husband, Paul Taylor, began documenting the lives of everyday Americans in the Midwest and Southwest during the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl. Together they worked for the R.A. (Resettlement Administration) and its successor the F.S.A. (Farm Security Administration), Dorothea set out taking photographs, making anecdotal notes, and Paul interviewed migrant workers, farmers, and labourers. The result of this collaboration is a body of stunning photographic works accompanied by both Dorothea’s and Paul’s words, as well as the words of their human subject matter, that creates a portrait of a place and time in American history that should never be forgotten… and which never will be because of them.
Just four years prior to the photo being taken, Florence Owens‘ husband, Cleo Owens, died of tuberculosis in 1931 while she was pregnant with her sixth child. That she looks so weathered and worn despite the fact that she was only thirty-two at the time of the photo is evidence of the hardships she endured and the many years of toiling to merely survive. She spent much of her time raising her children, picking cotton, beets, and peas. When Lange met and photographed her, Florence was staying near a pea-pickers’ campsite comprised of about 3,000 other workers who had moved to the area in Nipomo Mesa, California. The pea pickers had moved to the area in response to an advertisement saying that there was work to be found, however, there had been an unfortunate incident in which freezing rain had destroyed the crops. Some of Florence’s other children appeared in the photos, while some photos show her nursing her youngest child at the time. Later, after WWII, Florence met and married George Thompson, which finally awarded her the kind of financial security that she had long sought out, but had not been able to attain on her own. So her story has a happier ending than most people who have viewed the photograph might guess. The photo had provided neither Lange nor Florence with any monetary remuneration, despite being arguably the most famous and reprinted photograph in American history up until that point, and Florence and her family regarded the image with equal parts shame and determination that they never know poverty like that again. However, when Florence was diagnosed with terminal cancer, the press picked up on this and saw the potential passing of an unintended icon, and letters and donations to help pay for her medical bills poured in. Her son Troy Owens recalled: “For Mama and us, the photo had always been a bit of curse. After all those letters came in, I think it gave us a sense of pride.”
Einstein’s 72nd Birthday
Taken by Arthur Sasse at the Princeton Club, On Einstein’s 72nd Birthday shows the world a different side of Albert Einstein, creating an enduring and endearing portrait of the theoretical physicist. Sasse claimed that he had taken the photo while the car was slowly driving by just as the other photographers were reloading their cameras or had allowed the vehicle to pass them. Wanting one last shot of Einstein before he had left the birthday celebration, Sasse ran up to the window for a final photo, and captured the iconic image. Interestingly, the photo almost never saw the light of day, because the editors of the International News Photos Network weren’t sure that the image was reverent or appropriate enough to publish. The original photo displayed Einstein along with his friends and fellow passengers, but the most widely circulated versions of the photo was cropped to a close-up just on his face, his hair characteristically mussed up and humourously sticking his tongue out.
When we think of the wild-eyed professor, the genius eccentric inventor, or the mad scientist with the unkempt hair, we owe that stereotype to Albert Einstein. In particular, when most photos of scientists are dignified and sombre is anything but, and we can trace those stereotypes back to this photo and to the performance of Colin Clive in the 1931 film of Frankenstein and Ernest Thesiger in its 1935 sequel The Bride of Frankenstein. The photo was a personal favourite of Einstein himself who was known to have ordered at least nine prints of it. It’s now a common to see posters of the image in science classrooms throughout the United States and Europe.
Perhaps no other image has become so prolific and symbolic of radical political activism than that of Argentinian revolutionary, Ernesto “Che” Guevara, whose rugged good looks and Marxist ideology made him a role model to the counter-culture in the 1960s. The photo was taken by a thirty-one year old Cuban photographer named Alberto Korda in March of 1960. Korda took a number of photos of Che and of Fidel Castro, as well as of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simon de Beauvoir, but none of them has become so famous (or even infamous) as Guerrillero Heroica. The photo was later cropped and became the inspiration for Viva Che!, a 1968 painting by Irish artist Jim Fitzpatrick. That image itself became as famous, if not more so, than the photograph and has been reused and reproduced on everything from tee-shirts to coffee mugs. The communist revolutionary ironically has become a merchandising staple for opportunistic capitalists to pander to young idealist radicals.
Ernesto Guevara was born in 1928. He studied both independently and academically, fascinated by political and economic theory, philosophy, and medical science. At age twenty, he and his friend, Alberto Granada, embarked on a life changing motorcycle journey across South America. What Ernesto saw on his trip, from homeless farmers being driven from their lands to miners being exploited as cheap and disposable labour by the Anaconda Copper Mining Company. During the trip, he used his medical knowledge to help those that he could, and eventually wound up in San Pueblo leper colony in Peru. Guevera went on to become a militant revolutionary in Mexico City, Cuba, the Congo, and Boliva. He also visited Morocco, Sudan, Egypt, Syria, Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand, Indonesia, Japan, Yugoslavia, and Greece where he met with other political revolutionaries and helped to spread their ideological crusade against capitalism and hegemony. In 1967 he was apprehended during a failed guerrilla campaign in Bolivia and executed by the Bolivian government with aid from the CIA. He remains a highly contested figure of the 20th Century and never fails to stir up controversy among conservatives and progressives alike.
The Burning Monk
Malcolm Browne became a professional photographer after being drafted during the Korean War. His journalistic pursuits saw him join the Associated Press from 1959 to ’65, the photo above won him a Pulitzer for International Reporting, and later he worked for ABC, but Browne did not find television journalism to his liking. Also known by its simplified alternate title of Burning Monk, Self-Immolation of Thích Guảng Dức, has become an iconic photograph for a number of reasons. Frequently cropped to show in greater detail the burning figure of Thích Guảng Dức in his robes, the photo has often been misidentified as an example of protesting war, as the photograph was taken during the early ’60s as the war in Vietnam began to escalate. To many, despite this, the photograph is a universal message of pacifism at all costs. To others it is seen merely as a testimony to self-sacrifice and martyrdom. In reality, the monk in the photo was protesting the persecution and violence perpetuated upon Buddhists by the South Vietnamese government under the leadership of Ngô Đình Diệm, who was assassinated in November of 1963, about five months after the photo was shot.
Dức’s last words were written in a letter pleading with the Vietnamese government and other Buddhists to work together and respect all the religions and people of Vietnam. “Before closing my eyes and moving towards the vision of the Buddha, I respectfully plead to President Ngô Đình Diệm to take a mind of compassion towards the people of the nation and implement religious equality to maintain the strength of the homeland eternally. I call the venerables, reverends, members of the sangha, and the lay Buddhists to organize in solidarity to make sacrifices to protect Buddhism.”
While Dức’s body was rapidly consumed by the flames, he did not cry and he did not move, remaining still and seemingly calm during the last moments of his life. Because of the flames burning at such a high temperature and immolating him so quickly, Dức’s heart remained intact inside his body, which became hardened and helped to preserve the organ from the flames. When he was re-cremated during his funeral, the heart again remained intact albeit charred, and was considered a holy relic revered by Buddhists who consider it a symbol of compassion and a call for equality and peace. His heart was confiscated by Diệm’s brother Nhu who made numerous strategic attacks on the Buddhists and had attempted to take both the heart and the ashes for fear that they might inspire more resistance.
The Girl with the Flower
The Girl with the Flower (or, La Jeune Fille a la Fleur) is perhaps the most definitive and recognizable image of the pacifist counter-culture during the time of the Vietnam War. In the photo, taken by Marc Riboud at an October 21, 1967 protest in Washington, D.C., a seventeen-year-old protester, Jan Rose Kasmir, walked up to a soldier to place a flower in the bayonet of his rifle. The photo, along with its colour variant version, became icons of the hippie anti-war movement. Riboud later recalled: “I had the feeling the soldiers were more afraid of her than she was of the bayonets.“
The protest held outside the Pentagon by the National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam became famous largely in part to these photos. The image was later published in a December 1969 issue of Life Magazine under the title The Ultimate Confrontation: The Flower and the Bayonet. Kasmir said of the incident, “The moment that Marc snapped that picture, there is absolute sadness on my face because, at that moment, it was sympatica. At that moment, the whole rhetoric melted away. These were just young men. They could have been my date. They could have been my brother. And they were also victims of this whole thing. They weren’t the war machine. They were human beings and they were just as much a puppet of this whole horrible, horrible travesty… The gesture was prayerful.“
It’s one of the single most haunting and disturbing photos to come out of Vietnam. Some of have described it as the image that America lost its innocence to. It showed that the Vietnam War was not simple or easy to understand, it was not heroic or fun, and it was not possible to come out of that war with your hands clean. One photo showed the brutal reality of the war and forever dispelled the notion, perpetuated by American films and comics, that wars on foreign soils were adventures that took young men and turned them into great soldiers. The truth was much uglier, because what Eddie Adams‘ photo, General Nguyễn Ngọc Loan Executing a Viet Cong Prisoner in Saigon showed was that there are no easy answers, and that perspective can ultimately change the meaning of an image entirely. The photograph, sometimes referred to as The Saigon Execution, would win Adams a Pulitzer Prize, which would suggest that he would be proud of the achievement, but Adams actually disliked the photo. He wasn’t alone. Some criticized the photo and accused it of having been staged, suggesting that Adams had waited for the opportunity to get such a shot on film, while others even suggested that the presence of the press may have encouraged the execution as a form of anti- Viet Cong propaganda. The image became a rallying point for anti-war demonstrators around the world and cemented popular opinion against the US involvement in Viet Nam.
The story behind the photo, however, is just as complicated as how it was received. The photograph tells a story, but only a small portion of the story, because what we don’t see and what the imagery alone doesn’t tell us is why the younger man, his hands bound behind his back in cuffs, is being summarily executed by General Nguyễn Ngọc Loan. The younger man in plain clothes is Nguyễn Văn Lém, a member of the Viet Cong, who had been rounded up after an attack by the Viet Cong that had killed General Loan’s aide and his family. Loan was said to have told Eddie Adams, after the photograph was taken, “They killed many of our people and yours.“
The US media largely ignored the context in which the photo was taken and Loan was vilified as a brute and a murderer. He was later wounded during a battle in Saigon and lost his leg as a result. Adams would eventually meet Loan again, in the United States where Loan had emigrated in 1975, and would apologize to Loan for how the photo had misrepresented both what had happened and Loan’s character. In 1978, efforts were made to deport Loan from the US, citing the photo by Adams as evidence of a war crime, but when asked to testify in court, Adams refused and rather testified in support of Loan. Adams best summed up the photo he had taken when he said, “Two people’s lives were destroyed that day. The general’s life was destroyed as well as the life of the Viet Cong. I don’t want to destroy anyone’s life. That’s not my job.“
Black Power ’68
It would be easy for some to think that the recent debate over former NFL player Colin Kaepernick‘s peaceful protest against police brutality and institutionalized racism by kneeling during the national anthem is a new occurrence. However, this is not the first time that athletes and politics have collided, and there is a very poignant and memorable precedent that can be found during the 1968 Mexico Olympics, during which sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos made a calculated effort to bring attention to the injustices wrought against African-Americans, by raising their hands in a Black Power salute. In both circumstances, the message being sent to the American media, and to the world, was crystal clear. We cannot salute the United States of America until it is truly united and one portion of the population isn’t intentionally oppressed, alienated, and murdered by the other.
Smith, who had won the gold medal, and Carlos, who had won the bronze in the 200-metre sprint, had carefully planned the whole thing out. Smith removed his shoes, symbolically protesting economic marginalization and impoverishment, and Carlos had placed a strand of beads around his neck to represent lynchings. Then the two men raised their fists in the air, their black leather gloves like beacons above their heads, which they kept lowered while the national anthem played. This was the year that Martin Luther King Jr. had been murdered. Malcolm X had been murdered three years prior. Fred Hampton would be killed the following year in 1969. John Carlos recalled: “We knew that what we were going to do was far greater than any athletic feat.“
While Carlos and Smith both received praise for their actions from certain corners, many condemned what they did as disrespectful, and as such their careers and lives afterward were often overshadowed by the national response to their protest. in 2008, on the 40th anniversary of the Mexico Olympics, Smith declined to comment on the protest in an interview, and two years later in 2010 he out up his gold medal for auction.
Kent State Shootings
Photographed by Kent State student John Paul Filo, the image of teenage runaway Mary Ann Vecchio kneeling before the corpse of Jeffrey Miller, in the sudden and brutal awareness that the Ohio National Guard had not been firing blanks after all, is a perfect encapsulation of a moment in history.
“The bullets were supposed to be blanks. When I put the camera back to my eye, I noticed a particular guardsman pointing at me. I said, ‘I’ll get a picture of this,’ and his rifle went off. And almost simultaneously, as his rifle went off, a halo of dust came off a sculpture next to me, and the bullet lodged in a tree. I dropped my camera in the realization that it was live ammunition. I don’t know what gave me the combination of innocence and stupidity… I started to flee—run down the hill and stopped myself. ‘Where are you going?’ I said to myself, ‘This is why you are here!’ And I started to take pictures again. I knew I was running out of film. I could see the emotion welling up inside of her. She began to sob. And it culminated in her saying an exclamation. I can’t remember what she said exactly, something like, ‘Oh, my God!’” – John Paul Filo on his photographs of the Kent State shootings
The strange irony that students protesting the escalating violence in Vietnam and Cambodia should experience a glimpse of it themselves was unusually potent and impossible to ignore. The image was a sad, desperate, and haunting reminder that while some Americans fought for freedom on foreign soil that many Americans seldom saw those freedoms realized in their own streets, neighbourhoods, and campuses.
After seeing the photo, Canadian musician and singer-songwriter, Neil Young was angered and inspired to pen the lyrics to Ohio, in which he wrote and sang the following:
“Tin soldiers and Nixon coming
We’re finally on our own
This Summer I hear the drumming
Four dead in Ohio“
On June 8, 1972, South Vietnamese planes dropped at least five barrels of napalm on Trang Bang, located about twenty-five miles Northwest of Saigon, after spotting a family fleeing from a temple and mistaking them for North Vietnamese. The little girl in the photo is Kim Phúc. She and her family were among those fleeing and affected by the bombing, which killed two of Phúc’s cousins, as well as two other villagers. When Nick Ut took the photos, he saw the Kim Phúc fleeing the smoke, and then photographer her as she ran past, wondering why she was naked. It became apparent, only after she passed him, that she was naked because she had been hit by the Napalm and was badly burnt and had stripped her burning clothes off her body during the bombing. Ut ran to the little girl and began to gently pour water on her injuries, the burns which covered about 30% of her body, and then accompanied her and others to a hospital where it was questioned if she would survive. Thankfully she did survive, however, she underwent seventeen surgical procedures and wouldn’t regain full mobility again until a decade later.
It’s worth noting that The Terror of War has appeared in two different versions. One which is cropped to omit the photojournalist on the far right, therefore focusing on the violent trauma in the foreground, and the other the full image with the photojournalist intact, seemingly indifferent to the plight of the children as he changes the film in his camera.
Controversy arose after the fact as to what responsibilities journalists and photographers have to help the people they are documenting and whether neutrality and objectivity for the sake of reporting was ethical. The photo was also a source of controversy because of its depiction of nudity. At the time, the Associated Press did not approve of nudity, particular full-frontal nudity, in their images and it was questioned if it should be published by the New York Times. Ultimately it was felt that the narrative of the photo was too important in exposing the realities of Viet Nam and the photo was released with the exception that there would be no close-up cropping on Kim Phúc‘s naked body alone. Adding to the controversy was a recording in which President Richard Nixon expressed his belief that this photo and other photos taken in Viet Nam may have been faked.
John Lennon in NYC
Bob Gruen is one of the greatest, if not the single greatest, photographers of rock ‘n’ roll artists and bands. His legendary photos of John Lennon and Yoko Ono in New York City manage to capture a time, a place, an attitude that has resonated through the following decades. The photo shoot with Lennon on the rooftop terrace of his New York apartment was done in 1974 following a series of photos taken specifically for Lennon’s fifth solo album, Walls and Bridges, which would be released in September of that year. But the images that stood out, the ones that became immortal, much like Lennon’s own persona, were the photos taken on the terrace where he stands in front of the skyline, wearing a New York City tee-shirt and his signature sunglasses, his hair blowing in the wind, and just exuding his intelligent and rebellious nature. The shirt that John was wearing in these photos was a gift from Gruen, who personally cut off the sleeves, which only amplified Lennon’s “cool factor“.
The choice of shirt was apt, as at the time, Lennon was involved in a complicated legal case where the government was trying to have him deported on a previous charge of marijuana possession in London, but in reality, the motive behind the deportation attempt was Lennon’s political activism. Lennon had no desire to leave the US, feeling that New York was the place to be in that particular time, the artistic and musical centre of the world. What the photos convey are his weariness, his defiance, and also his love of the city. When asked to choose a photo for Lennon’s funeral service, Bob Gruen felt that these particular images were true to Lennon’s spirit and communicated his ideals, his attitude, and his character. He summed it up by saying, “He really seems confident, and comfortable, and accessible… even with the sunglasses where he looks like a pop star. But with his head tilted a little, he just looks accessible and friendly, and people just, they like it.“
The Afghan Girl
Steve McCurry‘s 1984 photo, famously known as The Afghan Girl, is one of the most recognizable faces in recent history due to its striking appearance on the cover of the June 1985 issue of National Geographic Magazine. Sometimes referred to as “The Middle Eastern Mona Lisa” or “The Green-eyed Afghan“, the stunning portrait of a twelve-year-old refugee girl became emblematic of refugees during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. While the subject herself has been praised for the intensity of her gaze, for her beauty, and for the photographic insight into her harrowing existence, the photo has been at times criticized as depicting an outsider’s perspective or as perpetuating Western standards of feminine beauty.
With her relatively fair skin and her fierce green eyes, some critics have suggested that the girl’s image was primarily accessible to white Americans and Europeans, who might not have accepted a person with a darker complexion or brown eyes, and that beyond her appearance that they didn’t care about her real identity or story. Much like the veneer of Orientalism brought about an allure to the West while overlooking the authentic aspects of the cultures of North Africa, the Mediterranean, and the Near East, the photo has been seen as representing a bourgeois fascination with the exotic. The photo has also been criticized for having been retouched (the colours heightened, emphasizing the contrast between the red headscarf and the green fabric beneath, between Sharbat’s light brown complexion and her green eyes, and the red foreground and the blue-green background). Whatever recriminations may have arisen since its original publication, at its heart the power of The Afghan Girl is the story of Sharbat Gula, whose enigmatic portrait only hinted at what her life might hold, and it is that girl’s face and what her story might be that has captivated viewers.
From 1984 until 2002, Sharbat had never even seen the iconic photo taken of her or known that she was famous, and she hadn’t had her photo taken again until her identity as the subject of the photograph was revealed eighteen years later. Photographer Steve McCurry did not have the chance to record her name or gather together any details of her life at the time of her portrait. So, paradoxically, as the photograph circulated the world and rose higher and higher in its renown, Sharbat sank into obscurity and adversity. Had perhaps the world known her name, there might have been outreach to her, and maybe her life wouldn’t have been so fraught with hardship. At the age of thirteen, a year after the photo was taken, she married Rahmat Gul, who died of Hepatitis C in 2012, leaving her a forty-year-old widow with three daughters (a fourth daughter, her eldest, died while still an infant from Hep C).
The April 15 – June 4, 1989 protests and riots in Tiananmen Square have become synonymous with one static image: amidst a street otherwise vacant of citizens, one anonymous man stands in civil disobedience, as four encroaching military tanks draw closer and closer. As the column of tanks tried to navigate around him, he bravely threw himself into their path, obstructing them, adjusting himself so that they could not proceed without endangering him. That man’s identity remains unknown. What is known is that he was not the only person protesting, not by far, as the Tiananmen Square protests saw a virtually unprecedented upheaval against the government and military of the People’s Republic of China by students rebelling against the country’s restrictive laws, censorship, and militancy. While student protests weren’t uncommon, the scope of the Tiananmen Square protests was impressive and frightening, and the Chinese government feared what would happen if the protest spread to the general workers. This resulted in a declaration of martial law, a massive show of force, and an escalation of violence, leading to the massacre of hundreds of students. On June 5, 1989, the day after the military had successfully suppressed the protests, one man, who has become popularly known as “Tank Man”, made his unforgettable stand. Likely just a fed up citizen returning from his grocery shopping, “Tank Man” was not a student in all probability, and although he was not alone in his actions, “Tank Man” was the only protestor photographed and videoed blocking the tanks, and whose story, however, incomplete was smuggled out of China and to the rest of the world.
At one point, the protestor even jumped atop the tank and held a brief conversation with the tank driver, though no one knows what was said in the exchange between them. As can be heard in the video recording by a CNN news crew, the man’s actions are met with applause and cheers, as well as gasps of astonishment. Aside from the remarkable courage that it took to do this, what makes the image and the video so astonishing is that all over the world it has become a symbol of the lone rebel standing up against an oppressive and corrupt authority, but in China, the country where the image originated from, the photograph, video, and the incident itself are all but unknown due to rigourous political censorship. The whole unfolding scene was shot by five different photographers, four of which managed to smuggle their film out of the country to have it published within the year, and one of whom waited twenty years to have his photograph, which taken at ground level, released.
“During this time, I’m thinking this guy is going to be killed any moment now, and if he is, I just can’t miss this. This is something he’s giving his life for. It’s my responsibility to record it as accurately as possible,” said photojournalist, Charlie Cole of Newsweek, who hid his role of film in a hotel toilet tank.
Another of the photographers, Stuart Franklin, a photojournalist for Magnum, recalled: “In the days that followed, it became clear that not many Chinese people had seen any footage or images of what had happened during the crackdown. Looking back at the set of pictures I took, this image of people gazing at a lamppost stands out. A picture had been pinned up of someone that had been killed. Throughout central Beijing, lampposts acted as the media for the Chinese public, because the press was so heavily controlled.“
Hopefully these photographs will make you think, both about the images of the people seen therein, but also about the thought process of the people behind the camera and their own experiences. Hopefully these photographs will make you feel, both the emotions of the people and a bit of their ideologies as they were caught on film, but also the emotions of the photographers. Many photojournalists and documentary photographers have experienced what they refer to as “secondhand trauma” caused by the things they witnessed. The men and women behind the camera often risk their safety and their lives in order to share their work with the world and to ensure that we all remain informed of the world around them.
It’s easy to find oneself seduced into thinking of history as being the past. But that is simply not the case. History is alive, it’s around us all the time, it’s happening right before our eyes, and we are both witnesses to it, recording events as they occur, and participants in it, our every action manifesting changes that have countless repercussions both positive and negative. If nothing else, I hope that the photographs here have educated and inspired you, that they will remind you of your place in this world, in society, and how we have the power to change things. Never forget to see and never stop sharing what you see… shutter click.