Acting as a crucial instrument of recording, photography has, throughout, captured instances of history, while certain images are recognized for their role in designing our world. The essence of photography has evolved from storing memories, into capturing some of the most iconic moments in time.
For many, each photograph generates a timeless memory, enabling them to relive a time, feeling, or thought. Some go on to become a source of strength and guidance from the past in order to navigate our world today.
Here is a look at eight images that have not only captured time through lenses but created an impact in society and culture by sparking worldwide conversations:
1. Bandit’s Roost by Jacob Riis (1888)
19th century New York City was a magnet for immigrants from across the world. While immigrants expected to live, and aspire to, the ‘American Dream’, most found themselves in poverty, living in subhuman conditions. Jacob Riis, a photographer and news reporter, found himself capturing the grime, dark, and overcrowded facets of the streets of New York City. After publishing multiple images of these conditions to draw attention to what would otherwise be left in the dark, Theodore Roosevelt, who would later become the President of the United States, responded with “I have read your book, and I have come to help.”
These photographs by Riis not only caught the attention of young reformists like Roosevelt but also triggered the creation of the Tenement House Act of 1901, just 13 years after his photojournalistic reports. This act protected those in poverty and their right to habitable conditions, such as proper ventilation and outfacing windows, these basic needs continue to serve as a basis for current housing laws in the City of New York. Jacob Riis serves as one of the earliest examples of the impact of the art of photojournalism.
Photojournalism essentially began when pictures of the American Civil War became widely covered. The American Civil War was one of the first conflicts that was covered in actual images, in the 1860s. The idea of being able to “trust the evidence in front of one’s eyes” made this genre of photography extremely popular. Jacob Riis used this to confront the ideas of reality held by the privileged upper classes.
2. Tank Man by Jeff Widener (1989)
From a feature in Micheal Jackson’s music video to being the subject of the song ‘The Tiananmen Man’ by the heavy metal band Nevermore, Tank Man is a symbol of resistance.
Tank Man, also known as the Unknown Rebel is an unidentified Chinese man who, on the 5th of June, 1989, faced a column of tanks, a day after the Chinese government launched a violent crackdown on protestors in Tiananmen Square.
The 1980s was a time of economic growth for China when it had just begun its turn into a market economy. This capitalistic market named “Socialism with Chinese characteristics”, left the west with the hope that it could persuade China to turn more liberal and democratic. However, this rosy-eyed hope propagated ignorance to the Chinese Communist Party’s power and political ideals. Tank Man brought attention to the CCP's rule during a time when China was expected to become more democratic. The image sent a signal to the rest of the world – “Economic freedom is one thing, but Political freedom is something else” (History 101, ITN productions).
Tank man is not just a symbol of resistance but also a reminder of how photography is a powerful tool that has the ability to shape the mindsets of people. This image of the unknown rebel was plastered onto the front pages of newspapers across the world, opening the eye of the hopeful West to the reality of the CCP’s rule.
According to the Pew Research Center, 72% of Americans had a favorable view of China before the events of Tiananmen Square; however, this plummeted to 34% by August 1989 – mostly attributed to the image of the Tank Man.
Photojournalism is an art form used to tell a story. One of the main aims of photojournalism is to be able to capture the sentiment of a scene. Protests hold a lot of emotion since they are usually politically charged, with civilians that the masses can relate to. Current events, such as the Black Lives Matter movement or the Stop Asian Hate protests, all consist of powerful images that evoke emotions. During a time of turmoil in China, this image by Jeff Widener was able to capture a moment of revolution by an ordinary, peaceful citizen.
3. Leap into Freedom by Peter Leibing (1961)
1961 was a time of turmoil amidst the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union. During this time, Conrad Schumann became a symbol of freedom and hope. The 19-year-old, at the time of this image, was assigned to the riot police, specifically tasked to guard the Berlin wall. Looking at families being driven apart due to the wall, Schumann decided against living in an area physically enclosed from the rest of the world.
At around 4 p.m on Friday, August 15th, 1961, Schumann ran for the boundary and took a leap into freedom. The scene immortalized in this image by Peter Leibing started spreading across the world – turning him into an icon of freedom. However, this act of rebellion by Conrad Schumann turned him more into a news item than a man who left his family and life behind to follow his beliefs.
It is reported that the uninvited stardom drove Conrad Schumann to depression, and eventually led him to take his life. After 27 years of living with the burden of leaving his family and military friends behind, Schumann was found by his wife, hanging from a tree.
Schumann’s story is now more relevant than ever, at a time when stardom is merely a click away.
4. Molotov Man by Susan Meiselas (1979)
Picture a jean-clad man wielding makeshift weapons using a Pepsi bottle. This powerful image of revolution comes from Susan Meiselas, during her time in Nicaragua following the revolution against the Somoza dictatorship in 1979. Meiselas spent her time following the Sandinista revolution after the assassination of Pedro Joaquin Chamorro, the editor of a newspaper that opposed the right-wing dictatorship. After the Samoza dictatorship was finally overthrown, this image became the symbol of revolution, leading it to being plastered onto t-shirts, books, billboards, and even used as propaganda to fight CIA-funded contra rebels.
The image was published in newspapers around the world due to the powerful emotion of patriotism and revolution it evokes.
The popular reproduction of the image brings up another aspect of iconization – Copyright. Who owns the rights to an image that is already replicated by the public? Joy Garnett’s 2004 exhibition featured a depiction of Molotov Man which was immediately the subject of a legal copyright matter. While Meiselas believed that the artwork decontextualized the culture and revolution she worked hard to cover, a solidarity campaign by artists believed that this censoring prevented the expression of the emotions perceived in this image.
The image of Molotov Man was widespread over the internet, with thousands using the image. Eventually the legal battle was not pursued further. To this day, the usage of image of the Molotov Man continues, whether under fair use or not.
Molotov Man and Conrad Schumann show how once an icon is created, the use of the symbol goes beyond the legal credits of the artist, and the subject's identity as a being. Although photojournalism is an art to bring attention to issues of the people, the legal rights continue to stand in the way of the images’ ability to take on its own shape. However, it is essetial to credit the artist for their work. Currently, with the ability to easily screenshot an image or copy-paste it, the reproduction of any image is made much easier without any real repercussions or credits to the original artist, making copyright matters on the internet all the more tricky.
5. Earthrise by William Anders (1968)
Apollo-8 was the first manned mission that was able to reach the moon. Earthrise is a photograph taken by Lunar Module Pilot William Anders, showing the earth from their perspective. "The vast loneliness is awe-inspiring and it makes you realize just what you have back there on Earth," commented Lovett, a crew member on board.
When this image was captured, it became a symbol for environmental movements. “This is the only home we have and yet we’re busy shooting at each other, threatening nuclear war, and wearing suicide vests,” Anders said. The loneliness of the planet in the picture triggered environmental movements by putting into perspective the finitude of our planet. The first Earth Day was created only 16 months after the image was taken. It served as a unifying symbol that fueled the participation in environmental protests. For example, with the first Earth Day march, over 20 million people participated in the United States alone.
In fact, the earth flag used to this day was created by John McConnell, who drew inspiration from ‘Earthrise’. The flag depicts the earth as seen from space. Now, the image continues to serve as a reminder of the limits of humanity at present, and promotes urgency to protect it. It is another example of the essence of photography.
6. Olympics Black Power Salute by John Dominis (1968)
The year 1968 was a crucial one in American history. The assassination of Dr Martin Luther King Jr., heightened protests against the Vietnam War, and the Civil Rights Act of 1968. Amidst this time of high social unrest and discontent, Tommie Smith and John Carlos stood barefoot, with their heads bowed, and raised a single black-gloved fist during the national anthem at the 1968 Olympics, as a protest against the harsh conditions faced by minorities.
This moment, now immortalized in an image, was a wake-up call to worldwide viewers. The picture of two black athletes openly rebelling for the world to see, reminded the viewers that the Olympics was not all smiles and rainbows. The wide coverage of this moment through images, debunked the ‘facade’ that there was racial equality in the US, just because of Black athletes were being accepted into major sports leagues and sporting events.
Exposure to this reality, however, was condemned by various institutions and people. Until the 2000s, people had not realized the significance of this salute and what it meant for minorities. Highlighting how, due to mass media’s ability to preserve movements such as this through images, an act of rebellion that was criticized during its time, can go on to receive support in the future.
7. Princess Diana shaking hands with an AIDS patient, by Anwar Hussein (1987)
Paranoia over the spread of AIDS was at its peak in the 1980s. It was a common belief that the virus spread through simple contact. During this time, people, and even children, with AIDS were stigmatized and often isolated due to the public’s beliefs and fears. The condition was further vilified since the early victims were mainly members of the LGBTQ+ community, as per reports. Due to the hate and discrimination against the community, access to proper healthcare was limited as well.
During this time, Diana, Princess of Wales, erased shame by supporting campaigns and giving speeches for the cause. In a bold statement, she announced to the press, “HIV does not make people dangerous to know. So you can shake their hand and give them a hug, heaven knows they need it.” Gestures such as this, by Princess Diana were most famously captured with this image of her bare hands shaking the hands of an unidentified AIDS patient at the London Middlesex Hospital.
These pictures proved to be more powerful than speeches or campaigns due to their mere simplicity, which spoke to viewers all over England. "If a royal was allowed to go in and shake a patient's hands, somebody at the bus stop or the supermarket could do the same." John O’Reilly, a nurse and a witness told BBC. Seeing Princess Diana, an idol for many, shaking hands with an AIDS patient as an equal in daily newspapers and magazines, reduced the stigma greatly.
Showing the ability of the media to reach people’s lives on almost a daily basis, this image contradicts the aforementioned assumption that it's ‘easier to appreciate these social movements only in hindsight’ by serving as an example of how mass media has the ability to change mindsets almost overnight due to its accessibility. However, this ability to change mindsets through pictures could also serve as a testament to how the manner of presenting information can affect public perception.
In the case of the Olympic athletes of color, they were heavily criticized, causing the media coverage to be negative. On the other hand, Princess Diana was well-respected, adored by the public, and in a position of influence, causing the media coverage to be mainly positive.
The fact that social movements can become easier to appreciate, in hindsight, is due to the fact that public opinion progresses as well.
8. First cellphone picture by Philippe Kahn (1997)
The first “instant”, or cellphone picture, to be taken came from the excitement of a father over the birth of his daughter. While waiting for his wife who was in labor, Philippe Kahn wanted a way to send a picture of his daughter immediately. Utilizing the items he had on him, Khan created a way to snap a picture from a personal camera and connected it to his laptop.
When baby Sophie was born, the picture was snapped and sent to 2000 people through email. Among “congratulations” came thousands of questions about how Kahn was able to snap and send a picture directly from the delivery room. This was followed by the creation of the first “camera phone” prototype. This prototype is now considered commonplace with almost all smartphones coming with their own cameras. An invention of this nature can single-handedly be considered the start of a new era in media.
The instant and immediate nature of being able to snap a photo and send it to anyone on your contact list, paved the way for a new method of communication and reportage. A lot of the news received about the current Russia-Ukraine war comes from ordinary civilians using their phone cameras to film their situation without any form of censorship. Before this picture was snapped by Phillipe Kahn, the sharing of news about conflict and war without any filters was significantly harder – paving the way for a new form of media and news reporting.
These images hold a special significance, whether it be a pioneering photograph or evoke emotions among the public. All of these images make up a unique and distinct part of history, each with its own impact in making it. The constant evolution of the way we capture these significant moments can only continue to make these images more recognized and essential for humanity.
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