10 Influential War Photographs That Changed the World

Most Influential

They say a picture is worth a thousand words. Almost instantly, an image can trigger staggering emotions, memories, and reactions that people didn’t even think they had before. Not only used as a form of personal self expression, they are also historical, political, and one of the most powerful means of communication we still have today.

In the past, people relied on photographs – as they appeared in newspapers and magazines – to understand the world with more than just words. Photos have been long provided visual portals that transported us to the very moment the camera shutters clicked. Whether a waterfall in the Amazonian rainforest, or a Buddhist monk setting himself aflame in protest, pictures provide a historical context that serve as reminders of the often fragile state of the world.

Even in the bloodiest and most gruesome of wars, there’s a battle of public consciousness waging in the background. With so many conflicts fought abroad, journalistic reports and abstractions of the real thing easily become a vehicle for understanding. That is, until a photograph reaches the eyes of the average man, woman or child, no longer having to rely on their imaginations for the truth.. Today, with one click of a button, millions of people suddenly become privy to monumental events in stunning detail.

10. Omaha Beach, Normandy, France – Robert Capa 

On June 6th, 1944, it was D-Day on the beaches of Normandy as hundreds of British, American and German soldiers battled for their lives. Barely escaping with his own life, photographer Robert Capa fired off four rolls of film of the legendary fight – most of which were accidentally destroyed. Dennis Banks, a 15-year old lab assistant at Life magazine, was responsible for the accident. Only 11 exposures, also known as The Magnificent Eleven, were saved. One photograph showing a young soldier ducking for cover in shallow waters survived to represent that infamous day. But it might have been a blessing in disguise. Without the accident, the photographs never would have taken on their gritty, out-of-focus composition that make them so realistic to the eye.

9. Dr Fritz Klein Stands in a Mass Grave in Belsen – Sgt. H. Oakes

Bergen-Belsen was one of the many concentration camps of the Nazi’s third Reich. Dr. Fritz Klein, a physician at the camp, had the fatal responsibility over the lives of hundreds, if not thousands, of people. Klien’s duty was to select those at the camp who were not considered to be “pure” by Hitler. It wasn’t only the Jews. It was also the homosexuals, the communist or socialists, the old and physically disabled. This photograph, taken by Sgt. H. Oakes in the early 1940s, shows Klein standing in a mass grave after camp officials were ordered by the U.S. Military to bury the bodies. According to Klein, his actions at the camp were justified in relation to his Hippocratic oath as a physician. “My Hippocratic oath tells me to cut a gangrenous appendix out of the human body. The Jews are the gangrenous appendix of mankind. That’s why I cut them out.”

8. Fat Man Bomb – U.S. Military 

During the Second World War in 1945, the United States detonated the Fat Man atomic bomb over Nagasaki, Japan. It killed almost 74 000 people and injured countless others. Unlike any other photographs before it, the explosion of the atomic bomb over Nagasaki depicts the monumental horrors of war, its large-scale effects, and the awesome power of nuclear weaponry. The startling photograph, taken by Charles Levy from a B-29 Superfortresses, will always exist as a reminder that a country has the power to destroy another with one swoop.

7. The Legendary Kiss in Times Square – Alfred Eisenstaedt 

Not every wartime photograph shows death, destruction and the loss of human life. They can also capture prosperity, success and acts of uninhibited happiness. “V-J Day in Times Square,” taken by Alfred Eisenstaedt for Life magazine, underscored the end of World War ll when an American sailor kissed a woman in New York City, 1945. Almost overnight, the photo became a cultural icon, and a representation of the overwhelming joy of American’s win of the war. Because Eisenstaedt never had the chance to take the details of the nurse and sailor, their identities were unknown until the 1970s when Edith Shain was confirmed as the woman. The sailor’s identity has since been confirmed in 2007 by forensic scientists as Glenn McDuffie.

6. Gandhi at his Spinning Wheel – Margaret Bourke-White 

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, who was assassinated in 1948, was fighting perhaps the most difficult war of all where compassion and civil disobedience were the only weapons at his disposal. Out of the thousands of photographs taken of Gandhi, there is none that captures his quiet and and simple nature more than Margaret Bourke-White’s “Gandhi at his Spinning Wheel,”  taken in 1946.

The photograph was taken for Life magazine, but was not published until months after it was shot. Upon Gandhi’s death, the picture was included in a full-page spread about the man’s heroic life, and serves to represent, more than any other photograph, Gandhi’s ideals and stoic values during his life-long battle with the British Empire.

5. Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima – Joe Rosenthal

Probably the most reproduced photograph in history, “Raising the Flag” by Joe Rosenthal shows American Marines raising the American flag on Mount Suribachi in World War ll. Rosenthal lugged his heavy camera equipment up to the summit only to learn the flag had already been raised. Moments later, he noticed Marines attempting to raise a second flag. Upon instinct, he focused his attention on the second rising instead of the first, and, on top of sandbags, shot the Pulitzer Prize-winning image. The photograph became a phenomenon, but according to Rosenthal, all he had to do was take the picture while “the Marines took Iwo Jima.”

4. Quang Duc Self-Immolation – Malcolm Browne 

Outside the Cambodian embassy in Saigon, 1963, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk calmly sat in full lotus position on a cushion, was doused in gasoline, lit a match and set himself on fire. As the priest burned, other monks held large banners that read, “A Buddhist priest burns himself for our five requests.” The legendary and highly-publicized photograph was taken by reporter Malcolm Browne, one of the only few who did not ignore the announcement that “something important would happen” that day. The incredibly brave and selfless act made Duc a martyr, triggering massive worldwide awareness and support for the religious freedom of Buddhism.

3. The Corpse of Che Guevara – Freddy Alborta

Freddy Alborta photographed the corpse of Che Guevara, the Communist icon who was killed on October 10, 1967. Two days after his death, his body was displayed by Bolivian soldiers in the laundry house of the Vallegrande hospital. According to many, the photograph shows El Che in an almost “Christ-like image” and solidified his legend as “the patron saint of revolutionaries.” The photograph circulated throughout the world, and sparked the will of a great many who followed and supported El Che’s efforts.

2. General Nguyen Ngoc Loan Executing a VietCong Prisoner in Saigon – Eddie Adams

In 1968, South Vietnamese National Police Chief Nguyễn Ngọc Loan executed a Viet Cong member at point-blank range. Captured by Associate Press reporter Eddie Adams, the image of the event became the defining image that sparked the anti-war movement, eventually winning the prestigious 1969 Pulitzer Prize in News Photography.

The photograph became widely famous and was so influential that it helped convince President Jimmy Carter to provide asylum for nearly 200 000 Vietnamese refugees. Adams himself disapproved of the photograph and denied acceptance of the Pulitzer Prize. Adams also publicly apologized to General Loan for the destructive effect the photograph had on his life. In some ways, Adams thought Loan to be a hero.

 1. Burning Alive in Vietnam –  Huỳnh Công “Nick” Út

Napalm first hit Vietnam’s Trang Bang village in 1972 by the South Vietnamese. Huỳnh Công “Nick” Út, an Associated Press photographer, was there to capture the disturbing image of 9-year old Kim Phuc running away from the bombed village, her clothes completely burned away. In Út’s own words, it was one of the worst things he had ever seen, and after refusing to take any more pictures he gave the young girl water. At the time, Út was shooting so rapidly that he did not know, until later, what the photograph looked like. For its graphic and horrifying portrait of casualties of war, it has earned its status as one of 20th-century’s most powerful photographs.