They say a picture says more than 1000 words, and that’s especially true when they show death, disaster and destruction. From starving children to terrorist attacks and war, photographers have always been there capturing what most people never (want to) see. It’s all about being there at the decisive moment, right when the action happens. Looking through their camera they document nothing but the truth, sometimes more gruesome and disturbing than they actually realize at the moment.
South African photographer Kevin Carter committed suicide a year after taking a picture of a vulture watching a starving child during the famine in Sudan in 1993. That’s what taking these kind of shocking photographs can do to a human being. Others struggled with reality when coming back from a war zone, where they have witnessed and photographed the worst things that humans are capable of.
We’ve selected 10 of the most shocking photographs that cannot be unseen. Not for the fainthearted, definitely not for those who think the world is a fairytale. Don’t look at these images over lunch, because they might destroy your appetite. Prepare for a roundtrip through the bottom of the world, where only the saddest, worst and most horrifying things happen. And then realise that all these images are 100 percent real.
10. World Trade Center 9/11
Think about 9/11 and you think about this image. The taker, Steve Ludlum, calls it “an iconic image” and he’s right to do so. Not owning a TV nor listening to the radio, he left his home blissfully unaware of the tragedy that was unfolding across the river of his home in Brooklyn, New York. On his way to Lower Manhattan he saw smoke and flames coming for the North Tower of the World Trade Center. He ran back home, grabbed his camera and was just in time to capture the second plane crashing into the South Tower. It made the front page of The New York Times.
9. Abu Ghraib Torture
Physical and sexual abuse, torture, rape, sodomy and murder; all human right violations against detainees in the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq that occurred during the war there since March 2003 by the United States Army and the CIA. And all captured on camera, with soldiers posing with naked prisoners, bound and gagged. Images of detainees covered in shit, being humiliated went all over the world. Although the actions received widespread condemnation, most of the responsible soldiers received only minor sentences. The image of the United States Army was damaged forever.
8. Mass Grave Bergen-Belsen
Bergen-Belsen was a Nazi concentration camp in northern Germany. From 1941 to 1945 almost 20,000 Soviet Prisoners of war and a further 50,000 inmates died there, the majority of them of typhus. When the camp got liberated by the British on April 15, 1945, they found approximately 60,000 prisoners inside, most of them half-starved and seriously ill. But most shocking were the 13,000 corpses lying around the camp unburied. On this picture you see German Dr. Fritz Klein, a Nazi physician who got hanged for his role in atrocities during the Holocaust, amongst corpses in Mass Grave 3.
7. Lynching of Young Blacks
It’s hard to imagine, but not even a century ago black people were being lynched in the United States by mobs. This iconic photograph by Lawrence Beitler was shot on August 7, 1930 and shows the lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith, two young black men accused by a teenager of raping his white girlfriend – an accusation subsequently found to be a lie. A mob of 10,000 whites took sledgehammers to the county jailhouse and hung the two guys. Used for postcard to promote white supremacy on the one hand and angering as many as they scared, Beitler printed thousands of them.
6. Buddhist Monk Thich Quang Duc Sets Himself Ablaze
As far as shock photography goes, this image from Buddhist monk Thich Quang Duc setting himself ablaze in protest against persecution of Buddhists by the South Vietnamese government in 1963, is hard to beat. Malcolm M. Browne said he wasn’t particularly proud he shot the image, but said that it was a very easy sequence of pictures he took leading up to this one. There was nothing he could have done to prevent the suicide: “there was a phalanx of two hundred monks and nuns who were ready to block me if I tried to move and a couple of them chucked themselves under the wheels of a fire truck that arrived.”
5. The Falling Man
Another 9/11 shot, this time of a man falling to his death from the North Tower. Shot by AP photographer Richard Drew at exactly 9:41:15 am, it shows a man, whose identity remains uncertain. He was one of the people trapped on the upper floors of the skyscraper who either fell searching for safety or jumped to escape the fire and smoke. At least 200 people are believed to have fallen or jumped to their deaths that day. Though the image shows the man falling straight down, he was actually tumbling through the air.
4. Bhopal Gas Tragedy
A shocking image is always more shocking if it involves children. So when Indian photojournalist Pablo Bartholomew shot this image of a child being buried after the Bhopal Gas tragedy in India – considered to be the world’s worst industrial disaster – he knew it was going to shock the world. Over half a million people were injured and more then 15,000 killed when a leak of methyl isocyanate gas and other chemicals triggered a massive environmental and human disaster. With the toxic substance making its way into and around the shanty towns located near the plant, tragedy was imminent.
3. Rwandan Genocide
Without the right caption this image might be unclear, but when you know what it shows, it will bring shivers down your spine. These are traces of a massacre of Tutsi schoolchildren and villagers left on a bathroom wall of the Shago Mission School in the southwestern part of Rwanda, pictured by Annie Leibovitz after the genocide that took place there between April and July 1994. In the approximate 100-day period between half and a million Rwandans were killed; 70 percent of the Tutsi and 20 percent of the whole population.
2. Saigon Execution
Rarely has an assassination been so visible as on this shocking image by photographer Eddie Adams in 1968. After Nguyen Ngoc Loan from the Saigon Police raised his sidearm and shot Vietcong operative Nguyn Van Lem in the head he walked over to reporters and told them that, “These guys kill a lot of our people, and I think Buddha will forgive me.” With all the cameras around, this image flashed around the world and quickly became symbol for the brutality of the Vietnam War. The shock value in Adam’s picture comes from the fact that it captures a frozen moment of instant death.
1. Vulture Stalking a Child
On a trip to Sudan in March 1993, South African photographer Kevin Carter spotted this starving toddler on his way to a feeding center when a hooded vulture landed nearby. Because he was told not to touch the children for fear of transmitting diseases, he just took the picture as “being his job.” After he took the shot though, he did chase away the vulture. Nobody knows if the kid actually lived or died, but Carter did won the Pulitzer Prize for Feature Photography the year after. A few months later he committed suicide.