The 21st century has been a wild ride. We entered the new millennium with many people believing that Y2K was going to end the world. Society as we know it was supposed to crumble because the dates on all of the computers around the world would reset — or something like that. It’s an event we can laugh about in hindsight, but at the time, the general public understood very little about computers. It was scary.
Though we are only 17 years deep into the 21st century, we already have taken photographs that will prove to be of historical significance. Future generations will look at these photographs to understand key moments in our history, what our society was like, and some of the problems that we are facing today. Will mankind be facing the same problems in the future? We can only hope not.
While these photos might make future teenage girls swoon at an act of romanticism, make them cry at the devastation war brings, or leave them shocked at how cruel mankind can be, there is no doubt that these photos will forever be remembered. They will go down in history as some of the most chilling historic moments of the 21st century that were ever captured on camera.
15. Ballerinas Practicing With Medical Masks During SARS Outbreak – 2003
Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (also known as SARS) put people around the world on high alert in 2003. The 2003 viral outbreak made the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) uneasy as the virus was spreading through North America, Europe, and predominantly Asia. The virus had spread to more than two dozen countries before it was finally contained.
The World Health Organization reported that a total of 8,098 people worldwide became sick with SARS during the outbreak, and a total of 774 people died. These numbers are puny compared to how many people the common flu affects, but for one reason or another, the SARS epidemic was a global phenomenon but today, it’s been reduced to more or less of a punchline.
There’s just something chilling about these ballerinas from Hong Kong continuing to practice their craft, while their country scrambles to contain the virus. Even in times of a worldwide epidemic, life goes on.
14. U.S. Navy Hospital Corpsman Richard Barnett Holds An Iraqi Child- 2003
On March 20, 2003, the United States, with the help of Australia, the United Kingdom, and Poland, began their invasion of Iraq. The invasion operation continued through May 2003, and the war itself ended in 2011 after hundreds of thousands of casualties.
This moment, soon after the invasion began, was captured by Damir Sagolj. The photo was taken shortly after a brief skirmish between United States Marines and Iraqi forces. On the 10th anniversary of the invasion, Sagolj gave Reuters context to the photo. He said that gunmen in a military truck were chasing another car, full of civilians, towards a military base. The marines opened fire, a conflict erupted for about 15 minutes, it stopped, this photo was taken, and not long after, Sagolj and the marines were back on the road.
13. The Falling Man – 2001
The terrorist attacks that took place on September 11, 2001 resulted in over 3,000 deaths and countless others wounded. Some people are suffering from post traumatic stress disorder and respiratory problems to this day. It was the largest loss of life by a foreign attack on American soil, and will go down as a defining moment in American history. The attack has shaped our world today — a world where you have to go through countless security checks to fly internationally. A world dictated by fear, a world where people don’t feel safe.
After two planes crashed into the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, many people were trapped in the top stories of the building, unable to evacuate. These people had to choose between either burning, suffocating from the smoke, or jumping to their death. Of all the iconic photos that were taken on 9/11, this one is the most chilling. The identity of the man is unknown, but many people speculate that the person in the photo is Jonathan Briley. There are entire documentaries dedicated to investigating this picture and the story behind it, such as 9/11: The Falling Man (2006).
12. Hubble Ultra Deep Field – 2004
Thinking about how astonishingly large the universe is can make you woozy. There are interactive infographics, videos, and other online materials that try to help you understand how small we are compared to how large the universe is.
The Hubble Ultra-Deep Field (HUDF) is an image of a tiny section of the night sky, captured by the Hubble Space Telescope and pieced together. The photo is equal to one thirteen-millionth of the total area of the sky. If you were to hold a 1mm by 1mm square piece of paper a meter away, the area of the night sky that the Hubble Ultra Deep Field covers is even smaller than that.
When you look at the image, don’t think of everything that you are seeing as just a few dots in the night sky. This image contains around 10,000 galaxies. In each of those galaxies are an estimated hundreds of millions, if not hundreds of billions of solar systems.
Due to how long it takes light from these distant galaxies to reach Earth, not only are we seeing 10,000 galaxies — but we’re looking at these galaxies how they appeared 13 billion years ago, when the universe had only existed for a few hundred million years.
11. The First Waves Of A Tsunami – 2004
The 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake lead to one of the most devastating tsunamis along the coasts of the Indian Ocean. The earthquake itself was the third-largest earthquake ever recorded on a seismograph (a tool used to measure motion of the ground). The countries most affected by the following tsunamis were Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India, and Thailand. An estimated 230,000 – 280,000 people died as a result, and the Indian Ocean Tsunami is one of the deadliest natural disasters ever recorded.
The image seen above was taken as the first tsunami waves hit Ao Nang, Thailand, on December 26, 2004. Knowing the destruction that followed as a result of these waves crashing makes this image truly chilling.
Though the damage from the tsunami was catastrophic, one 10-year-old British tourist was able to save around 100 tourists from a Thai beach. Tilly Smith had learned about tsunamis in a geography class earlier that year. As the waves started to recede on the beach, Tilly Smith recognized this as a sign that a tsunami was about to strike. She told her parents, who alerted other tourists and hotel staff before the tsunami struck.
10. Indigenous Woman Holding Her Child While Resisting State Policemen- 2008
Pictures are worth a thousand words — but this one is worth a million. The woman in this photo is trying to resist incoming Amazonas state policemen who were expelling her, and 200 other members of the Landless Movement. The people were being removed from privately owned property in the middle of the Brazilian Amazon. People fought against the eviction, trying to fight policemen off with bows and arrows but they didn’t stand a chance against their better equipped opponents.
This moment of oppression was captured by Luis Vasconcelos in 2008. There’s something remarkable about the contrast in this photo. The woman and her child look so colorful compared to the grey and black equipment that the state policemen are holding. Even without context, anyone can tell that something immoral was taking place. A glimpse into mankind’s cruelty.
9. Father Mourns Death Of His Son – 2011
Ten years after the attacks on September 11, 2001, the 9/11 Memorial and Museum opened to families of victims of the attacks. Robert David Peraza, a bond trader at Cantor Fitzgerald is believed to have been trapped above the area that the plane hit and never made it out of the building. His father, Robert Peraza, visited the memorial on the day it opened with the hopes of finding his son’s name on the monument.
Robert Peraza said that there was something drawing him to the north pool of the memorial, and found his son without trouble. He described the moment as very moving. This photo captures that moment nicely and speaks to how much the terrorist attack impacted the United States. Somehow seeing how a father reacted to finding his son’s name on the memorial makes the event seem that much more tragic, even after all this time has passed.
8. Couple Kissing – 2011
It’s a stereotype for a reason: Canadians love hockey. After the Vancouver Canucks lost to the Boston Bruins, at home, in game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals, the city came together and absolutely trashed the place. It was insanity. The riots went until late into the night, causing $5 million in damage and leaving 140 people injured.
But, in all of the chaos, there was a profound moment of beauty. A couple was photographed kissing on the ground. The man in the photo, an Australian man named Scott Jones kissed his girlfriend, Canadian born Alex Thomas, to comfort her after she was knocked to the ground by riot police. The couple now lives in Melbourne, Australia, where Jones works as a bar manager.
There’s something comforting about this image. Maybe it’s the colors, the contrast between the calm foreground and the hectic background, or, perhaps, it’s the fact that a boyfriend ignored the pandemonium around him to comfort the woman he loves. This is the millennial version of the sailor kissing the woman in front of Times Square.
7. University of California Davis Occupy Protesters – 2011
The Occupy Movement is a series of protests around the world to protest social inequality. The first protest to gain the attention of mainstream media was Occupy Wall Street, a protest that began in Zuccotti Park on September 17, 2001. There have been occupy movements in over 30 countries with varying degrees of success and international attention.
During an Occupy demonstration at the University of California, Davis, UC Davis police officer Lt. John Pike was photographed and videotaped spraying nonviolent protesters with pepper spray. The students were pepper sprayed as they sat on the ground, refusing to move. Police reported that protesters had surrounded the officers and would not let them leave the location, whereas a reporter from The New York Times stated that the officers were able to move freely.
The photo sparked a debate in the United States about the militarization of police and their use of excessive force. The students are literally sitting on the ground while officer Pike sprays them while they try to cover their eyes. Looking into the background, it’s jarring to see how many people are using their cell phones to record the event.
6. Osama Bin Laden Is Dead – 2011
Long after dusk on May 1 (May 2 in Pakistan), President Obama told the people of the United States that their biggest foe of the last decade, Osama Bin Laden, was dead. He was shot by a member of SEAL Team Six during a raid of his compound, located in Abbottabad, Pakistan.
For those that are unaware, Bin Laden was the founder, and head, of the Islamist group Al-Qaeda, and mastermind behind the 9/11 terrorist attack.
The firefighters in the photo above were one group of countless firefighters that celebrated the death of Bin Laden, a man who was responsible for the death of hundreds of their colleagues, and thousands of Americans.
At the time, people believed that the death of Osama Bin Laden would bring an end to Al-Qaeda, and perhaps might even bring an age of stability in the Middle East. People had hope, and they celebrated around the United States, and around the world, the death of America’s most wanted man.
5. New York Fashion Week Fashionistas Next To Homeless Man – 2013
New York Fashion Week is held during February and September of every year. The event is one of the most important fashion events in the world, next to the fashion weeks in London, Paris, and Milan.
The photo highlights the harsh contrast between the lifestyles of people in New York City. On the left side, you see a poorly dressed man resting, possibly wondering where he’s going to get his next meal — struggling to survive. And, on the right side, you have three fashionistas, paying no attention to the man on the street, posing for a photo of their own. They are in New York City for the fashion week experience — no matter the cost. This isn’t an attack on those women. It’s just interesting to think of how perfect the photo of these women were posing for, and what it looked like when they shared it to their social media networks. Perception is everything.
This photo was taken by Lucas Jackson, whose photography you should be familiar with. He climbed 897 steps to get the photo of Trump’s seemingly empty inauguration that was circulating around social media and news outlets soon after the event.
4. Lesleigh Coyer In Front Of Grave – 2013
The death of a close family member is something that lingers over you for the rest of your life. There have been over 6,700 United States soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. For their families, the ones that they left behind, they will never be forgotten.
Staff Sgt. Ryan f. Coyer enlisted in the United States Army in 2004. He completed four deployments in Afghanistan, and two in Iraq. Unfortunately, he unexpectedly passed away at Hunter Army Airfield in Georgia due to complications from an injury he received while overseas in Iraq.
His sister, Lesleigh Coyer, was photographed by Kevin Lamarque curled up in a ball, mourning the loss of her brother a year after he passed away.
3. First Snow In Cairo In Over 100 Years – 2013
There seems to be an increase in weird weather these past few years. Though the average person is attributing it to climate change, experts aren’t so quick to judge. One instance of recent weird weather happened in December, 2013, when snow fell in Cairo for the first time in 112 years.
Experiencing snowfall is incredible for someone that doesn’t get the opportunity to see it every year. People in Cairo flooded to social media to post about the bizarre snowfall. Refugees living nearby were left to suffer in the cold, completely unprepared for the winter storm that residents called Alexa. In Israel, roads were closed, airports shut down, and thousands were left without power.
Was this bizarre snowstorm (in an area of incredibly low precipitation and typically above freezing temperatures) a sign that the climate is about to change? Will future generations look back at this photo and ask how we could stare at the blatant signs of climate change and still deny it?
2. Kiev Independence Square Before And After – 2014
In response to anti-protest laws that were passed in Ukraine (and a number of other things), a protest turned riot was started in the capital city of Ukraine, Kiev. This protest turned into a Ukrainian revolution due to how riot police, and the government, handled the situation. As a result, Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych was removed from his position as President of Ukraine, an hour after saying on a televised broadcast that he would not be resigning.
This photo is a combined image of two photographs, taken of Independence Square before and after the revolution began. It’s jarring to see the effect that the protests had on such an iconic monument in Ukraine.
If you want to learn more about the Ukraine protests, watch the incredible Netflix documentary Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom. The film is highly acclaimed and was even nominated for an Academy Award.
1. Northern White Rhino – 2014
National Geographic reported that in 2009, Lewa Conservancy in Kenya moved the last four breeding aged Northern White Rhinos from Dvur Kralove Zoo in the Czech Republic to the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya. This subspecies of rhino is on the brink of extinction due to poaching.
The population of the Northern White Rhino was around 500 in 970, but by 1989, the rhino population had dropped to around 26 — 15 in the wild and 11 in captivity. The tale of the Northern White Rhino is one that many animals have, and are, facing today. The illegal poaching of wild animals is driving many species, specifically in Africa, to extinction. This photo represents mankind’s cruel treatment of animals around the globe. Whether we are over hunting animals or destroying their homes — we might one day be the only species left on the planet.
As of 2015, there were 3 Northern White Rhinos left. They are still being held at Ol Pejeta Conservancy, Kenya.