It is a popular idiom to say that “a picture is worth a thousand words”. Of course, it just means that an image can have the power to convey a complex idea or phenomenon. More accurately, however, the phrase could be something to the effect of “photos can vastly change our perspective” or more simply “an image can change the world”.
The changes in the principles of photography have changed very little over the past century, despite the technology advancing exponentially. When you get right down to it, the unifying goal is to visually document something, immortalizing that image. This hasn’t changed and while the specifics like lenses, lighting, perspective and angles are important, the end to which photographers strive is to document the beauty, the struggle, and life in general.
While every picture can tell a story, some stories cause more of an emotional resonance than others. Pictures of cats and meals may populate Instagram and Facebook, but are quickly forgotten. Pictures of real life events however, from protests and times of change to times of great triumph and misery are far more memorable and may indeed change the world. Sometimes while telling a story, a photographer documents someone and makes them a lasting cultural icon. However, while the image and story may be remembered, the person and their later life may well be lost. Here are some incredible stories of the lives of the subjects of some of history’s most iconic photos.
18. Terri Gurrola – Soldier Returning From Iraq
This picture was snapped back in 2007. It features a woman, Terri Gurrola, hugging her daughter while sobbing, after returning from several months in Iraq. Gurrola has said that she was partially crying because she was so happy her daughter remembered her. She also indicated that this was a common occurrence among military personnel. They think of their loved ones constantly while overseas and the experience of coming back brings forth an incredible wave of emotion.
17. Tommie Smith And John Carlos – Black Power At The ’68 Olympics
Back in 1968, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, respectively, won the gold and bronze (Aussie Peter Norman took the silver). Both American, they chose to use their medal ceremony to protest the hard times many blacks in the U.S. were having. Their outfits were chosen and modified to reflect prejudice and poverty and silver medalist Norman wore a scarf and badge to show solidarity with them. The two Americans gave the closed-fist black power salute during the Star Spangled Banner. Eat your interception-throwing heart out, Colin Kaepernick.
Tommie Smith had a very brief NFL football career and went on to coach a collegiate track team. He also taught sociology at the college level at Oberlin and Santa Monica Colleges. He auctioned off his medal and spikes in 2010.
John Carlos also had a very brief football career, playing briefly in the NFL and a single season in the Canadian Football League. He too went on to coach track and field, but at the high school level. Carlos and Smith received the Arthur Ashe Award for Courage in 2008.
Peter Norman received poor treatment for decades after showing solidarity with Smith and Carlos, and was left off the 1972 Olympic team, despite posting times that would have qualified. He took up Aussie football and had some success, but lost his leg to gangrene in 1985, after injuring his Achilles tendon in a recreational race. He fell into depression and drank heavily for years after this event. He died of a heart attack in 2006. Smith and Carlos were pallbearers and eulogized him at his funeral.
16. Jesse Owens – 1936 Berlin Olympics
Not many people were documented openly standing up to the Fuhrer. Jesse Owens was an American sprinter who competed and dominated the 1936 Olympics in Nazi Germany. Of course, back in the 1930s, Adolf Hitler had his running narrative of Aryan racial superiority. A black American winning gold in the 100 meter, 200 meter, 4×100 relay and last but not least the long jump kind of showed this to be nonsense but obviously a ton of Germans still liked the message Hitler was preaching. Of course, saluting as he did while virtually everyone else did the Nazi salute made this a particularly noteworthy picture.
Jesse Owens went back to the U.S. after the Olympics as the most successful athlete of that tournament. Of course, because it was still the 30s, President Franklin D. Roosevelt did not invite him to the White House. Progressive, democrat hero, right? Owens’ later life wasn’t what it should have been for a man of his achievements. He found that money was scarce for a former Olympian and basically ended up doing novelty public appearances (sprinting against horses, and local runners) and eventually went bankrupt. While he eventually became a Goodwill Ambassador for the U.S. a smoking habit that he took up after his athletic career led to lung cancer that killed him in 1980.
15. Raising The Flag On Iwo Jima
Joe Rosenthal took this picture and won the Pulitzer Prize in early 1945. He would later say, very aptly, that “I took the picture, but Marines took Iwo Jima”. This nasty battle was an essential part of the U.S. island hopping war in the Pacific. The Japanese had dug in deep, using anti-air guns as anti-personnel cannons in some places, and the fighting was brutal even relative to other battles in the Pacific Theater.
Mount Suribachi was an essential point on the island, and while that flag was raised just four days into the battle, the picture was a huge morale boost for soldiers around the world and civilians back home. Three of the men who raised the flag were killed before the war’s end: Sergeant Michael Strank, Corporal Harlon Block, and Private First Class Franklin Sousley. The flag in the picture was actually the second one raised that day.
For those who watched Flags of Our Fathers, you may well know the story of the three men who made it home after conflict. Rene Gagnon went on to work in sales for Delta Airlines, owned a business for some time, but tried to stay out of the limelight as life went on. He died at age 54 in 1979. Ira Hayes returned home in Arizona but died of exposure after a heavy night of drinking in 1955.
For a long time there was some controversy over who the sixth man in the picture was. For decades it was believed that corpsman John Bradley was there but earlier this year, a U.S. Navy review board determined that while Bradley was there, the sixth man in the picture was Harold Schultz. Schultz was fine with people believing it was Bradley in the picture because he had done his job and ultimately wanted to be done with the war. After the war he found a decent job with the U.S. Postal Service and enjoyed the quiet life. He only told his stepdaughter that he had participated in the event. Schultz died in 1995, and the Navy honored him as one of the official flag-raisers in early 2016.
14. Hans Conrad Schumann – Leap To Freedom
It was mid-August, 1961, and the communist regime in East Germany had started building the Berlin Wall, dividing the city. Hans Conrad Schumann was a young soldier on the East side, and was furious after having seen a small East German child dragged violently back to East Germany after trying to cross over to the West. Although the wall was in the process of being built, he was walking near a part of it that was still just a small barrier of low concertina wire. His slow-running jump was caught on camera by Peter Leibing.
After his defection, Schumann became an unwilling celebrity; having become the face of freedom and rebellion against the Soviet Union in Europe. He worked for Audi for a couple of decades, but drank heavily for much of his adult life and became increasingly frustrated. After the Wall fell he tried to return to his former community, but was shunned. He hung himself in the woods near his house back in 1998.
13. Meliton Kantaria And M. A. Yegorov And Oleksiy Berest – Raising A Flag Over The Reichstag
Taken on May 2, 1945, this is the Soviet Union’s equivalent to Iwo Jima. The Reichstag was the major German legislative building and was considered to be one of the strong points of the fascists against whom the Soviets were fighting. One of the bloodiest battles of the Second World War, this event took place on May 2nd, 1945; the last day of the Battle of Berlin.
Meliton Kantaria was a Georgian soldier who left the army after 1945, and moved south, back to Sukhumi, Abkhazia (southern Russia) where he was an active member of the communist party and ran a shop until he left the area for Moscow in the early 1990s. He lived in Moscow with his family until his death in 1993.
Mikhail Yegorov grew up in Smolensk, near what is now Belarus. After the German invasion, he fought as a Partisan, and in 1944 he joined the Red Army. After 1945 he returned home and worked on a dairy farm until his death in a car accident in 1975.
Alexei Berest was born in Ukraine and served first in the Soviet invasion of Finland, and later against the Nazis. He was trained as a political officer (commissar) and joined Yegorov and Kantaria to raise this iconic flag. He worked in the film industry after the war but ran into legal trouble, being convicted of embezzlement and sent to prison for a decade. Upon his release he found work in a factory. He died in 1970 after being hit by a train while getting a toddler out of the way of that train.
12. Jan Rose Kasmir – The Flower And The Bayonet
French photographer Marc Riboud, took this picture in 1967, during a protest against the Vietnam War. The flower child, Jan Rose Kasmir was just a high school student at the time. She had no fear of the soldiers, and during her standoff she realized that they were just average men with orders, by no means war-loving maniacs. While the protest started out peacefully, it would turn into a mess later on, with tear gas, beatings and plenty of arrests.
Kasmir would go on to become a massage therapist and eventually married a man from Denmark, where she moved for a number of years. She had a daughter and came back to the United States, protesting the Iraq War in the 2000s with a large poster of herself standing in front of the soldiers.
11. Warren Bernard – Wait For Me, Daddy
In early October, 1940, five year old Warren “Whitey” Bernard’s father was a member of Canada’s British Columbia Regiment, who were walking down Eighth Street in New Westminster, British Columbia. Upon seeing his father marching, Warren let go of his mother’s hand and ran toward his father. Claude Dettloff was the man behind the camera for this shot, which was used extensively, along with Bernard, for war bond sales.
His parents divorced, but his father would survive the war. Warren (called “Whitey” by friends and family) worked numerous jobs after the war, including working in a pulp mill, on a fishing boat, as a land commission agent, and a member of the Tofino, British Columbia city council. He’s retired now and was featured on a Canadian $2.00 coin a couple of years ago.
10. Horace Greasely – Picture With Himmler
Born on Christmas, 1918, in Leicestershire, England, Horace Greasely was captured by the Nazis early in 1940 and held prisoner for most of the war. He released an “autobiographical novel” shortly before his death in 2010, which detailed his experience during the war. He claimed to have spent his wartime years in a work camp but escaped nearly at will to spend time with his German girlfriend, Rosa. Among other concerns, some critics have said that his autobiography exaggerated some aspects of life in a work camp, but for the most part the book is factual.
This picture is Greasely staring down Heinrich Himmler, the head of the Schutzstaffel, Hitler’s militia of maniacs responsible for a ton of murder and dreadful deeds throughout World War Two. According to his story, Greasely had just finished cursing Himmler out over a lack of food in the camp, removing his shirt to show how malnourished he had become. Historian Guy Walters has said that the photo is of a Soviet soldier in Minsk, but this has not been proven.
9. Christian Golczynski – Son Of Dead Soldier
The picture on the left became a well known image back in 2007. Christian was the son of Marine Corps Staff Sgt Marc Golczynski, who was killed in Iraq just a few weeks before he was scheduled to return home. Eight years old at the time, Christian held back tears as a Colonel handed him a folded flag in honor of his father. The death of a father could have seriously detrimental effects on the development of a child his age, but by all accounts, Christian has grown up to be a phenomenal person.
Now a senior in high school, he’s devoted to his mother and his family, works a part time job, has a few different friend groups, plays competitive lacrosse, and coaches the sport to younger kids in his community. While he misses his father, he has become close friends with some of his dad’s Marine friends and hopes to head off to college next year.
8. Dorothy Counts – End Of Segregated Schools
The whole racism issue has never really stopped rearing its ugly head in the United States, and the fact that we all just got through probably the filthiest election the country has ever seen didn’t help things at all. But with that said, if you want to see prejudice, look at the life and times of Dorothy Counts. Back in the late 1950s, she was a black student who briefly attended the formerly all-white Harding High School in Charlotte, North Carolina.
When she showed up at the school she was taunted, assaulted and had to deal with a gauntlet of people chucking all manner of debris at her. Within a few days, school administrators and police told her parents they could not guarantee her safety and she was sent away to live with a relative and attend school in Philadelphia. She went on to graduate university and has spent her life working with low income children and has worked with several non-profit organizations aimed at helping underprivileged youth. She adopted two children and is now a grandmother. Harding High School has also named their library after her.
7. Samar Hassan – Iraqi Girl At Checkpoint
This horrifying picture shows the horror of a military occupation. Samar Hassan was seven years old and living in Tal Afar, Iraq with her family. While driving her sick brother to the hospital one evening in 2005, American soldiers shot up her parents’ car, killing both of them. She was removed from the car and her brother was badly injured (but would recover, before being killed in 2008). The photo shows her crying hysterically. It was taken by Chris Hondros, a renowned New York native photographer who was killed in Lybia with filmmaker Tim Hetherington (Restrepo) in 2011.
Samar Hassan has had (no surprise here) a rough life since that night back in 2005. She was living in a cramped house in Mosul, Iraq with many members of her extended family a few years ago, and was not going to school at the time, having left due to social anxiety and shyness. Mosul has been a complete mess for some time now and was held by ISIS for a while and as such, there has been no recent update as to her status.
6. Elian Gonzalez – Taken By Federal Agents
A Cuban by birth, Elian Gonzalez was born to parents who would get divorced. His mother tried to take him to the United States to escape Cuba, but she drowned during the trip, after a boat accident. He was found by some fishermen and ended up with his mother’s family. His Cuban father demanded he be returned to Cuba, and after some squabbling in the courts, orders got handed down for him to be returned to his father. His relatives in Miami refused to give him up and he was ultimately taken by federal agents at gunpoint. When they raided the house he was in, an Associated Press photographer, Alan Diaz, was present and snapped the shot above.
Gonzalez was returned to Cardenas, Cuba to live with his father. He’s now in his early 20s and has forgiven all sides of his family for the drama. He has said that he’d love to visit the United States sometime, and that he is eternally thankful to all those who helped him while he was in the United States. He’s an engineering student these days and got engaged last year.
5. Nguyen Ngoc Loan – South Vietnam Public Execution
This remains one of the most influential photos of the Vietnam War. Nguyen Ngoc Loan was the South Vietnamese chief of police and was photographed and videotaped shooting a Viet Cong prisoner in the head in the middle of a Saigon street. The man who was executed was Nguyen Van Lem; who was 36 at the time and was a leader of a team of insurgents who had been targeting South Vietnamese police officers.
Nguyen Ngoc Loan was vilified in the worldwide media, despite there being some legitimate debate over whether he was a war criminal or just a man with an explosive temper. It basically depends on whether Van Lem was an actual militant, which is difficult to decide based on the fact that he did not wear an actual uniform. Either way, the media took the route they did and he eventually escaped Vietnam and ended up in Virginia. He opened a pizza shop, but was forced to close after locals figured out who he was. He died in 1998 after a fight with cancer.
4. Mary Ann Vecchio – Kent State
The picture above shows a fourteen year old Italian-American Mary Ann Vecchio kneeling over the body of Jeffrey Miller, who had been shot by the Ohio National Guard at the Kent State protest in 1970. For some background, after President Richard Nixon had ordered the invasion of Cambodia in 1970, students across the country were furious and protested. Kent State saw the first of these protests and it ended in bloodshed. The Ohio National Guard were called in to maintain order during the protest but ended up shooting and murdering four students. This picture won the Pulitzer Prize and was taken by journalism student John Filo.
Vecchio was in her teens but was somewhat politically aware and was visiting the campus when the protest was happening. After her involvement, she was found by police, as she had run away from home. She was returned to her family.
Nine years later, she got married and moved to Las Vegas. She is now a massage therapist but has remained a politically active citizen, appearing at many ceremonies commemorating the Kent State Shooting.
3. George Mendonsa – VJ Day In Times Square
Make no mistake gentlemen, the act depicted in this photo is probably sexual assault today. Back in the 1940s, it was a funny, but not particularly polite moment, but these days, this is the kind of thing that gets you locked up and the key tossed. Navy sailor George Mendonsa had just learned that the Japanese had surrendered (you know, after two cities were annihilated by nuclear weapons). He was ecstatic and decided to kiss some random woman on the street. A nearby photographer, Alfred Eisenstaedt caught the moment on camera and it remains one of the most iconic photos of the WWII era.
There is some speculation about the actual identity of the man in the picture, but George Mensonsa is the most likely. He was actually on a date with his future wife, Rita, who can be seen grinning ear-to-ear behind him and to the right. They have been married for nearly 70 years now and Mendonsa worked as a fisherman in Rhode Island after his time in the Navy. The woman he kissed was Greta Zimmer Friedman, who was not actually a nurse but a dental assistant on a lunch break at the time.
2. Sharbat Gula – Afghan Girl
If anyone ever describes a picture as “that girl with the hood and the intense green eyes”, it’s a 1984 photo taken of Sharbat Gula taken by Steve McCurry. The picture was taken in a refugee camp in Pakistan. Gula’s parents were killed by the Soviet Union, and had fled her home to Pakistan with members of her extended family. In the 1990s she made her way back to her home village, and was not found again until 2002, which was also the first time she ever saw the “Afghan Girl” photo.
She got married in her teens and had four daughters, one of which died at a young age. Very recently she was arrested in Pakistan and charged with having been in the country with forged documents. This is a common necessity for Afghani people living in Pakistan. They need to carry documents because if they do not have identification, they are regularly rounded up and deported. She was deported back to Afghanistan in early November 2016.
1. Tank Man
Back in 1989, there were some protests in China against the government. The Tiananmen Protest was a student-led movement against the corruption of the government and the lack of basic freedoms in the country. The students were brutally repressed and hundreds of people were killed. The day after this massacre, a column of tanks made its way through Tiananmen Square and a lone man carrying a bag stood in the way of the war machines. He then climbed atop one of the tanks, spoke to the soldiers after they opened the hatch, climbed back down, and was then grabbed by two other protesters, and pulled out of the street.
Not only has there been significant debate over the fate of “Tank Man”, there is also speculation over who he actually was. Some have suggested that he was captured shortly after his encounter and executed. Others have said that he was held by the government for some time and then executed later.
He is most likely Wang Weilin; a student who was 19 years old at the time. This has not been conclusively confirmed, however. A professor in Hong Kong claimed that he found Tank Man working in a museum in Taiwan, but the museum denied having any employees that had escaped from mainland China after the Tiananmen Square protests.
Jiang Zemin, then the General Secretary of the Communist Party of China, has said in an interview with Barbara Walters, that he has no knowledge of the government ever finding Tank Man and that he was most definitely not among those who were killed in the wake of the protests.
Whoever he is, he became a symbol of the yearning for democratic rights in China. While plenty of people may present anecdotes and speculations about that day in 1989, we may never know who Tank Man was or what became of him. Interestingly, the iconic image of Tank Man is not widely known within China, where the press and of course the internet, are ruthlessly censored.