The old adage goes that a picture says a thousand words. No doubt you have found yourself searching through old family albums, looking through collections of pictures on Facebook or just generally scanning over various photographs throughout the internet – more often than not, you’ve likely stopped to examine a certain picture and take in its ‘story.’ Indeed, you could say that a picture says more than a thousand words because it can also stir up powerful emotions and create a connection which blocks of descriptive text just couldn’t do. We’ve all looked at pictures that shock us, make us laugh or cause us to shed a tear or two. This is the power of photography and, in this world, some photographs are more powerful than others.
The following list looks at 25 of the most powerful and/or iconic images forever captured by photographers. Their ranking is unimportant here because different people will have different reactions to any given image. The subject matter is varied and you’ll find a mix of famous and stirring photographs related to war, politics, health and science. A lot of these images you’ll recognize as they have become quite famous (or infamous) since they were taken. This is because they have stirred up controversy or a great deal of emotion ranging from disgust and anger to pride and joy. There are also a handful of newer images included here. Powerful in their own right, whether these more modern images stand up to the test of time and remain as powerful decades from now is anyone’s guess.
25 The Hindenburg
“Oh the humanity” – the now infamous words spoken by commentator Herbert Morrison as he watched the famous zeppelin Hindenburg burst into flames and crash to the ground in New Jersey on May 6th, 1937. While Morrison’s speech has now become forever linked with the disaster, photographs of the incident helped convey just how spectacular the event was. The images of the giant airship bursting into flames as it pulled up to the mooring tower look like something from a 1950s sci-fi film.
24 “Wait for Me, Daddy”
When the Second World War broke out in 1939, photographers everywhere captured the classic images of soldiers saying goodbye to loved ones and heading off to war. In British Columbia, Canada, Claude Dettloff captured the now famous picture of a young boy running to his father who was being shipped off with the rest of his unit. In actuality, the picture was taken over a year after the outbreak of the war, but nonetheless, it became an iconic image and was used extensively in war-bond drives.
23 The Heart Surgeon
If any image ever caught the complete exhaustion after a long operation, the shot of Polish heart surgeon Dr. Zbigniew Religa did. When this photo was taken in 1987, Religa had reportedly just finished a 23-hour heart transplant. While his assistant slept in the corner, Religa is seen sitting in the rather crude operating room, keeping an eye on monitors to make sure the patient survives. The patient did survive and ended up outliving the doctor.
22 Martian Sunset
At first glance this may just look like some sort of sunset photo using a special filter. It is a sunset, but not one taken from Earth. When NASA’s Curiosity rover touched down on Mars in August 2012, it began collecting scientific data. It also began capturing spectacular images of the Martian landscape. Some of these pictures have included the sunsets which are literally out of this world. The white-blue sun setting over the rocky and darkened red landscape creates a surreal photograph of a truly alien landscape.
21 The Russian Veteran
In a small Russian town in 2008, during a ceremony to commemorate those lost in the Second World War, a decorated veteran emerged from the crowd and approached a T-34 tank being used as a monument. After inspecting the tank, the veteran fell to his knees, overcome with emotion as it turned out this was THE tank he had been a crew member of during the final stages of the war. Photographers snapped a number of pictures, including one of the former tanker kneeling beside his old vehicle, his cane hanging on the treads and the helmet he had worn sitting above.
20 The Stanley Cup Riot
Say what you will about Canada, but they definitely take their hockey seriously. In June 2011, after the Vancouver Canucks were eliminated from the Stanley Cup final by the Boston Bruins, riots broke out in Vancouver. Amidst the fires and looting, riot police were mobilized to combat the unruly mobs. One picture which emerged from the chaos of that June was of two people kissing on the street – riot police all around. Turns out the girl (Alexandra Thomas) had been knocked down as riot police moved through area. Her boyfriend (Scott Jones) was trying to comfort her and cameras caught the moment.
19 The Soviet Flag Over the Reichstag
The Second World War was the largest and most destructive conflict the world had ever seen. So, when Russian troops entered the Reichstag in Berlin, the symbol of German leadership, cameras were present. Turns out the actual capture of the Reichstag wasn’t made in the best light or conditions for photographers, so the whole thing was re-enacted. Red Army photographer Yevgeny Khaldei snapped the now iconic image of the Russian soldier securing the flag. To hide signs that soldiers had been looting, the image was ‘re-touched’ to remove things like the extra watch worn by one of the soldiers.
18 The Flag Raising on Iwo Jima
A second historic and iconic image of a flag raising in World War 2 – the raising of the American flag on Mount Suribachi, Iwo Jima by the United States Marines. The photograph of the flag raising was, in fact, the second flag raising on that island that day. The original flag was deemed too small and, reportedly, was wanted as a souvenir by James Forrestal, Secretary of the Navy. A larger flag was sent up to replace the first one and photographer Joe Rosenthal captured the moment. The image of the flag raising has become a defining image of the Marine Corps’ and United States’ involvement in the Second World War.
17 Loyal to the End
In January 2011 massive rainfall occurred in parts of Brazil. The area around Rio de Janeiro experienced one of the heaviest downpours, resulting in massive landslides. Whole neighborhoods were wiped out and over 900 people were killed and thousands displaced. Amidst the death and damage, a photographer snapped a picture in the one of many quickly dug graveyards. The photograph shows numerous new and empty graves. It also shows a dog, called Leao, sitting by the grave of its master who was killed in the landslide. Leao reportedly stayed at the side of his master’s grave for days – further proving that dogs really are man’s best friend.
16 Omaha Beach
Coming out of the Second World War there emerged more than a few dramatic and iconic photographs. The Allied invasion of Normandy in June, 1944 provided a number of these famous images. Perhaps one of the best known was taken during the assault of Omaha Beach by Robert Sargent and was aptly titled “Into the Jaws of Death.” The photo, taken from inside a landing craft, shows American soldiers wading through the cold water as they make their way to the beach. On the beach, American soldiers and a tank can be seen engaging the enemy who holds the high ground which is partially obscured by smoke.
15 Christians Protect Muslims in Cairo
The 2011 Egyptian Revolution witnessed Egyptians rise up against the regime of Hosni Mubarak. The revolution originated from the dissatisfaction of the people with government decisions and laws, as well as unemployment, low wages and the standard of living. Quickly gaining momentum, images of the revolution broadcast on television were generally of violence. A photo taken by Nevine Zaki showed a different side of the protests. In a world so used to seeing Muslims and Christians fighting, Zaki captured the two groups in a far different light. As Muslims in Tahrir Square performed their prayers, Christians formed a ring around them so that they could proceed without interruption or harm from pro-regime supporters.
14 The Assassination of Lee Harvey Oswald
The Kennedy assassination remains one of the most debated events in modern times. Who killed JFK and why they killed him are likely never to be answered. Perhaps the President’s assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, could have filled in some more of the glaring holes in the story – if he had been around longer to talk. Just two days after the assassination of JFK, Oswald himself was shot and killed by Jack Ruby while being led from the Dallas Police Headquarters. The famous photograph captured Oswald the moment Ruby shot him – an event witnessed by millions on live television.
13 The “Last Jew in Vinnitsa”
Many disturbing images came out of the German occupied areas during the Second World War. Most captured the brutal and cold blooded nature of the Nazis as they hung partisans by the neck, shot prisoners and mass-executed Jewish populations. One of the more infamous photographs to depict this barbarity was found in the personal album of an Einsatzgruppen soldier – a group of soldiers specifically tasked for mass killings. Simply titled “Last Jew in Vinnitsa” the photo captures proof of the mass execution of the town’s Jewish population in 1941.
12 Buddhist Monk Sets Himself on Fire
In 1963, Thich Quang Duc, a Buddhist monk, sat down in the middle of a busy Saigon intersection, had himself covered in gasoline and set himself on fire. The monk burned himself alive to protest the persecution Buddhists faced in South Vietnam under the leadership of Ngo Dinh Diem. The photograph was taken by journalist Malcolm Browne. Duc’s self-immolation attracted world-wide attention and Browne’s photos played a significant role in altering the world’s opinions toward Diem and his policies.
11 Sailor Kisses Girl in Times Square
Considering all the iconic photographs of death and destruction, it’s nice to come across a pleasant image. This famous photo was snapped in New York’s Times Square the day Japan surrendered and World War Two ended. Appropriately, it is called “V-J Day in Times Square.” The photo was taken by Alfred Eisenstaedt who had followed this particular sailor down the road trying to get a good shot. He just happened to turn around at the right time and shot this picture which graced the cover of Life magazine.
10 Kent State University Shooting
In early May 1970, students at Kent State University in Ohio set out to protest Richard Nixon’s decision to send troops into Cambodia as part of the larger war in Vietnam. Over a number of days, anger and frustrations increased on all sides, making for a dangerous situation when the National Guard began trying to break up the crowds on the campus. Unexpectedly, some of the soldiers began firing their weapons, killing four students and injuring nine others – some of whom weren’t even involved in the protest. John Filo snapped the now famous image of a girl (Mary Ann Vecchio) crying out over the body of killed protester, Jeffrey Miller.
9 The Execution Seen Around the World
What set the Vietnam War apart from previous wars was in the number of journalists and the amount of television coverage the conflict received. American and world audiences switched on the news or opened a paper to see considerable coverage of the conflict every day. Cameras caught almost every aspect of the bloody war and produced images which shocked the world. One of the most infamous images to come out of the war occurred during the 1968 Tet offensive. On February 1st 1968, the chief of national police was photographed by AP photographer Eddie Adams executing a suspected Viet Cong soldier. The image shocked viewers and further fuelled the anti-war movement.
8 The Tank Man
From April to June 1989, a student-led protest took to Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. What started out as a hunger strike aimed at political and economic reform gathered momentum and support across China. Afraid, the Chinese government opted to use force to end the protests. In the crackdown that followed, at a minimum, hundreds were killed and thousands wounded as soldiers and tanks moved against the protesters. Of all of the images to come from the encounter, Jeff Widener’s famous photo of the lone man blocking a column of tanks is the iconic image of Chinese resistance during the crackdown by government forces.
7 Flower Power
The social upheaval and anti-war movement which swept through the United States in the 1960s created a lot of memorable images. Perhaps one of the most famous is Bernie Boston’s photograph of National Guardsmen confronting a group of protesters near the Pentagon. Confrontations like this weren’t new, but when a protester started putting carnations in the barrels of the guns, it led to a moment which has forever been linked with the anti-war movement.
6 JFK Jr. Salutes
The assassination of JFK in November 1963 was shocking event in American history. Many pictures associated with that day are well known, but one taken on the day of JFK’s funeral remains the most powerful. Snapped by Daily News’ Dan Farrell, the photograph of John F. Kennedy Jr. saluting his father’s coffin captured the heart of the nation. The three-year-old may not have fully understood the world around him, but that one moment made him a favorite to Americans everywhere.
5 The Earth as Seen from the Moon
In December 1968, Apollo 8 became the first mission to leave the Earth’s orbit, orbit the moon and return to earth. Part of the program to put a man on the moon (done by Apollo 11) Apollo 8’s crew were also the first to witness Earthrise, the rising of the earth above the Moon’s horizon. On December 24th 1968, astronaut William Anders snapped a shot of the Earth rising above the Moon. The picture is fittingly called Earthrise. Small and floating in complete blackness, the picture became an instant hit and reinforced to many people how small our world actually is within the immensity of space.
4 Black Power at the 1968 Olympics
At the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, photographer John Dominis snapped the now iconic image of American athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos protesting the treatment of African Americans. The two medallists stood with heads bowed during the national anthem, giving what many call the ‘Black Power’ salute. Smith and Carlos argued it wasn’t a ‘Black Power’ protest but the International Olympic Committee didn’t care, kicking the two out of the competition for violating the rules with a political act.
3 The Gas Chamber
During the Second World War, the Nazi regime established extermination camps to eliminate certain groups of people, such as the Jews. There have been many powerful and shocking photographs associated with the Holocaust. Perhaps one of the most disturbing is that of the interior walls of the gas chamber at Auschwitz. Photographs show scrape marks up the wall – created when those inside desperately clawed to get up the walls and away from the poison gas.
2 Missionary in Africa
In 1980, photographer Mike Wells captured one of the most disturbing, yet powerful images. The photograph shows the hand of a starving Uganda boy holding the hand of a missionary. Wells admitted he was ashamed to take the picture, but the result was a message far more powerful than anything a politician or advocacy group could make. In total, one-in-five people died in the Ugandan famine but such publicity helped raise awareness throughout the 1980s and pressure governments around the world to try and do more to help.
1 The Running Vietnamese Girl
Another iconic photo from the Vietnam War, the image of the little girl running down the road crying is one of the most recognizable images today. In June 1972, South Vietnamese planes dropped napalm on a village occupied by civilians. One of these civilians was 9-year-old Kim Phuc. She was photographed moments after the bombing, naked and running away from the burning village with other children while South Vietnamese soldiers looked on. Phuc’s clothing had caught on fire, burning her back and forcing her to strip down. AP photographer Nick Ut captured the moment which has become a symbol of the cruelty and brutality of the Vietnam War.