10 of the Most Influential Photos Ever Taken
There’s an old saying that goes, “A picture is worth a thousand words,” and that couldn’t be any more true than when talking about the most influential photos ever taken. These images highlight various important moments in history that show different sides of humanity. Some challenge your beliefs while others are graphic and hard to digest. The best photos make you feel something and stir up emotions inside you.
Time Magazine, one of the leading news magazines, is known for using eye-catching images and often compiles lists containing the photos they believed are the most impacting or influential. In 2021 they released LIFE 100 Photographs: The Most Important Pictures of All Time And the Stories Behind Them. It includes a wide range of images taken over the past 100 years, including Untitled (Cowboy) by Richard Prince, The Vulture and the Little Girl by Kevin Carter, and V-J Day in Times Square by Alfred Eisenstaedt.
In talking about the images they chose, writer Bill Syken included a short introduction on their website where Time showcased highlights from the book. “Photos are proof. We know this from our own lives. Here’s what dad looked like when he was in high school. Look at this cake I baked. I ran into Taylor Swift at the mall – see, here we are in a selfie. A telling taunt of our age is ‘photos or it didn’t happen.'” he said.
“The same holds true for the wider world. The pictures that really matter are the ones that prove something, that show us a definitive truth, that make us understand. Here’s what a human fetus looks like. Here’s the glory of Muhammad Ali. Here’s the shock we felt when the World Trade Center Towers collapsed.”
Keeping that in mind, we have chosen 10 images that we believe really matter and have had a great impact on our culture and the stories behind them.
1. The Burning Monk – Malcolm Browne (1963)
This Pulitzer Prize-winning photo is still as shocking today as it was when first captured by Malcolm Browne in 1963. Working for the Associated Press at the time in Siagon, Browne was alerted to something going down to protest the treatment of the Buddhist population of the city. Most disregard the tip but Browned attended the protest to see what was going on.
After the procession of people had passed, a monk by the name of Thích Quảng Đức got out of a nearby car and sat in the middle of the road. Surrounded by other monks, petrol was poured on him and he then set himself on fire. “I realized at that moment exactly what was happening, and began to take pictures a few seconds apart,” Browne wrote after the event.
The photo Browne captured, of Thích Quảng Đức in the lotus position as his body is engulfed in flames, is a tragic reminder of the conflict that plagued Vietnam at the time. It caused the American government to put more pressure on Vietnam’s leader Ngô Đình Diệm, with the country eventually withdrawing its support for the region. It continues to be hailed as one of the most shocking images ever created and was used by Rage Against the Machine as the cover picture for their self-titled debut album.
2. Lunch Atop a Skyscraper – Charles Clyde Ebbets (1932)
This iconic photograph shows 11 men eating lunch while working on the 69th floor of the RCA Building in Manhattan, Taken in 1932 by Charles Clyde Ebbets (although there is some debate about who actually took the photo), the men are all sat in a line on one metal beam enjoying their lunch break.
It’s an iconic photograph New York Post correspondent Ashley Cross called the “most famous picture of a lunch break in New York history.” Only three of the men have ever been identified, Joseph Eckner (third man), Joe Curtis (ninth man), and Gustáv (Gusti) Popovič (eleventh man).
3. Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima – Joe Rosenthal (1945)
When it comes to images that define World War II, this is one most people are aware of. It shows six soldiers raising the American flag atop Mount Suribachi during the Battle of Iwo Jima. Three of the Marines involved in putting the flag up were killed during the battle.
Two flags were actually raised during the battle. The first occurred at 10:20 a.m. on February 23, 1945, when the U.S. army took Mount Suribachi. The second was erected a few hours later and was a much larger flag. The photo has become a symbol of not only the Pacific War but American soldiers on the battlefield. It was recreated as a statue that can be found at the U.S. Marine Corps War Memorial in Arlington, Virginia.
4. The Falling Man – Richard Drew (2001)
This famous photo is also one that stirs up plenty of emotions. Taken by Richard Drew, it shows a man jumping to his death during the September 11 attacks on the Twin Towers in New York. Rather than burn alive, the man jumped to his death, a decision that must have been incredibly troubling for the man.
Although the photo did cause controversy when first released, it is now recognized as one of the definitive images of 9/11. The man has never been identified but it’s believed he worked at the Windows on the World restaurant.
A retrospective about the image by Time said, “Falling Man’s identity is still unknown, but he is believed to have been an employee at the Windows on the World restaurant, which sat atop the north tower. The true power of Falling Man, however, is less about who its subject was and more about what he became: a makeshift Unknown Soldier in an often unknown and uncertain war, suspended forever in history.”
5. The Terror Of War – Nick Ut (1972)
If you ever needed proof of how terrifying war is, just look at this Pulitzer Prize-winning photo by Nick Ut. The Vietnamese-American photographer took this heartbreaking photo after a South Vietnamese napalm strike intended for North Vietnamese troops accidentally hit Trảng Bàng village. At the center of the photo, known as “The Terror of War,” is a naked 9-year-old girl, Phan Thị Kim Phúc, who is running from the blast.
When Ut took the photo he didn’t quite know why Phúc was naked until he realized she had been hit by the napalm strike. He poured water on her to ease the burns and then took her to a hospital where she was treated and thankfully survived. “If I had not helped her, I believe she would die,” Ut said in an interview with Amateur Photographer.
“Kim Phúc’s injuries were very severe, so I had to act quickly and decisively. I immediately took her to a hospital in nearby Cu Chi where they first refused to help her, but once I showed my press pass, they took care of her. We’ve been friends ever since.”
The images gave Americans and others around the world a first-hand account of what was happening during the Vietnam War. It led to more people protesting the war and questioning America’s involvement. You can learn more about the photo and Ut’s thoughts in this compelling video.
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6. A Man On The Moon – Neil Armstrong (1969)
Who would have believed man would ever step foot on the moon? Well, it happened in 1969 when Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong became the first people to walk on the surface of the moon. This image captures Aldrin in all his glory, with Armstrong reflected in the visor of his space helmet.
While Aldrin would have loved to have been the first man to step onto the moon, as Armstrong had the camera, all the images of the moon included Aldrin in them, which is a pretty good reward for being the second man on the moon.
7. Guerrillero Heroico – Alberto Korda (1960)
This incredible photograph of revolutionary leader Che Guevara was taken at a memorial service for the victims of a bombing at Havana Harbor. A tanker had exploded, killing those on board, and Guevara was in attendance for the service, standing alongside ruler Fidel Castro.
Alberto Korda, Castro’s official photographer at the time, took the iconic snap of Guevara, who has a smoldering look of anger plastered across his face. Initially, Korda had the small photo framed and hung it in his home. It was until 1986 that his close friend and fellow photographer José Figueroa suggested he print a full framed version of the photo. Korda did so and it wasn’t long before the image was plastered in magazines and newspapers across the globe.
It soon became the definitive image of Guevara and has been used to promote everything from alcohol brands to t-shirt companies. Korda, a lifelong communist, refused to take any royalties or payment for the use of the image. He wanted the image to represent Guevara and his ideas so it could be repurposed for similar revolutionary ideas.
8. Alan Kurdi – Nilüfer Demir (2015)
This tragic photo is of the lifeless body of 3-year-old Alan Kurdi. The war in Syria was having a devastating impact on its people and the Kurdi family wanted to escape, seeking asylum in Vancouver, Canada, where they had relatives.
Jumping onto an inflatable dingy, 16 people, including the Kurdi family, attempted to reach the Greek Island of Kos. But only minutes after leaving the shore a massive wave capsized the boat. Alan Kurdi, his brother, and his mother all drowned in the accident. Kurdi’s body washed up on the shore of Bodrum, Turkey, where Turkish journalist Nilüfer Demir found him and took the horrific image above.
When the photograph went viral it caused a massive outcry and interest in the Syrian war from both world governments and the public. The subject of refugees became a hot topic and charities received huge bumps in donations over the following days and weeks. It also caused many countries to open their borders to Syrian refugees to avert more unnecessary deaths.
9. Gussie Moran – Harold Edgerton (1949)
This image of tennis player Gussie Moran might not seem that influential, but it is still a very famous photo of the athlete. Taken by Harold Edgerton, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, it shows Moran smiling and holding a racket. It was taken the same year that Moran caused controversy by wearing a short skirt at Wimbledon. Known for its prudish approach to clothing, the organizers of Wimbledon were outraged when Moran wore a skirt so short it exposed her frilly underwear.
Due to her revealing skirt, Morgan got the nickname “Gorgeous Gussie,” with her attire even talked about in Parliament where she was accused of bringing the game into disrepute. Morgan would eventually trade the skirt for shorts to satisfy the higher-ups and keep the peace.
10. Academy Awards Selfie – Ellen DeGeneres (2014)
The most recent influential photo is a selfie captured by talk show host Ellen DeGeneres. Taken at the 2014 Academy Awards, the photo has been retweeted a whopping 2.8 million times and has 2.1 million likes. DeGeneres was hosting the event and during the show wanted to take a photo with Meryl Streep, which turned into a selfie featuring a host of Hollywood favorites.
Those in the image include Bradley Cooper (who ended up taking the picture), Jared Leto, Lawrence, Channing Tatum, Streep, Julia Roberts, Kevin Spacey, Cooper, Brad Pitt, Lupita Nyong’O, Peter Nyong’O, and Angelina Jole.
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