Through its ability to provoke anger and even outrage at social injustice and human atrocities, photography can be a powerful force. Ever since its invention in the 19th century, the medium has contributed to the instigation of great global movements and massive societal change. Take a look at this selection of 19 images which, in their own way, had an impact on the world – sometimes profound, sometimes less so.
19. Olive Oatman’s tribal tattoo
As they traveled across Arizona in 1851, 14-year-old Olive Oatman and her family were attacked by Native Americans thought to have been members of a Tolkepaya tribe. Her parents and four of her siblings were killed outright. One brother escaped while she and her younger sister were taken into captivity. The sister unfortunately died, but Olive was sold on to some Mohave people as a slave. Thankfully, the young woman was freed in 1856 – but not without the experience leaving its mark. It is fair to say that her Mohave tattoos thoroughly shocked white American society.
18. Naked ambition on the streets of Toronto
This obviously staged shot was taken by a photographer from the Alexandra Studio in Toronto, Canada, in 1937. Or who knows? Perhaps a distracted driver really did crash into a streetlight, dazzled by damsels in shorts dress. Even though it is so clearly set up, nevertheless the pic tells us something of the mainstream attitude to bare female legs in the ’30s. Even, it would seem, among the citizens of a large, sophisticated metropolis. It would be decades before such a naked display of fashion sense would pass without comment.
17. One-piece causes Mass hysteria
Born in Australia in 1887, Annette Kellerman enjoyed success as a professional swimmer, movie and stage performer and businesswoman. She was one of the first females to reject the voluminous swimming gear favored in the 19th century and became a pioneer of the one-piece. Incredible as it may seem, Kellerman was actually arrested for indecency wearing such a bathing suit at a beach in Massachusetts in 1907. She spoke about her subsequent court appearance in an interview with the Boston Sunday Globe newspaper in 1953. She recalled, “The judge was quite nice and allowed me to wear the suit if I would wear a full-length cape to the water’s edge.”
16. Elizabeth Eckford schools racists in dignity
The young woman at the centre of this remarkable shot from 1957 is the then 15-year-old Elizabeth Eckford. She was one of nine African-Americans who were the first non-whites to attend the Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. Members of the state’s national guard had actually just blocked Eckford’s entrance to the school. And then, as we can see here, a mob of white racists howled their contempt for the young woman. This photograph captures a key moment in the battle for desegregation in the U.S.
15. Abhorrent Abu Ghraib atrocities
To the horror of much of the American public and people around the world, in 2004 CBS News published a series of photographs showing prisoner abuse by U.S. service personnel in Iraq. The crimes, which ranged from torture and rape to murder, took place at the notorious Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad. This photo shows 21-year-old Lynndie England of the 372nd Military Police Company abusing an Iraqi prisoner. England was later sentenced to three years in jail and a dishonorable discharge.
14. Black takes gold
It was the turbulent year of 1968 and the Black Power movement was sweeping the U.S. The Summer Olympics that year were held in Mexico City and African-American runners Tommie Smith and John Carlos came first and third respectively in the 200 meters final. While The Star-Spangled Banner played at the medal ceremony, both men raised clenched fists, the unmistakable salute of the Black Power movement. Smith later told a press conference, “We are black and we are proud of being black. Black America will understand what we did tonight.”
13. Red China’s reputation tanks
If ever an image deserved the description “iconic” this is the one. In 1989 Chinese protestors had engaged in a series of demonstrations in Tiananmen Square in the heart of Beijing, China’s most important public space. After tolerating the protests for some weeks, China’s leadership decided that enough was enough. The government then cleared the square using the Red Army. This, as we can see thanks to American photographer Jeff Widener, included the deployment of battle tanks. His image of a lone man – the Unknown Protester – facing down a convoy was beamed around the world and became instantly famous.
12. Polar bear on thin ice
A German woman, Kerstin Langenberger, took this photograph of a shockingly emaciated polar bear in 2015 and uploaded it to her Facebook account. The picture, taken when the woman was working as a tour guide in northern Norway, soon went viral, attracting worldwide attention. Langenberger suggested that the pitifully thin polar bear’s plight might be a direct consequence of climate change. For many, her visual vividly captured the dire consequences of global warming and the denial of the phenomenon.
11. Skirting the issue
More naked aggression in this update of the Toronto shot from the 1930s. Archaeologists have found examples of miniskirted garments dating as far back as 1390 B.C. Nonetheless, in modern times, the ’60s saw these abbreviated items of apparel cause a sensation around the world. Swinging London was famed for being in the vanguard of this fashion trend, with trendy women there wearing skirts up to eight inches above the knee. But pictured here is a scene from Cape Town, South Africa, in 1965. The candid snap perfectly illustrates the shock and disapproval leg-baring minis provoked in some quarters.
10. Not standing for injustice and inequality
Echoes of Tommie Smith and John Carlos in this picture of Colin Kaepernick, right, and his San Francisco 49ers team mate Eric Reid. The pair first kneeled during the national anthem at a football game on September 12, 2016, and were caught on camera in this shot. Kaepernick explained his actions at the time to NFL Media, saying, “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.” The protest was later described as “taking a knee,” and the stance has since been adopted by many sports players. However, in September 2017, President Donald Trump waded in to the controversy. The Commander in Chief tweeted that NFL teams should fire or suspend footballers who refuse to stand for The Star-Spangled Banner.
9. Romance at the riot?
In the modern culture of internet memes, this is just the sort of image that spreads throughout the world in a matter of days if not hours. It was taken by Canadian photographer Rich Lam and seems to show an extraordinary insouciance by the couple embracing on the ground. The incident happened during a riot after a hockey match in Vancouver in 2011. Later, witnesses claimed that the apparently amorous Scott Jones and Alex Thomas had in fact just been knocked over by riot police.
8. When Harry was a Nazi party animal
Now that he is about to marry Meghan Markle, Prince Harry seems to be the media’s darling. But it was not always so, as we can see on this U.K. tabloid newspaper from January 2005. The then 20-year-old had been pictured at a fancy dress party in Nazi costume, the press got hold of it and Harry was widely vilified. It would have been a staggering piece of poor judgment for the senior British royal at anytime. But people were even more aghast because the publication of the pic coincided with the 60th anniversary of the Holocaust.
7. You can’t stop progress in the long run
It is perhaps hard to believe from the vantage point of the 21st century, but the Boston Marathon was a men-only event until 1972. However, Kathrine Switzer decided to defy this restriction and became the first female to run in the race in 1967. Switzer did not have permission from the marathon organizers and one of them, Jock Semple, is pictured here trying to stop her. Sadly for him, Switzer was running the 26 miles with her boyfriend, Thomas Miller, and he is the one shown shoving Semple out of the way.
6. Rosa Parks on the ride side of history
This is the late, great Rosa Parks captured forever here, being booked by the police in December 1955. Her crime? While traveling on a public bus in Montgomery, Alabama, she refused an instruction from the driver. In short, he had told her to surrender her seat in the “colored” section of the vehicle. This was so that a caucasian who was standing because the “white” seats were full could take her place. Parks’ refusal saw her charged with breaking segregationist law. She later said, “I only knew that, as I was being arrested, that it was the very last time that I would ever ride in humiliation of this kind…” Indeed, her case became a cause célèbre in the Civil Rights Movement.
5. Emmeline Pankhurst gets lifted by the law
This picture shows another determined female in trouble with the police, this time, however, it is in London in 1914. The woman getting carried away is Emmeline Pankhurst, a leading member of the suffragettes who fought for votes for U.K. women in the early 20th century. Britain’s females eventually got the vote in 1918, but only if they were more than 30 years old and met certain economic conditions. Full suffrage did not come until 1928 when all women over 21 were given the vote, putting them on an equal footing with British men.
4. Getting shot of an illegal immigrant
This shocking photo shows terrified six-year-old Elian Gonzalez being taken from a relative at gunpoint by federal agent Jim Goldman. Elian had embarked from Cuba with his mother and a dozen others in 1999 in a desperate bid to reach the U.S. mainland. However, the boat sank and all but three of the passengers died. Elian survived but his mother sadly perished. The boy was given into the custody of relatives in Florida but courts ruled he must be returned to his father in Cuba. This is the moment in early April 2000 when that order was upheld by the brave forces of American law and order.
3. Burning issue generates heated emotions
In this horrifying image shot in Saigon we see Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Quang Duc in the act of burning himself alive. This incident occurred in June 1963 as the U.S. prepared to join the Vietnam War. In fact, the monk’s self-immolation was a protest against the repression of Buddhists by the American-backed South Vietnam government rather than the war as such. President Kennedy was moved to comment on the tragic image soon after. He said, “No news picture in history has generated so much emotion around the world as that one.”
2. The very picture of despair
Photographer Dorothea Lange took this portrait of Florence Thompson, ground down and prematurely aged by poverty, in 1936. The caption for the shot held at The Library of Congress simply reads, “Destitute pea pickers in California. Mother of seven children. Age thirty-two. Nipomo, California.” It was the height of the Great Depression in the U.S. and this photograph became one of the defining images of that era.
1. The shot that helped end a war
The Vietnam War gave rise to a number of truly iconic photographs and this is one of them. Nguyen Ngoc, chief of South Vietnam’s National Police, is caught at the moment he summarily executes Nguyen Van Lem, a Viet Cong prisoner, on a street in Saigon. The photographer was American Eddie Adams and this image shocked and distressed viewers around the world. Some believed this shot strengthened the anti-war movement in the U.S. Apparently, many Americas baulked when they saw the kind of person their government was backing in the Vietnamese civil war.