Catching history with a shot: 19 pictures that had a profound impact on the world
Among visual arts, photography is arguably the one that can have the deepest impact on the world. With the ability to provoke anger and even outrage at injustice and atrocities, pictures have always been an important medium of knowledge and change, since the technique was invented in the 19th century. Photography has inspired great global movements and big changes in society. This gallery of 19 pictures show photos that had an impact on the collective imaginary and somehow contribute to change our world.
- Olive Oatman’s tribal tattoo
This picture was shot in the 19th century and shows a young American girl. In 1851, when she was 14 years old, Olive Oatman and her family were attacked by Native Americans, as they were travelling across Arizona. They were thought to be members of Tolkepaya tribe. Six members of their family, including her parents, were killed by the group. One brother managed to escape, while she and her younger sister were kidnapped. After her sister died, Olive was sold as a slave to some Mohave people and finally freed in 1856. However, the shocking experience had already left several marks on her body and her soul. Her face, showing a Mohave tattoo, was a true shock for American society.
- Naked legs create chaos on the streets of Toronto
Even though the shot is most probably set up, this picture tells a lot about societal habits in the 1930’s. The picture was taken by a photographer from the Alexandra Studio in Toronto, Canada, in 1937. It is not unlikely that a car driver may have crashed into a street light, as that kind of nudity was very uncommon at that time. Toronto was already a big and sophisticated city, but bare female legs were still a taboo. Women needed to wait a few decades before short dresses could be worn in the streets without attracting comments.
- One-piece causes Mass hysteria
Professional swimmer, movie performer and businesswoman. Annette Kellerman, who was born in Australia in 1887, was a very active lady and one of the pioneers of modern fashion. First of all she refused to wear the enormous swimming gear favoured in the 19th century and decided to go for the new one-piece. While wearing this type of suit at a beach in Massachusetts in 1907, she was arrested by a police officer for indecency and had to appear in court. Interviewed by the Boston Sunday Globe newspaper many years later, in 1953, she said: “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”.
- Elizabeth Eckford schools racists in dignity
Shot in 1957, this picture captures a key moment in the long and difficult process of desegregation in the United States. Elizabeth Eckford, wearing a white dress and holding a book, is a 15-year-old girl on his way to school. Surrounded by white people who are yelling at her and showing their contempt, Elizabeth stood with dignity, after her entrance to the school was blocked by police officers. She was one of the nine African-Americans to be admitted for the first time to Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas.
- Abhorrent Abu Ghraib atrocities
When this picture was published in 2004, the public in America and the rest of the world was deeply shocked. CBS News showed on TV several photographs in which the US service personnel was abusing prisoners in Iraq. Horrible crimes such as torture, rapes and murders, had been committed in the Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad by American soldiers. The man walking a prisoner like a dog is 21-year-old Lynndie England of the 372nd Military Police Company. After this photo was published, he was sentenced to 3 years in jail and a dishonorable discharge.
- Black takes gold
Arguably one of the most famous shots ever, this picture was taken in 1968, while the Black Power movement was at his highest in the United States. Mexico City was holding the Summer Olympics that year and these two American runners, Tommie Smith and John Carlos won the gold and bronze medal in the 200 meters final. During the medal ceremony, both raised clenched fists, as a clear sign of the Black Power movement. During the press conference Tommie Smith said: “We are black and we are proud of being black. Black America will understand what we did tonight”.
- Red China’s reputation tanks
A man standing with dignity in a square and blocking 4 tanks. This powerful picture was taken in 1989 in Tiananmen Square, Beijing, where a long wave of demonstrations had been going on for days. Protestors were tolerated for weeks but eventually the Chinese government decided to stop all demonstrations once for all. The square was cleared by the Red Army. Battle tanks were also used during the operation, as documented by this shot taken by American photographer Jeff Widener. The shot of this unknown protester facing the tanks by himself in the empty square, became instantly famous and iconic.
- Polar bear on thin ice
A powerful picture can make people aware of a problem, much better than thousands of words. In this photo a skinny polar bear is floating on a small piece of ice. It was taken in 2015 by a German woman, Kerstin Langenberger, who later on uploaded it on Facebook. She was working as a tour guide in northern Norway, when she snapped this photo, that went viral instantly and was seen in the whole world. The very bad conditions of the animal were soon linked to the climate change and the picture became an iconic symbol of global warming.
- Skirting the issue
Female naked legs strike again. After the picture shot in Toronto, this is another image showing how wearing clothes was an important step for female emancipation. As incredible it may seem, archaeologists have found examples of miniskirts dating back in 1390 BC. However, in modern age the garments became fashionable only in the 60’s. London was one of the cities where miniskirts was most popular. This picture, showing two young ladies wearing skirts going up several inches above the knees, was actually shot in 1965 in Cape Town, South Africa, and documents very well the different reactions of people towards this revolutionary garment. From curiosity to disapproval, nobody could stay neutral.
- Not standing for injustice and inequality
Rather than a religious gesture, it is a strong and peaceful symbol of protest. Colin Kaepernick and his team mate Eric Reid, both playing in San Francisco 49ers, were caught while kneeling down during the national anthem at a football game on 12 September 2016. Many were puzzled by such unusual attitude, so Kaepernick explained to NFL Media the reason of his action. “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of colour”. The action became so iconic that a new expression was created to name it, “taking a knee”. Many sports players followed these 2 footballers and use kneeling as an act of protest, which spread so quickly that even president Donald Trump had to wade in to the controversy. In a tweet he claimed that NFL teams should fire or suspend footballers who refuse to stand for “The Star-Spangled Banner”.
- Romance at the riot?
Here is one of those pictures that catches one’s attention instantly. In the middle of a riot a man and a woman lay down on the ground and kiss each other. The shot was taken in 2011 by Canadian photographer Rich Lam during a riot that took place after a hockey match in Vancouver. However, what looks like a love scene, it is actually something else: according to some witnesses, Scott Jones and Alex Thomas, the 2 people depicted in this photograph, were helping each other after being knocked over by riot police. The shot was posted on the Internet and spread throughout the web very quickly.
- When Harry was a Nazi party animal
In this picture, published on the front page of famous British tabloid The Sun, Prince Harry is wearing a Nazi costume. He is now loved by the press, after he recently married Meghan Markle. At the time, however, this photograph made him into trouble. It was taken in January 2005, when Harry was 20 years old and was attending a fancy dress party with some friends. The prince was highly vilified and his audacious outfit was criticised pretty much by everyone, especially because that day marked the 60th anniversary of the Holocaust.
- You can’t stop progress in the long run
In the long run of women for equality, this picture is an iconic image of protest and resistance. It was taken in 1967 during the Boston Marathon which was reserved to men only until 1972. Ignoring this ban, Kathrine Switzer decided to attend the sport event and became the first woman to ever do so. Her participation had not been authorized by the organizers. This is why one of them, Jock Semple, is trying to block her run. She was running together with her boyfriend, Thomas Miller, who in the picture is the one shoving Semple out of the way.
- Rosa Parks on the ride side of history
Here is another woman standing, actually sitting, for her rights. Rosa Parks is depicted while a police office books her in December 1955. The story is more than famous. She was sitting on a public bus in Montgomery, Alabama, when the driver asked her to leave her seat, as it was located in the coloured section of the vehicle. A white man was standing in the aisle, waiting to take her seat. She refused get up and was therefore charged with breaking segregationist law. Recalling that moment, 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…”. That simple gesture of disobedience became a symbol for the Civil Rights Movement.
- Emmeline Pankhurst gets lifted by the law
Another woman standing up for equality and civil rights. The picture was taken in 1914 in London and depicts Emmeling Pankhurst, one of the leaders of the suffragettes movement that was fighting for the votes of women in the United Kingdom. Here she is taken away by police officers during a demonstration, but the movement could not be stopped. Four years later, in 1918 women were allowed to vote, but only if they were older than 30 and came from wealthy families. Females had to wait until 1928 for a full suffrage: starting from that date all women over 21 had the right of voting, exactly like British men.
- Getting shot of an illegal immigrant
Few things can be more disturbing than adults holding weapons against children. In this photo federal agent Jim Goldman takes away a six-year-old child, Elian Gonzales, from a relative. The boy had arrived in the United States in 1999, after running away from Cuba on a boat along with his mother and many other people. During the journey the boat sank and all passengers on board died, apart from three people. Elian survived but his mother drowned. He was then given to some relatives in Florida but a trial in court decided that he had to return to his father in Cuba. This picture, shot in April 2000, shows the exact moment when the boy was taken away from his relatives to be transferred to Cuba.
- Burning issue generates heated emotions
This shocking photograph was taken in June 1963, while the United States were ready to embark on the Vietnam war. In Saigon a Vietnamese Buddhist called Thich Quang Duc burns himself alive, as an act of protest against the repression of Buddhists by the South Vietnam government that was backed by America. The photo had a huge impact on the whole world. Even president Kennedy was shocked and admitted: ““No news picture in history has generated so much emotion around the world as that one.”
- The very picture of despair
This is a typical example of how a picture can capture the feelings of a generation. In this shot taken by photographer Dorothea Lange in 1936, a young woman called Florence Thompson shows all her calm despair. Prematurely aged by poverty, the mum of seven is described with these simple words in the caption for the shot held at the Librari of Congress: “Destitute pea pickers in California. Mother of seven children. Age thirty-two. Nipomo, California”. The Great Depression was hitting the United States at the time and this picture sums up all the difficulties Americans were facing during that period.
- The shot that helped end a war
Among the numerous pictures taken during the Vietnam War, this one is definitely one of the most iconic and shocking. The photograph catches the moment when the chief of South Vietnam’s National Police, Nguyen Ngoc, is shooting to death a Viet Cong prisoner on a street in Saigon. The distressing picture was taken by American photographer Eddie Adams, who was able to generate a huge debate in the States and strengthen the anti-war movement. Looking at what kind of person America was backing, many people wondered whether or not the Vietnam war was right.