There are a certain number of photos that are timeless. They have transcended the years and distance, becoming so well known all over the world that they are considered iconic. Most of us would recognize them immediately, as much for the emotional response they evoke as the image itself. That is the true power of a well taken photograph: the ability to capture a moment for all time.
But while we have seen those images, even celebrated them, many of us don’t know the actual story behind them. Yet each one has a rich tale behind them, and sometimes knowing the context will make the photo all the more memorable and intense.
While it would be impossible to choose what iconic photos are the most influential or captivating, I thought I would list some of my favorites. More importantly, I thought I would explain the stories behind them.
1. V-J Day in Times Square
Probably the most iconic photograph of all time, this wonderful image was taken by Alfred Eisenstaedt and published in Life magazine on the day that the Japanese surrendered in 1945. Originally, it was buried in the pages of the publication, along with many other images taken throughout the day. But it is definitely the most famous, with dozens of couples coming forward over the decades following to claim they were the ones in the picture. But the real story is more interesting, if less romantic.
The man is George Mendosa, a Navy quartermaster who had been on leave in America was the military amassed enough force for the planned invasion of Japan, an eventuality that seemed inevitable, but terrible. The woman is Greta Zimmer, an Austrian native who had fled with her sister to the US in the wake of Hitler’s expanding regime. But the person you might not have noticed also in the picture is Rita Petry, beaming as she watches the man she was on a date with sweeping up another woman and planting a big on on her lips. The news of Japan’s surrender had come hours before, and the Rita and George had ended up in a bar taking celebration shots with the rest of New York.
Moving through Times Square, George had seen some nurses walking through the street. He remembered a horrible attack three months before, when Japanese kamikaze planes took out a bunker filled with hundreds of soldiers, and nurses had come to the rescue. So he grabbed the first nurse he saw, dipped her down, and kissed her. She would turn out not to be a nurse, but a dental assistant, and one who did not appreciate the kiss from a stranger who disappeared in the crowd a moment later, a laughing date in tow. It was Rita, not Greta, who would marry George. They are still together today, and Rita is not shy about saying that she had not enjoyed the kiss from the drunken sailor. However, it has become the iconic image of the joy of ending war, and we will always be sure to treasure it.
2. Kevin Carter’s Sudanese Child
This is one of the most haunting and devastating photos ever captured. Taken by photographer Kevin Carter in 1993, it shows a Sudanese child starving and slowly crawling toward a food distribution center. Behind you see a vulture, roughly the same size as the poor child, following and waiting for the little girl to die so it could eat her. Carter took the photo and then broke down, weeping by the dying child’s body. A year later, he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize. Two months later, he committed suicide. To this day, perhaps no image so aptly captures the horrors of third world hunger, or the criminal apathy of the world at large as we allow it to happen.
3. Monk’s Self Immolation
In 1966, Saigon was the center of a major religious crisis. The Buddhists of Vietnam were protesting the persecution of their order, in the aftermath of the rise of Ngo Dinh Diem’s Roman Catholic government. For a month, the protests had raged on. So when the announcement came that a special event would be taking place in downtown Saigon, few journalists bothered to show up, believing it to be another small stunt and nothing that would make the news back home. But a few journalists did attend, including American photographer Malcolm Browne. What occurred was the first of many self-immolations, started by Thich Quang Duc. As a horrified crowd watched crying and praying, the monk sat calmly while he burned himself alive and became a martyr. The photo taken by Browne is the most famous documenting the horrifying event.
4. Dali Atomicus
Salvador Dali is one of the greatest Surrealists of all time. From his bizarre landscapes shown in his paintings, to his work with director Luis Bunuel on the silent film Un Chien Andalou, he is an iconic figure. But in the 1940’s, some of his most recognizable work came from a collaboration with photographer Phillipe Halsman. In particular, Dali Atomicus, the silly and strange image of the painter jumping in the air, surrounded by a floating chair, flying cats and water being thrown across the room. While many other images from that particular collection would become very famous, this is probably the most well known and loved.
5. Viet Cong Execution
The Vietnam War is one of the greatest tragedies in history, and as an American I know many vets, my father included. The horrors from that conflict are extreme, and you don’t have to look far to find examples of extreme human cruelty and the darkness of war. But this image managed to truly capture the desperation and fear. It shows General Nguyen Ngoc Loan, a police chief in Saigon, executing a Viet Cong prisoner named Nguyen Van Lem. Critics have claimed the execution was semi-staged, and that the General would not have killed the man had the press not been there. But Adam’s denies this, saying that the execution was happening regardless, and that he had taken the photo (along with many others in quick succession) by reflex. He had not known he had captured what would become the most famous image from the Demilitarized Zone until the film had been developed.
Do you know any stories behind iconic images? Let us know in the comments!