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11 Controversial Photos from Politics & Human History

Powerful and iconic photographs can capture the essence of a moment, movement, or leader, leaving an indelible mark on history.

In this article, we’ll explore 11 famous photos in politics and society that transcended their frames to become symbols of change, struggle, and hope.

Read more: Stories from behind iconic portraits

1. The "Napalm Girl" photo by Nick Ut (1972)

Nick Ut, a young Vietnamese photographer for the Associated Press, was on assignment when he witnessed the horrific napalm attack. He initially hesitated, but then captured the iconic photo of Kim Phuc and other children fleeing. The image shocked the world, exposing the brutal realities of the Vietnam War.

It played a crucial role in shifting public opinion against the war and contributed to its eventual end. Kim Phuc survived, and her photo became a symbol of both suffering and resilience. She now works as a UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador, promoting peace and forgiveness.

Napalm Girl Copyright Nick Ut (1972)
Napalm Girl Copyright Nick Ut (1972)

2. The "Falling Man" photo by Richard Drew (2001)

Richard Drew was on assignment for the Associated Press when the 9/11 attacks occurred.

His photo, while disturbing, captures the desperation and horror of those trapped in the Twin Towers. The image initially faced criticism for being too graphic, but later became recognised for its raw power and the questions it raises about human suffering and mortality.

Efforts to definitively identify the “Falling Man” have been unsuccessful out of respect for his family’s privacy.

Falling Man Copyright Richard Drew (2001)
Falling Man Copyright Richard Drew (2001)

3. The "V-J Day in Times Square" photo by Alfred Eisenstaedt (1945)

Alfred Eisenstaedt, working for Life magazine, spontaneously captured the moment amidst the Times Square celebrations. The photo wasn’t pre-planned, but perfectly embodied the euphoria of victory.

The identities of the sailor and woman remain a subject of debate, with several individuals claiming to be the subjects. This mystery adds to the timeless appeal of the image. The photo is an enduring symbol of love, celebration, and the end of a global conflict.

V-J Day in Times Square Copyright Alfred Eisenstaedt (1945)
V-J Day in Times Square Copyright Alfred Eisenstaedt (1945)

4. "Selma to Montgomery marches" (1965)

Multiple photojournalists bravely documented the Civil Rights marches, including Spider Martin, James Karales, and Flip Schulke. Their work faced suppression attempts by local authorities. The images exposed the violence faced by peaceful protesters, galvanising the nation and building support for the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Photographers weren’t immune to violence themselves, some were attacked and their equipment damaged. Their determination helped expose the injustices of the era.

Selma to Montgomery marches (1965)

5. Nelson Mandela walks free (1990)

Standing tall and resolute, Nelson Mandela emerged from Victor Verster Prison on February 11, 1990, after 27 years of incarceration for his fight against apartheid in South Africa.

Captured by photographer Siphiwe Sihlobo, the image became an instant symbol of hope and triumph, not just for South Africa, but for the global fight against racial injustice.

The photograph wasn’t just a news snap; it signified a turning point in history, the dismantling of a brutal system, and the release of a powerful leader who would go on to become the first democratically elected president of South Africa.

Nelson Mandela walks free (1990)

6. The Handshake (1993)

On the South Lawn of the White House in 1993, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and PLO chairman Yasser Arafat grasped hands in a historic agreement witnessed by President Bill Clinton. Captured by Yasser Bisharat, the photograph transcended the mere act of shaking hands; it symbolised a glimmer of hope for peace in the long-standing Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

However, the path to peace remained complex and fraught with challenges, and the optimism ignited by the handshake tragically dimmed with Rabin’s assassination two years later.

The Handshake (1993) Copyright David Ake AFP Getty Images
The Handshake (1993) Copyright David Ake AFP Getty Images

7. The "Tank Man" photo by Jeff Widener (1989)

Jeff Widener, an Associated Press photographer, risked his safety to capture this image from a hotel balcony during the tense crackdown on Tiananmen Square protests. The photo became a global symbol of defiance against oppression. It sparked international outrage over the Chinese government’s actions and galvanised support for the pro-democracy movement.

The identity and fate of “Tank Man” remain unknown. His act of bravery continues to inspire dissidents and freedom fighters worldwide.

Twenty-one years after the iconic “Tank Man” photograph, Chinese artist Liu Wei recreated the powerful image in a different part of Beijing. This act of artistic defiance, captured on camera, served as a stark reminder of the ongoing struggle for freedom of expression in China and the indelible mark left by the original image.

The photograph sparked international discussions about censorship, the power of individual acts of resistance, and the enduring relevance of the Tiananmen Square protests.

Tank Man Copyright Jeff Widener (1989)
Tank Man Copyright Jeff Widener (1989)

8. The "Black Lives Matter" protests (2020)

A wave of protests erupted in 2020 following the death of George Floyd at the hands of police in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

These demonstrations, documented by countless photographers across the globe, became a powerful visual representation of the global fight against systemic racism and police brutality. The images captured the collective outrage, the demands for justice, and the unwavering spirit of the movement seeking equality for Black communities.

The Black Lives Matter protests (2020)

9. The "Hong Kong Umbrella Revolution" Photo (2014)

An anonymous protester stands calmly amidst a sea of umbrellas, shielding himself from tear gas during pro-democracy demonstrations in Hong Kong.

The photo, captured by Reuters photographer Johannes Eisele, became a symbol of the movement’s peaceful yet determined resistance against perceived government overreach.

Umbrella Revolution Hong Kong Copyright Paula Bronstein Getty Images (2014)

10. The "Malala Yousafzai Shot in the Head" Photo (2012)

A grainy hospital bed photo of Malala Yousafzai, a young Pakistani girl shot by the Taliban for advocating for girls’ education, shocked the world. The image, widely circulated by news outlets, amplified her message and ignited global support for her cause.

Copyright Malala Yousafzai
Copyright Malala Yousafzai

11. The "Syrian Boy Washed Ashore" Photo (2015)

The heartbreaking image of a young Syrian refugee found dead on a Turkish beach, captured by Nilüfer Demir of the Dogan News Agency, stirred international outrage and empathy towards the plight of refugees fleeing war and seeking sanctuary.


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