Historical Photos With Unsettling Backstories That We Saw In 2021

The annals of history are filled with photographs. Some document the good; others document the bad; and some are totally neutral. Others, however, are deceptive. They seem normal, but the stories behind them reveal that they're anything but.

These are some of the most compelling and unsettling stories behind historical photographs that we encountered in 2021. 

  • 1955: 'Tragedy By The Sea'

    1955: 'Tragedy By The Sea'
    Photo: John L. Gaunt / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    Described as "poignant and profoundly moving" by the Pulitzer Prize Board in 1955, "Tragedy by the Sea" captures the emotions of two parents on April 2, 1954, as they realize their child is gone.

    As Los Angeles Times photographer John L. Gaunt stood in his front yard near Hermosa Beach, his neighbor alerted him to some "excitement" on the beach. Gaunt grabbed his nearby camera. He didn't have to go far to see a young couple, the McDonalds, just moments after their infant son, Michael, disappeared in the surf. The McDonalds had been walking along the waves as 19-month-old Michael played nearby, apparently crawling into the sea while they weren't looking.

    Gaunt took four pictures that day, a series of images the Pulitzer Prize jury initially ranked No. 4 out of their Top 5. The board overrode their decision and awarded the prize to Gaunt.

  • 1998: Moments Before A Fatal Explosion In Omagh, Ireland

    1998: Moments Before A Fatal Explosion In Omagh, Ireland
    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Fair use

    This photo was taken moments before the red car, a Vauxhall Cavalier, exploded and took the lives of 29 people and injured 220 others. 

    The man in the center of the photo, Gonzalo Cavedo, was a Spanish tourist visiting Omagh, Northern Island, on August 15, 1998. His child was on his shoulders when the bomb inside the car went off. Miraculously, he and his child survived, though the photographer did not.

  • C. 1986: Preserved Chernobyl Mutant

    Following the meltdown at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant on April 26, 1986, the surrounding environment and population were exposed to dangerous levels of radiation. In the weeks, months, and years to come, animals suffered debilitating and fatal mutations.

    The preserved piglet in this photo was born near the Chernobyl plant and suffered from dipygus. It is now on display at the Ukrainian National Chernobyl Museum.

    Today, animal populations near the plant are relatively healthy, although they exhibit higher internal radiation levels than normal. Some animals continue to bear the marks of the meltdown, as in the case of birds with smaller brain sizes and rodents that bear smaller litters with higher mortality rates.

  • 1968: 'The Kiss Of Life'

    1968: 'The Kiss Of Life'
    Photo: Rocco Morabito / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    In 1968, the Pulitzer Prize for photography was split into two categories: spot news photography and feature photography. During the inaugural year for the new format, the Pulitzer Prize jury looked at submissions with both categories in mind, shifting them as they saw fit. They awarded photographer Rocco Morabito the spot news prize for "The Kiss of Life." 

    While driving in Jacksonville, FL, in July 1967, Morabito spotted an electric company lineman dangling upside down from an electricity pole. The worker, Randall Champion, had been shocked by 4,160 volts and left unconscious by the jolt. It may have also temporarily stopped his heart.

    Morabito, a photographer for the Jacksonville Journal, took a quick photo and went to call an ambulance as another lineman, J.D. Thompson, climbed the pole and began to give his co-worker mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. Once he called for help, Morabito continued to take pictures - finally hearing the words "He's breathing" from the heroic lineman above.

  • 1974: 'Burst Of Joy'

    Click here to view the photo.

    Photographer Slava "Sal" Veder immortalized Lt. Col. Robert L. Stirm's reunion with his family in March 1973. An Air Force fighter pilot, Stirm was imprisoned after being taken down over North Vietnam in 1967. When the former POW landed at Travis Air Force Base in California, his daughter Lorrie was the first to embrace him, quickly followed by her three siblings (Robert Jr., Roger, and Cynthia) and mother (Loretta).

    Lorrie recalled, "I just wanted to get to Dad as fast as I could... We didn't know if he would ever come home... That moment was all our prayers answered, all our wishes come true." 

    Veder was among numerous journalists awaiting Stirm, all of whom "could feel the energy and the raw emotion in the air." Veder caught that energy on film with an image that came to represent hope and healing in the aftermath of an unwinnable conflict. He received the Pulitzer Prize for feature photography in 1974.

    The truth behind the photo was much more complex, however. Stirm had received a letter from his wife days earlier indicating their marriage was over. After an attempted reconciliation, Robert and Loretta divorced a few months later. 

    Stirm later acknowledged his mixed feelings about the photo:

    I have several copies of the photo but I don’t display it in the house... I was very pleased to see my children - I loved them all and still do, and I know they had a difficult time - but there was a lot to deal with... In some ways, it’s hypocritical, because my former wife had abandoned the marriage within a year or so... 

  • 1910: A Whale's Remains In Alaska

    1910: A Whale's Remains In Alaska
    Photo: John Nathan Cobb / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    The whale in this photo is not beached, but tied up at the Tyee Company whaling station, which processed whales from 1907 to 1913. The area is actually known as Murder Cove, not because of the whales butchered there but because of the slaying of two prospectors in 1869.

    The Tyee Company ceased operations in 1913 due to a decline in the whale population.