Sometimes, a single image can sum up events better than a news report or a book ever could; the phrase "a picture is worth a thousand words" is a cliche for a reason. Since the advent of photography, history has been defined by single images that captured the entire mood of a situation. Often, these photos are seen so often that they become synonymous with the events themselves.
However, the stories behind these photos are often noteworthy in their own right. Commonly, photographers and photojournalists are expected to maintain a modicum of neutrality. Yet their physical proximity to extreme events often makes that impossible. Often, they are both observers as well as participants.
Altogether, it makes for a compelling tale. Here are eight photographers behind some of history's most iconic images - and their recollections of what went into capturing them.
- 1339 VOTES
Nick Ut Said ‘We Were All In Shock’ As Children Fled A Napalmed Village
Photographer Nick Ut was in his early 20s when he took one of the most iconic photos of the Vietnam War - the 1972 "Napalm Girl." His older brother, also a combat photographer, was killed in the line of duty in 1965. Ut talked his way into becoming an Associated Press employee when he was just 15 years old. He was vehemently opposed to the conflict, and wanted to use photography to alter the public's perception of it.
On June 8, 1972, American and South Vietnamese forces were battling the Viet Cong near the village of Trang Bang, and Ut was on the scene. Civilians had been evacuating the village for days. When Ut witnessed four napalm bombs dropped on Trang Bang, he didn't think any locals would be present. He was shocked to see people fleeing the scene screaming, including an unclothed girl.
"I took almost a roll of Tri-x film of her," Ut said. "Then I saw her skin coming off and I stopped taking pictures. I didn’t want her to die." After he put away his photographic equipment, he stepped in to assist the child with her pain and fear:
I wanted to help her. I put my cameras down on the road. We poured water over this young girl. Her name was Kim Phuc. She kept yelling “nóng quá” (Too hot). We were all in shock.
Ut's photo was so disturbing that President Richard Nixon doubted it was genuine. Years later, Ut recalled the photo became a turning point in the war, making many Americans come to oppose the American military intervention in Vietnam.
- 2480 VOTES
Malcolm Browne, Photographer Of The Burning Monk, Knew ‘It Would Be Something Spectacular’
President John F. Kennedy said of Malcolm Browne's 1963 photo of Vietnamese monk Thích Quảng Đức that "No news picture in history has generated so much emotion around the world as that one.” (In fact, Browne took several photographs of the incident, and the one Kennedy saw – taken later during the immolation – was not the same as the photo at right, which has since become the most famous image in the series.)
Quảng Đức was a Buddhist monk who spent years protesting Ngô Đình Diệm's treatment of his religion, which included banning the display of Buddhist symbols.
Browne was an Associated Press war correspondent covering the story that year. He recalled that the Buddhists of Vietnam had been warning they would stage a memorable protest against Diệm's policies for months. He received a phone call stating, “Mr. Browne, I strongly advise you to come. I expect something very important will happen, but I cannot tell you what.” Browne recalled:
I had some hint that it would be something spectacular, because I knew these monks were not bluffing. They were perfectly serious about doing something pretty violent. In another civilization it might have taken the form of a bomb or something like that.
Browne was the only Western photographer to capture the events of that day, and the only one whose photographs were circulated worldwide. In 1964, his photo earned him a Pulitzer Prize.
- 3486 VOTES
Apollo 8 Astronaut William Anders Said Earth Was ‘The Only Color In The Universe’
Astronaut William "Bill" Anders was a crewmember on NASA's Apollo 8, the first manned space flight to reach the moon's orbit in 1968. During the mission, the spacecraft orbited the moon 10 times before returning to Earth, and Anders was tasked with photographing the lunar surface. As he revealed to The Guardian in 2018:
It didn’t take long for the moon to become boring. It was like dirty beach sand.
During one of the rotations, Anders watched as the shuttle came around the moon and witnessed the "earthrise" - the earth's appearance on the moon's horizon:
Then we suddenly saw this object called Earth. It was the only color in the universe.
The astronaut trained his camera on our home planet and snapped pictures. Time magazine later called it an era-defining image, reminding millions around the world that Earth is a fragile place.
- 4423 VOTES
Julien Bryan Tried to Comfort A Child Who 'Had Never Before Seen Death'
Julien Bryan was an American photographer who spent most of the 1930s and '40s documenting Europe, both before and during World War II. In the '30s, Bryan spent much of his time in Poland, photographing the Jewish communities in Warsaw and Krakow.
When Nazi Germany initiated war by invading Poland in 1939, Bryan was on hand to document some of the most grim and brutally honest images. He was in Warsaw during the Nazi siege in 1939 when he and his colleagues received word about a tragic event at a farm on the outskirts of the city. Polish women and children, desperate for food, had been scouring a field for potatoes when Nazi fighter planes attacked and killed several.
When Bryan arrived, he discovered a 10-year-old girl whose older sister had just been slain. He photographed her reaction, then did his best to console her:
The child had never before seen death and couldn't understand why her sister would not speak to her. The child looked at us in bewilderment. I threw my arm about her and held her tightly, trying to comfort her. She cried. So did I and the two Polish officers who were with me.
- 5387 VOTES
Dorothea Lange Described ‘A Sort Of Equality’ In Her Encounter With The ‘Migrant Mother’
Dorothea Lange's "Migrant Mother" portrait has been described as the Mona Lisa of Depression-era photography. When Lange took the photo in 1936, she was a San Francisco portrait photographer who often traveled through the surrounding areas documenting the refugees of the Midwest Dust Bowl. She discovered the mother and her children near San Luis Obispo, CA, near a "Pea Pickers Camp." Although she took no notes at the time, she recalled the circumstances behind the photo 24 years later:
I saw and approached the hungry and desperate mother, as if drawn by a magnet. I do not remember how I explained my presence or my camera to her, but I do remember she asked me no questions. I made five exposures, working closer and closer from the same direction.
I did not ask her name or her history. She told me her age, that she was 32. She said that they had been living on frozen vegetables from the surrounding fields, and birds that the children killed. She had just sold the tires from her car to buy food. There she sat in that lean-to tent with her children huddled around her, and seemed to know that my pictures might help her, and so she helped me. There was a sort of equality about it.
The mother in the photograph, Florence Owens Thompson, worked as a migrant farmer throughout the 1930s before ultimately settling in Modesto in 1945.
- 6275 VOTES
Robert Jackson Felt Jack Ruby Coming And Thought ‘This Guy’s Gonna Block My Shot’
In 1964, Dallas Morning News photographer Robert H. Jackson won a Pulitzer Prize for his 1963 image of Jack Ruby shooting Lee Harvey Oswald. Like many other media members, Jackson was already in position to photograph Oswald, who was being transferred between prisons during his police custody. Jackson's split-second photograph became one of the most iconic images connected with President John F. Kennedy's assassination.
In 2007, Jackson gave an interview with the Dallas Morning News, describing the moment he took the famous shot:
I was aware that somebody was coming from my right, stepping out really quick. And the thought went through my mind, "This guy's gonna block my shot." And then he fired, and I fired. It just came together. I couldn't have planned it better. It just happened.