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What Happened To The People In Some Of History's Most Famous Photographs

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Vote up the stories of figures from famous photos that interest you the most.

Some photographs are indelibly fixed in the collective consciousness. While the figures in these images can be celebrities - Buzz Aldrin standing on the moon, or Muhammad Ali knocking out Sonny Liston - others are anonymous individuals whose main link with history is they were photographed. The crying girl fleeing napalm in her Vietnamese village, for example, or the man casually eating lunch on a steel beam hundreds of feet in the air. In other cases, the unknown figure stands alongside history and pulls us in - like the Dallas police detective with a shocked expression next to Lee Harvey Oswald after he is shot by Jack Ruby.

You might wonder: Who are these people? And what happened to them after the photo was taken? The answers to these questions are as particular as the individuals themselves - but more often than you might expect, the answers are known. Here are the stories of the people inside some of the most famous photographs of all time, and where life took them after the shutter clicked.

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    2,483 VOTES

    The ‘Napalm Girl’ Underwent 17 Surgeries, Became A Christian, And Founded A Charity

    The ‘Napalm Girl’ Underwent 17 Surgeries, Became A Christian, And Founded A Charity
    Photo: Nick Ut / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    On June 8, 1972, Vietnamese American photographer Nick Ut snapped the infamous photograph of Vietnamese children fleeing the village of Trang Bang, which had just been napalmed by a South Vietnamese aircraft. In the middle of the photo, an unclothed girl, crying in pain, walks forward, her arms outstretched.

    Ut's photo, one of the most famous of the Vietnam War, was titled "The Terror of War" and won the 1973 Pulitzer Prize for spot news photography. Decades later, Ut recalled the circumstances around the photo in an interview with Vanity Fair:

    When I first saw the napalm explosion, I didn’t think there were any civilians in the village... Then I started to see people come out of the fireball and smoke. I picked up my Nikon camera with a 300mm and started shooting... First there was a grandmother carrying a baby who died in front of my camera. Then I saw through the viewfinder of my Leica, the naked girl running. I thought, “Oh my God. What happened? The girl has no clothes.” I kept shooting...

    I took almost a roll of Tri-x film of her then I saw her skin coming off and I stopped taking pictures. I didn’t want her to die. 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.

    Kim Phuc, who was 9 at the time of the onslaught, survived but lived with chronic pain as a result of her burns. In subsequent years, she underwent 17 operations. Eventually, she settled in Toronto after obtaining political asylum in Canada.

    As a teenager, Kim was full of resentment about her fate. "It built me up with hatred, bitterness, and anger," she recalled. "I just living with the question, why me. Why that happened to me? In 1982, I wanted to take my life, because I thought, after I die, no more suffer, no more pain."

    Shortly afterward, Kim converted to Christianity and found solace in the teachings of the New Testament. "I forgive everyone who caused my suffering, even the pilot, commander, people controlling me," she said. In subsequent years, she had a son and established a charitable foundation to help children affected by conflict.

    • Age: 59
    • Birthplace: Trảng Bàng District, Vietnam
    2,483 votes
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    1,489 VOTES

    The Man With The Flask On A Skyscraper Beam Went Home To Slovakia And Perished In A WWII Bombing

    The Man With The Flask On A Skyscraper Beam Went Home To Slovakia And Perished In A WWII Bombing
    Photo: Charles Clyde Ebbets / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    The famous 1932 photo of construction workers taking a lunch break atop a steel beam hundreds of feet in the air does not depict the Empire State Building under construction, as some have assumed. The workers are on the 69th floor of the unfinished RCA Center at Rockefeller Center (now colloquially known as 30 Rock). Also, the picture was staged to build publicity for the construction effort.

    It has taken quite a bit of detective work to uncover the identities of the men in the photos. The fellow on the far right was a Slovakian immigrant named Gustav Popovic, whose wife Mariska stayed in the home country while he came to the US to earn money. Popovic sent a postcard of the photo back to Mariska, with this note:

    Don’t you worry, my dear Mariska, as you can see I’m still with bottle. Your Gusti.

    The implication is the flask contains booze, although it's hard to know for sure. Popovic returned to Slovakia before WWII and used his money to buy farmland. Sadly, he did not survive the conflict. As Rebeka Jakubová of the Slovakian news site Startitup writes (translated via Google):

    Gusti returned home from America to Slovakia before WWII. With the money he earned, he bought forests and fields so he could farm. When the war ended and the front crossed Slavkov, he died during the bombing. He came out of the cellar, and as he walked to the house, he was killed by a grenade.

    1,489 votes
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    1,715 VOTES

    The Man Pointing A Gun At A Boy In The Warsaw Ghetto Was Executed In 1969

    The Man Pointing A Gun At A Boy In The Warsaw Ghetto Was Executed In 1969
    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    It's an indelible image of the Holocaust: A young boy stands with his hands up, an expression of terror on his face, while a German soldier stands nearby, a rifle held casually in his hands.

    The photo was taken during the liquidation of the Warsaw Ghetto by German troops in April and May of 1943, a response to the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, the most significant act of resistance by civilians under Third Reich rule. In a harsh reprisal, Germans cleared all Jews out of the city, slaying many, and deporting the rest to concentration camps. The photo is one of many included in an album that accompanied a report submitted by SS Gen. Jürgen Stroop to his superiors. "There is no longer a Jewish quarter in Warsaw," Stroop wrote in a caption in the album.

    The identity of the boy is not known, but it's speculated his age must have been under 10 years old, because that is the threshold below which Jewish children were not required to wear a Star of David on their outfit.

    The man has been identified as Josef Blösche, an SS soldier whose notorious cruelty earned him the nickname "Frankenstein." He surrendered to the Soviets in May 1945 and, after spending some time as a POW and later in a labor camp, settled in East Germany. In the 1960s, following the publication of the Stroop Report, Blösche's role was exposed, and he was detained by East German police. Found guilty of war crimes, he was executed on July 29, 1969.

    • Age: Dec. at 57 (1912-1969)
    • Birthplace: Frýdlant, Czech Republic
    1,715 votes
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    2,324 VOTES

    The Polish Girl Mourning Her Sister Survived Until 2020 And Never Forgave The Luftwaffe

    The Polish Girl Mourning Her Sister Survived Until 2020 And Never Forgave The Luftwaffe
    Photo: Julien Bryan / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    One of the most famous photos of WWII was taken just two weeks after the conflict started. It depicts a young girl, Kazimiera Mika (neé Kostewicz), kneeling in horror over the body of her sister Anna, who has just been strafed by a Luftwaffe fighter pilot.

    The photo (actually a still frame from a motion picture) was taken by Julien Bryan, an American photographer and filmmaker who had been documenting life in Poland and Third Reich Germany since the mid-1930s. When the conflict began, he made his way to Warsaw, where he continued his work as Poland fell under German rule. He assembled some footage into a short documentary that screened in the US in 1940. Bryan, who passed in 1974, recalled taking the picture:

    As we drove by a small field at the edge of town we were just a few minutes too late to witness a tragic event, the most incredible of all. Seven women had been digging potatoes in a field. There was no flour in their district, and they were desperate for food. Suddenly two German planes appeared from nowhere and dropped two bombs only 200 yards away on a small home. Two women in the house were killed. The potato diggers dropped flat upon the ground, hoping to be unnoticed. After the bombers had gone, the women returned to their work. They had to have food.

    But the [German] fliers were not satisfied with their work. In a few minutes they came back and swooped down to within 200 feet of the ground, this time raking the field with machine-gun fire. Two of the seven women were killed. The other five escaped somehow.

    While I was photographing the bodies, a little 10-year-old girl came running up and stood transfixed by one of the dead. The woman was her older sister. 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...

    Mika survived the conflict. She stayed in touch with Bryan, who returned to Warsaw in 1958 and again in 1974, shortly before he passed. Later, Bryan's son Sam continued the relationship, visiting her in 2019. Of the Luftwaffe pilots, she said, "I cannot, even after all these years, forgive them." Mika passed on August 28, 2020, at age 93, surviving her sister by almost 81 years.

    2,324 votes
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    1,160 VOTES

    Child Laborer Sadie Pfeifer Married At 17 And Succumbed To A Stroke At 51

    Photographer Lewis Hine, working for the National Child Labor Committee, took numerous photographs of children in unsafe or grueling conditions during the early years of the 20th century. Hine frequently had to go undercover to take the photos, which helped turn public opinion against exploitation of children, and his work led to new child labor legislation.

    One of his most famous subjects was Sadie Pfeifer, whom he photographed in 1908 at a cotton mill in Lancaster, SC. Pfeifer did not attend school beyond the second grade. She married at age 17 and had one child. In the 1920s and 1930s, Pfeifer continued to work in cotton mills. She passed of a cerebral hemorrhage in 1950, at age 51.

    In an interview decades later, Pfeifer's grandniece Vicki Pilkey related what family information had come down to her about her great-aunt. She said that, according to her father, Pfeifer "talked real slow and moved real slow." Asked about Pfeifer's early passing, Pilkey replied, "She worked all her life in the cotton mills, and that will age you."

    1,160 votes
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    1,486 VOTES

    The ‘Migrant Mother’ Was Identified In The ‘70s And Complained She Couldn’t ‘Get A Penny’ From The Photo

    The ‘Migrant Mother’ Was Identified In The ‘70s And Complained She Couldn’t ‘Get A Penny’ From The Photo
    Photo: Dorothea Lange / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    Dorothea Lange was documenting migrant farmworkers for the federal government's Resettlement Administration when she took this striking 1936 photo of a migrant woman and her two young children. As Lange recalled:

    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.

    Her face creased by premature lines, the woman seemed far older than her years; the photo became one of the indelible images of the Great Depression.

    The identity of the "migrant mother" went unknown for decades, until, in 1978, the woman herself wrote a letter to The Modesto Bee. Her name was Florence Owens Thompson. A full-blooded Cherokee, Thompson had supported her six children by picking cotton after the passing of her husband. She would have two more children by another man by the time Lange's photo of her was taken. She married George Thompson, a hospital administrator, after WWII and settled in Modesto, CA.

    Thompson's letter was picked up in an AP story titled "Woman Fighting Mad Over Famous Depression Photo." In the story, Thompson complained, "I wish she hadn’t taken my picture. I can’t get a penny out of it. She didn’t ask my name. She said she wouldn’t sell the pictures. She said she’d send me a copy. She never did."

    When, in 1983, the 79-year-old Thompson was suffering from cancer, her son Troy Owens told her story to the San Jose Mercury News. When the public learned of her plight, $35,000 in donations poured in to help her with medical expenses.

    In spite of the aid, Thompson perished that September. Still, her family was touched by the outpouring of support they had received. Owens recalled:

    None of us ever really understood how deeply Mama’s photo affected people. I guess we had only looked at it from our perspective. For Mama and us, the photo had always been a bit of curse. After all those letters came in, I think it gave us a sense of pride.

    • Age: Dec. at 80 (1903-1983)
    • Birthplace: Indian Territory
    1,486 votes