50 photos from history that show how powerful photography can be

Chad Verzosa

Since its inception, photography has played a significant role in recording and even in changing the course of history.

Photo by Neil Leifer, 1965

Now and then, we all encounter photos that are so gripping, they affect us on a personal level and are ingrained in our memory.

Take a look at our long list of iconic photographs and find out how they’ve influenced the way we see the world. You might have seen some of them before, but now it’s time to learn about the stories that make them unforgettable.

01. Man Being Arrested in France, unknown

Photographer unknown, 1847

Taken in 1847 using the Daguerreotype camera, the photo above is considered to be the very first news photo in the world. It depicts police officers arresting a man in France. In the coming years, cameras would be used more and more in the field of journalism and would prove to be indispensable in the field.

02. Valley of the Shadow of Death, Roger Fenton

Photo by Roger Fenton, 1855

Many view Roger Fenton as the first war photographer, and the photo above is one of his most famous photographs. Titled “Valley of the Shadow of Death,” the image features dozens of cannonballs strewn across the road. When another version of this picture without the cannonballs appeared years later, people began to question its authenticity.

03. Hand mit Ringen (Hand with Rings), Wilhelm Röntgen

Photo by Wilhelm Röntgen, 1895

Although other scientists were already aware of the existence of X-rays in the late 1880s, Wilhelm Röntgen was the one responsible for producing and detecting them in a controlled setting. He purportedly took thousands of x-ray images of his wife Anna Bertha Ludwig’s hand, and the photo above, presented to the Physik Institut, became the most well-known.

04. The Steerage, Alfred Stieglitz

Photo by Alfred Stieglitz, 1907

The Steerage may seem unexceptional to the modern viewer, but experts recognize this photo as revolutionary. Back then, the prevalent practice for photographers was to stage their shots to make them look like paintings. However, Alfred Stieglitz, an early progenitor of photography, pushed the boundaries of the artform by capturing The Steerage. Through his work, he proved that photos taken of real life could also be considered art.

05. Child Laborer, Lewis Hine

Photo by Lewis Hine, 1908

Lewis Wickes Hine was among the first photographers who used images to push for social reform. Disguised as a bible salesman, he traveled the country to take photographs of child laborers working in harsh conditions. His revealing work would later pave the way for new laws banning child labor.

06. Behind the Gare Saint-Lazare, Henri Cartier-Bresson

Photo by Henri Cartier-Bresson, 1932

A pioneering master of photography, Henri Cartier-Bresson was renowned for his timing and composition. He had taken thousands of photographs throughout his life, and “Behind the Gare Saint-Lazare” is arguably among the most recognized. The man suspended mid-air as he jumps across a puddle perfectly represents “The Decisive Moment,” which Cartier-Bresson himself coined.

07. Men at Lunch atop a Skyscraper, unknown

Photographer unknown, 1932

This photo of workers taking their lunch on a beam of an unfinished Rockefeller Center was, in truth, a publicity stunt for newspapers. The subjects were asked to pose for several photos, including one where the same men take their hats off, and another one showing four of the workers taking a casual nap on the beam. Shot during the depression where people were struggling to find jobs, many saw this photo as a sign for a bright future for the United States.

08. Hitler at a Nazi Party Rally, Heinrich Hoffman

Photo by Heinrich Hoffman, 1934

With fondness for spectacle, Hitler hired filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl and photographer Heinrich Hoffman to ensure his propaganda films and photographs were as grand as his ambitions. As the Fuhrer's personal photographer, Hoffman depicted Hitler almost as an infallible, god-sent ruler. His photos proved quite persuasive for the Germans and quite unnerving for the rest of the world.

09. Falling Soldier, Robert Capa

Photo by Robert Capa, 1936

Robert Capa was a pioneering war photographer and among the founders of the famed agency, Magnum Photos. Although war photography started in the late 1800s, the Falling Soldier is widely regarded by many as the model for modern war photography. In the late 1970s, however, the legacy of the photograph was tainted when rumors began to spread that the photograph was staged.

10. Migrant Mother, Dorothea Lange

Photo by Dorothea Lange, 1936

Shot during the great depression by Dorothea Lange, this image of a migrant mother and her children became a symbol of one of the harshest periods in the history of the United States. Just days after the San Francisco News published Lange’s pictures, the camp where the photographer took the photos received 20,000 pounds of food. Unfortunately, by the time aid came, the mother and her family had already left to find work near Watsonville, California.

11. The Hindenburg Disaster, Sam Shere

Photo by Sam Shere, 1937

On May 6 1937, photographer Sam Sheer, along with several other media men at the N.J. Naval Air Station, witnessed one of the most spectacular aviation disasters in history. As the passenger airship Hindenburg finished its long journey from Frankfurt, it suddenly burst into flames. Despite the sheer horror, Sheer took pictures of the tragedy and produced the iconic image above. Featured in several publications around the world, Sheer’s dramatic photo would mark the end of the airship era. Many decades later, it would also become the cover of one of the albums of the rock band, Led Zeppelin.

12. Portrait of Winston Churchill, Yousuf Karsh

Photo by Yousuf Karsh, 1941

The reason Winston Churchill looks rather displeased in this famous portrait is that Yousuf Karsh took his cigar off his hand before taking the picture. After pressing the shutter, the prime minister told Karsh that “[he] can even make a lion stand still for a photograph.” This moment unintentionally started a trend that gave way to more casual and honest photos of famous leaders and even celebrities in the years to come.

13. The Tetons and the Snake River, Ansel Adams

Photo by Ansel Adams, 1942

Ansel Adams is touted as one of the most influential photographers of his time. He has a lot of exemplary photographs under his name, but The Tetons Range and the Snake River is arguably one of his best. Like many of his images, it shows his masterful ability to create beautiful tones and contrast in black and white photos. His scenic landscapes inspired generations of photographers to pick up a camera and explore the outdoors.

14. The Critic, Weegee

Photo by Weegee, 1943

Weegee may have been a pioneering press photographer in the 1930s and 40s, but he was no stranger to staging photos. In one of his most celebrated images, he asked his assistant to grab a drunk woman from a bar to take to the Metropolitan Opera House during its Diamond Jubilee event. As soon as New York socialites Lady Decies and Mrs. George Washington Kavanaugh arrived at the opera, Weegee’s assistant shoved the drunk woman into Weegee’s frame, creating the iconic photograph. Since this was taken during the depression when millions of Americans struggled with poverty, it came to represent the stark economic inequalities in the United States at the time (and perhaps even to this day).

15. D-Day, Robert Capa

Photo by Robert Capa, 1944

Capa’s second entry on the list, D-Day is among the most recognized images in his long career. Shot during the allied invasion in Normandy, the blurriness of the photo wasn't created in-camera but was due to a mistake made by a technician while developing. The result, however, made it more engaging as it evokes the chaos and confusion of the battle.

16. Raising a Flag over the Reichstag, Yevgeny Khaldei

Photo by Yevgeny Khaldei, 1945

When Yevgeny Khaldei reached Berlin in 1944, he asked his fellow soldiers to climb the historic Reichstag Building and raise the Soviet Flag his uncle made for him out of tablecloths. The image would become a symbol of Russia’s triumph over Germany after a bloody campaign that took hundreds of thousands of lives. Other versions of this photo included smoke in the background and looted watches edited out of soldiers’ wrists.

17. Yalta Conference, unknown

Photo by unidentified U.S. military photographer, 1945

This famous photograph of "The Big Three" was taken during the Yalta Conference in 1945. The meeting between Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin was promising as they discussed rebuilding Europe after the war. However, when the Cold War ensued years later, Russia broke ties with the United States and Great Britain. The three leaders were never photographed in public again.

18. Iwo Jima, Joe Rosenthal

Photo by Joe Rosenthal, 1945

After battling the Japanese for almost a month, Joe Rosenthal took this photo of a group of soldiers triumphantly raising the American Flag on Mount Suribachi in Iwo Jima. The image would later be used by the U.S. Military and government extensively for various promotions. To this day, it’s found in a variety of print materials such as posters and postage stamps. The picture also inspired the U.S. Marine Corps War Memorial in Arlington, Virginia.

19. Mushroom Cloud over Nagasaki, Charles Levy

Photo by Charles Levy, 1945

Taken by Charles Levy inside a B-29 aircraft, the Mushroom Cloud over Nagasaki revealed to the world—for the first time—the destruction caused by atomic weapons. Because of the bright light generated by the explosion, Levy and the crew had to use welding goggles to witness the moment thousands of feet in the air. Six days after the bomb in Nagasaki was dropped, Japan announced its surrender.

20. V-J Day in Times Square, Alfred Eisenstaedt

Photo by Alfred Eisenstaedt, 1945

Two photographers—Alfred Eisenstaedt and Victor Jorgensen—were present to photograph this unforgettable moment between a sailor and a nurse in Times Square. However, since Eisenstaedt's version had a better angle, it achieved more notoriety than Jorgensen’s. Through the years, several individuals claimed they were one of the subjects in the image, but to this day, the couple remains unidentified.

21. Gandhi and the Spinning Wheel, Margaret Bourke-White

Photo by Margaret Bourke-White, 1946

During Gandhi’s prison stint in Pune, India in 1946, Bourke-White visited and photographed him making his own wardrobe with a portable spinning wheel. As the peaceful rebel urged his countrymen to create their own clothes instead of buying British products, the spinning wheel inevitably became a symbol of resistance.

22. Dali Atomicus, Philippe Halsman

Photo by Philippe Halsman, 1948

Salvador Dali and Philippe Halsman were frequent collaborators throughout their careers, and the Dali Atomicus is undoubtedly one of their most significant contributions to the art world. Like any masterpiece, it required a lot of work to create. Assistants, including Halsman’s wife and daughter, threw cats and water 26 times before they got it right.

23. The Kiss by the Hotel de Ville, Robert Doisneau

Photo by Robert Doisneau, 1950

Immortalized by Doisneau in 1950, many consider “The Kiss” to be one of the most romantic photographs ever taken. Decades since it was taken, the French photographer’s daughter revealed that the scene was staged—the kissing couple was, in fact, Doisneau’s actor friends.

24. Albert Einstein’s 72nd Birthday, Arthur Sasse

Photo by Arthur Sasse, 1951

Albert Einstein had already been a celebrity for many years when Arthur Sasse took this photo on his 72nd birthday. Tired of always smiling in front of the camera, Einstein stuck his tongue out as Sasse pressed the shutter. The famous scientist apparently loved the photo so much that he asked for nine copies when he saw the print.

25. From Here to Eternity, Irving Lipmann

Photo by Irving Lipmann, 1953

The scene where Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr are rolling around the sand while kissing is probably one of the most imitated and parodied in movie history. Tasked to produce the movie's poster, Irving Lippman took a photo of the actors in the same scene, freezing one of the most unforgettable moments in cinema.

26. Marilyn Monroe Posing in Front of Cameras at the “7 Year Itch” Shoot, Corpus Christi Caller-Times

Photo from Corpus Christi Caller-Times, 1954

The movie “7 Year Itch” is one of Marilyn Monroe’s most successful films, and this photo of her posing in front of journalists is arguably among her most iconic. Studio shots show her doing the same pose, but it’s her candidness in this particular image that makes it more memorable. This famous moment has been recreated numerous times in other photographs, paintings, sculptures, and even films.

27. Dovima with Elephants, Richard Avedon

Photo by Richard Avedon, August 1955

In an era where models just stood still like mannequins, Richard Avedon redefined the rules by taking this highly influential photo. Posing the famous model Dovima in an evening dress by Dior among elephants at the Cirque d’Hiver in Paris, his revolutionary idea to put grace and movement in the forefront helped define fashion photography for years to come.

28. Milk Drop Coronet, Harold Edgerton

Photo by Harold Edgerton, 1957

Harold Edgerton didn’t think of himself as a brilliant photographer, but some of his images are undoubtedly among the most radical. Known as “Doc” to his friends and colleagues, he was an electrical-engineering professor at MIT who happened to be obsessed with high-speed photography. Some of his famous works include a bullet ripping through a playing card and a multiple-exposure shot of a golfer swinging a club. Although he was responsible for hundreds of impressive photos, nothing will ever eclipse his “Milk Drop Coronet,” a beautiful display of perfection and symmetry only a meticulous engineer like Edgerton can achieve.

29. Guerillero Heroico, Alberto Korda

Photo by Alberto Korda, 1960

Alberto Korda could never have imagined that his portrait of Che Guevara would also become a commercial icon found on everything, from murals to t-shirts. The photo was taken in 1960, but it wasn’t until the revolutionary died several years later that it was widely disseminated and took hold of people’s collective psyche.

30. Case Study House No. 22, Julius Shulman

Photo by Julius Shulman, 1960

Shot in 1960, Julius Shulman’s photo of Pierre Koenig’s Stahl House in Los Angeles can convince anyone that sharp angles and glass walls can be just as sexy as they are contemporary. The image’s importance in history lies in how it helped shift people’s taste in real estate. With a sleek interior that overlooks the sprawling L.A. skyline, it teased everyone with a new way of perceiving modernist architecture.

31. Muhammad Ali vs. Sonny Liston, Neil Leifer

Photo by Neil Leifer, 1965

Anyone who dreams of greatness can easily relate to this photo taken by Neil Leifer in 1965. Shot after Ali knocked out Liston during their second fight, it would become one of the most recognizable sports photos in history. John Rooney, another photographer who was beside Leifer, took a similar photograph of the moment, but in black and white.

32. Spacewalk, Alexey Leonov

Photo by Alexey Leonov, 1965

Alex Leonov was the first man to perform the first-ever spacewalk, and it took almost 13 minutes to accomplish. His primary task was to install a camera to the airlock, which he did successfully, and trigger another one mounted on his chest. However, by the time he tried to take a photo using the camera attached to him, his spacesuit had inflated so much that he couldn’t even reach the shutter. Eventually, the cosmonaut had to depressurize his suit just so he could get back into his capsule to save his life.

33. The Ultimate Confrontation: The Flower and the Bayonet, Marc Riboud

Photo by Marc Riboud, 1967

Taken by Marc Riboud during a peaceful march decrying the United State’s involvement in Vietnam, this photo has become an enduring symbol for anti-war protests. However, the moment Riboud documented wasn’t an isolated case. During the demonstration, several other protesters were witnessed placing flowers into the barrels of soldiers’ rifles, including a young man that became the subject of Bernie Boston’s Pulitzer-nominated picture.

34. Earthrise, Bill Anders

Photo by Bill Anders, 1968

The first photo of the Earthrise was taken by the Lunar Orbiter 1 in 1966 and was in black and white. What makes the Earthrise of 1968 more captivating is that it’s in color, and astronaut Bill Anders took it during the Apollo 8 Mission. Renowned adventure photographer, Galen Rowell, called the image “the most influential environmental photograph ever taken.”

35. Bootprint on the Lunar Surface, NASA

Photo by NASA, 1969

Buzz Aldrin’s bootprint, created during the first lunar expedition in July 20, 1969, is a testament to one of humankind’s most significant achievements. Due to the lack of atmosphere, it’s likely that the print still exists on the surface of the moon today. Some even estimate that it could last for as long as 2 million years. Hopefully, that’s enough time before a new set of human explorers rediscovers it.

36. The Beatles on Abbey Road, Iain MacMillan

Photo by Iain MacMillan, 1969

Tasked to create the album cover for the popular Beatles album, Iain MacMillan took the band to Abbey Road in August of 1969 to create the now-iconic photo. For ten minutes, he produced six pictures as a policeman redirected the traffic. The image would become one of the most popular and most recognized in the history of music industry. To this day, many fans still visit the pedestrian lane on Abbey Road to recreate the shot.

37. Windblown Jackie, Ron Galella

Photo by Ron Galella, 1971

Ron Galella pursued celebrities even before the term paparazzi became popular, and one of his favorite subjects was Jackie O. He followed her around so much that she had to obtain a restraining order against him. The photographer took thousands of photos of President Kennedy’s widow, but none of them are as candid and graceful as the “Windblown Jackie.” Thanks to Galella’s success in the industry, the newer generations of paparazzi adopted his aggressive approach that still persists today.

38. Viking 1’s First Image of Mars, NASA

Photo by NASA, 1976

No one really knew what the Martian surface looked like until NASA’s Viking 1 Lander took a photo of it in 1976. Apart from photographic documentation, the Lander’s objectives included obtaining samples of the planet’s soil and atmosphere, as well as looking for evidence of life. Although it didn’t find any curious Martians walking around during its mission, the images from Viking 1 didn’t fail to capture people’s imaginations.

39. Molotov Man, Susan Meiselas

Photo by Susan Meiselas, 1979

Photographed by Susan Meiselas during her six-week journey across Nicaragua, the Molotov Man became the country’s very own symbol for its struggle. After just a day since the image was taken, President Anastasio Somoza Debayle escaped Nicaragua, allowing the rebels to overtake the government.

40. Nicaragua, James Nachtwey

Photo by James Nachtwey, 1984

Five years since the end of President Somoza’s dictatorship, renowned war photographer James Nachtwey revisited Nicaragua and took this photo. The image of a child playing on an abandoned tank relays a hopeful message, but in truth, the struggle continued for Nicaraguans for almost ten more years. When Somoza left in 1979, the Sandinistas (Leftist rebels) and Contras (Rightist groups) engaged in a bitter civil war which took thousands of lives and left deep scars in the Nicaraguan society.

41. Afghan Girl, Steve McCurry

Photo by Steve McCurry, 1984

When the photo of the Afghan Girl graced the cover of National Geographic in its June 1985 issue, she captured the world with her piercing green eyes and her plight as a refugee. Her identity, however, remained a mystery for many years. In 2002, Steve McCurry, along with a National Geographic production team, returned to Afghanistan to look for her. When they found Sharbat Gula, she was already 30 years old and married.

42. Michael Jordan, Co Rentmeester

Photo taken by Co Rentmeester, 1984

Not too many people may remember this photo, but almost everyone is familiar with the Jumpman logo based on it. Initially shot by Co Rentmeester in 1984 for Life Magazine, Nike offered the photographer a 2-year limited license for the images. When the first Air Jordan shoes that featured the Jumpman logo was released in 1989, it had already been two years since the license expired. In 2015, the sports photographer filed a lawsuit against the shoe company for copyright infringement, but the case was dismissed a few months later.

43. Tank Man, Jeff Widener

Photo by Jeff Widener, 1989

In 1989, students, workers, and other civilian groups staged pro-democracy protests in Beijing that lasted more than a month. Unable to quell the demonstrations, the government declared Martial Law, sending troops and tanks to several places in the capital, including Tiananmen Square. Taken by Jeff Widener from a hotel room, the photo features an unidentified man standing in front of the tanks to prevent the convoy from advancing. To this day, this image is banned in the country.

44. Pillars of Creation, NASA

Photo from the Hubble Space Telescope, NASA, 1995

Taken by NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope in 1995, this majestic photo of the Eagle Nebula shows pillars of dust and gases produced by new stars being created. Originally made up of 32 images, the final picture above was assembled by Jeff Hester and Paul Scowen of Arizona State University. Hubble’s ability to observe and photograph various space phenomena has made it indispensable in astronomy, and the Pillars of Creation is among the best photographs it has ever contributed to science and mankind.

45. Firefighters Raising the American Flag at Ground Zero, Thomas E. Franklin

Photo by Thomas E. Franklin, 2001

Taken in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, this image of three firefighters raising the flag on top of the Twin Towers’ debris is often compared to Joe Rosenthal’s iconic Iwo Jima photo. Franklin’s photo is among the most recognized photos of 9/11 along with Richard Drew’s “The Falling Man” and Stan Honda’s “The Dust Lady.”

46. A Young Afghan Woman Shows Her Face, Yannis Behrakis

Photo by Yannis Behrakis, 2001

During the Taliban’s decades-long rule in Afghanistan, all women were required to cover themselves from head to toe with burqas. After the country’s capital, Kabul, was liberated from the fundamentalist group by Afghan and U.S. led forces in 2001, a young Afghan woman briefly revealed her face to Yannis Behrakis for a photo. It was a brave act of defiance seen around the world.

47. Coffin Ban, Tami Silicio

Photo by Tami Silicio, 2004

Beginning in 1991, journalists were banned by the U.S government from photographing coffins of dead troops due to privacy issues. However, in 2004, a government contractor, Tami Silicio, decided to break the law and secretly took a photo of the 20 coffins she saw on a cargo plane. The image was later printed on the front page of Seattle Times, sparking debates concerning the ethics of its publishing, as well as America’s involvement in the war.

48. Gorilla in the Congo, Brent Stirton

Photo by Brent Stirton, 2007

While shooting on assignment for Newsweek in war-torn Congo, Brent Stirton found out about several critically-endangered mountain gorillas murdered in Virunga National Park. The photographer then followed around locals as they transported the dead animals through the jungle on makeshift wooden stretchers. A few months after Stirton’s photo was published, Congo and eight other African countries signed a treaty to protect Virunga’s gorillas.  

49. Terri Gurrola and Her Daughter Gaby, Louie Favorite

Photo by Louie Favorite, 2007

Taken in Atlanta International Airport during Captain Gurrola’s mid-tour break from Iraq, this emotional photo perfectly captures the deep emotions military servicemen feel for their families before and after deployment. Apart from appearing in various publications, this image has also been seen in public spaces and even in a life insurance commercial.

50. The Silence Breakers, Billy and Hells

Photo by Billy & Hells for Time Magazine, 2017

In December 2017, Time Magazine made “The Silence Breakers” its Person of the Year, featuring individuals of different backgrounds who bravely spoke against rape and sexual harassment. The magazine cover shows celebrities and regular citizens in the same room, wearing black outfits and assuming defiant postures. But, perhaps, the most interesting element in the photo is an elbow of an unidentified person representing those who have not revealed themselves as victims, yet.It’s been almost 200 years since the invention of photography, yet our desire to capture what's happening around us has not diminished. As photography increasingly becomes more democratized, creating influential images won't just be limited to photographers, scientists, artists, and journalists anymore. In the next few years, it wouldn’t be surprising to see a celebrated image taken by John Doe next to Robert Capa or Henri Cartier-Bresson's work. Perhaps the greatest legacy of photography is giving everyone the power to change the world—one image at a time.