20th Century Photos That Changed the World

20th Century Photos That Changed the World

John killerlane - August 23, 2018

The sixteen photos which feature in this list may vary in their content and the emotional response that they elicit, but they all have one thing in common – they are as remarkable as they are captivating. They cover themes of war and politics, love and hate, peace and violence as well as life and death. These photos achieved both national and international fame and acclaim. Prepare to be amazed by theses award-winning photographs.

20th Century Photos That Changed the World
“The Kiss” listverse.com

1. “The Kiss” taken directly after Japan’s surrender is one of the world’s most recognized photos… But these days there is a different message.

One of the most famous images of the 20th century captures a jubilant scene following Japan’s surrender which brought an end to the Second World War. A sailor, George Mendonsa, grabs a nurse, Greta Zimmer Friedman, and passionately kisses her. The image is captured by Life magazine photographer Alfred Eisenstaedt and later features in the magazine. However, all is not quite what it seems at first glance. It turns out that Zimmer Friedman was a complete stranger to Mendonsa and that in the euphoria of the moment he had grabbed her and planted that famous kiss on her lips.
Mendonsa had served in the Second World War and at the time was at home on leave. He was due to report back for duty later that day. Beforehand Mendonsa went on a date with his future wife, Rita Perry. They went to Radio City Music Hall to watch a matinee movie when about halfway through, the lights came on and they were informed that the war was over, that the Japanese had surrendered. They went into a nearby bar to celebrate. Reflecting on the occasion, Mendonsa said that he was “popping the booze and everyone was half bombed.”
They move on to Times Square where Mendonsa spots a group of nurses and he has a flashback to the aftermath of a kamikaze attack on an aircraft carrier, the USS Bunker Hill, and how the nurses treated and cared for the wounded following the attack. With that memory fresh in his mind and admittedly a little intoxicated by alcohol and the euphoria of the moment he grabbed Zimmer Friedman and kissed her. Eisenstaedt just happened to be in the right place at the right time to capture the iconic image. Eisenstaedt admitted later that had Mendonsa being wearing a white uniform and Zimmer Friedman wearing black then he would never have taken the photo.
More recent commentary on the image and applying today’s standards of social behaviour has led some to suggest that the image should not be glorified as it captures what could be considered a sexual assault. However, Zimmer Friedman and Mendonsa later became friends and despite the inappropriateness of his actions, Zimmer Friedman acknowledged it in the context of time and the elation felt at the end of the war.

20th Century Photos That Changed the World
American forces raising flag on Iwo Jima, February 23, 1945. listverse.com

2. American forces raising the flag at Iwo Jima… but many don’t know that this picture captures the second raising of the flag that day.

At the beginning of 1945, Iwo Jima was under Japanese control. The island was of strategic importance and value to the United States Army as it could potentially serve as a base for U.S. fighter planes to accompany U.S. heavy bombers en route from bases in Saipan. Between February 19-21, 1945, two U.S. Marine divisions landed on the island, who were followed by a third division later that month. Japanese forces had entrenched themselves in caves on the island which had offered protection from preliminary U.S. air and naval bombardment.
After a month-long battle American forces took control of the island. Two of the hardest fought battles were for possession of “Meatgrinder Hill” in the north and Mount Suribachi, an extinct volcano in the south. It was on the latter where one of the most iconic photos of the Pacific War was taken. Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal’s Pulitzer Prize award-winning photograph captured the moment that American soldiers were raising the American flag on Mount Suribachi on Friday, February 23, 1945.
Rosenthal’s image actually captured the second raising of an American flag on Mount Suribachi. The original American flag that was flying was too small to be seen by U.S. troops from different parts of the island so it was replaced by a much larger American flag. Rosenthal’s photo captures the fives marines and a navy corpsman raising the larger replacement flag. The image was widely reproduced and featured on a war-bond poster which raised $26 billion in 1945. Within a few months of being taken the image was emblazoned on a U.S. postage stamp on July 11, 1945. Nine years later the Marine Corps War Memorial in Arlington, Va modelled a commemorative statue after Rosenthal’s photo.
So impressive was Rosenthal’s image that the Pulitzer panel made an exception for the photo (under normal circumstances only journalistic work from the previous calendar year would be considered for the prize). Rosenthal was awarded the Pulitzer prize just two months after taking the photo.

20th Century Photos That Changed the World
“Wait for me, daddy.” rarehistoricalphotos.com

3. “Wait for me, Daddy” is a touching example of a soldier’s sacrifice in WWII, however, it does not have a fairytale ending.

This charming photo entitled “Wait for me, Daddy” was taken by The Province photographer, Claude P. Dettloff on October 1, 1940. It captures the moment when five-year-old Warren “Whitey” Bernard rushes from his mother’s side to his father, Jack Bernard, who is leaving to fight in the Second World War. The touching moment illustrates perfectly the sacrifice these men made in serving their country, leaving their families behind and risking their lives. (Note in the photo that Jack has his right hand stretched out to his young son, having switched his rifle to his other hand, and how all of the other soldiers in the line have their weapons in their right hands.)
The regiment in question are The British Colombia Regiment (Duke of Connaught’s Own Rifles) and are pictured marching down Eighth Street at the Colombia Street intersection, New Westminster, Canada. The photo received a lot of media exposure, it featured in Life magazine and was used to promote war bonds at the time. The City of New Westminster unveiled a statue depicting the photo in 2014 and the Royal Canadian Mint issued three coins featuring the image. Canada Post also issued a commemorative stamp based on the photo.
Jack and the rest of the army regiment were sent first to Nanaimo in Canada, before serving overseas in the European Theatre. Happily, Jack returned safely home in October 1945 and the photo below captures the moment father and son were reunited.

20th Century Photos That Changed the World
Father and son reunited. rarehistoricalphotos.com

Sadly, the story does not quite have a “happily ever after” fairy-tale ending. Jack’s decision to go overseas to fight in England put a strain on his marriage to Bernice and they ultimately ended up divorcing not long after his return. Both went on to remarry and Jack had another two children. He passed away in 1981 aged 75.

20th Century Photos That Changed the World
“The Terror of War.” cnnespanol.com

4. “The Terror of War” captures a moment that would become iconic for the anti-napalm rhetoric during the Vietnam War.

The fact that the Vietnam War was broadcast widely on television, meant that the true horror of napalms devastating effects was seen by the public and became one of the key factors in shifting public opinion against its use in combat. Napalm was seen as a particularly inhumane weapon. Due to its adhesive properties, it stuck to human flesh, causing deep burns. Smothering the flame was the only effective way to extinguish the fire. Trying to wipe it off only spread the burning material and expanded the burn area. Over 85% of napalm burn victims experience fourth-degree burns to the deepest hypodermic layer and fifth-degree burns which burn right down to the muscle. Secondary effects of napalm include burns in the upper part of the windpipe from heat fumes, as well as carbon monoxide poisoning, shock, mental disorder and nervous prostration.
Perhaps, Nick Ut’s 1973 Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph, “The Terror of War” best encapsulates why napalm came to be so reviled during the conflict. On June 8, 1972, Associated Press photographer Nick Ut captured the iconic image of a naked and badly burned nine-year-old girl, Phan Thi Kim Phuc, fleeing a napalm attack by South Vietnamese forces following a “friendly fire” incident. The expression of agony and terror on that little girl’s face revealed the true horror of napalm’s effects on its victims.
Ut recalls how he had seen a group of children running down the highway toward him in terror. After Ut took his iconic image, he tended to Kim Phuc’s wounds. He poured water over her body, before taking her to a hospital, where he discovered that she had sustained third-degree burns covering thirty percent of her body and was told that she might not survive. Ut, with the help of his colleagues, transferred Kim Phuc to an American treatment facility which ultimately saved her life. Kim Phuc underwent seventeen operations and lay in a coma for six months and spent a total of fourteen months in hospital. Kim Phuc became a potent symbol of civilian suffering during the Vietnam War and the horrible reality of napalm as an indiscriminate weapon.

20th Century Photos That Changed the World
“Faith and Confidence.” listverse.com

5. “Faith and Confidence” becomes iconic image for police.

Another award-winning photograph, this one taken by William C. Beall of the Washington (DC) Daily News, entitled Faith and Confidence. Beall captured the charming moment when policeman Maurice Cullinane leans down to talk to two-year-old Allan Weaver during a Chinese New Year parade in Washington, D.C. on September 10, 1957. Little Allan, fascinated by the exploding fireworks was trying to get nearer and Officer Cullinane was explaining to him why it was unsafe to do so.
The photo made the front page of the Washington Daily News the following day and later made the back page of Life magazine. The image became the logo for the D.C. Police Boys Club. A life-size statue depicting the photo was placed outside the courthouse in Jonesboro, Ga. Cullinane came from a background of law enforcement, his father, grandfather and two uncles had been policemen too. When the photo was captured, Cullinane was fairly new to the force, having been a policeman for about a year. He went on to have a successful career in the force and became Chief of Police in 1974. Weaver went on to work in the entertainment industry and at one stage worked as personal assistant to Orson Welles for two years.
Interestingly, Beall was on Iwo Jima in 1945, when his colleague Joe Rosenthal captured the moment when the marines and navy corpsman raised the flag on Mount Suribachi. Unfortunately for Beall, he was at the other end of the island so he missed out on capturing that particular moment. Fortunately for Beall, he was in the right place at the right time to capture the endearing moment between Cullinane and Weaver. Faith and Confidence won Beall the Pulitzer Prize for Photography in 1958.

20th Century Photos That Changed the World
“The Falling Man.” listverse.com

6. “The Falling Man” caught a glimpse of desperation during one of the United States’ greatest tragedies.

Richard Drew, a photographer for the Associated Press was on assignment on the morning of September 11, 2001, taking photos at a maternity fashion shoot, when he was informed of a plane hitting one of the Twin Towers. He immediately left and took the subway across the city. By the time he arrived the second plane had struck the second tower. As he stood between a policeman and an emergency technician and watched the horror unfold he witnessed people jumping to their deaths from the burning towers.
Drew pointed his camera at a man falling to his death and took nine to twelve shots. He had taken approximately ten to fifteen more of these type of sequence shots of people falling to their deaths when the South Tower collapsed. He grabbed a mask from a nearby ambulance and continued to take pictures. He captured the North Tower exploding and raining down debris on those on the ground. Drew decided it was too dangerous to stay any longer and made his way back to the Associated Press newsroom where he viewed the images he had captured on that fateful morning.
The frame showing a man falling upside down stood out from all the others captured that morning. It was an image that immortalised the desperation of the situation for those trapped at the top of the Twin Towers after the attack. They were faced with a horrible dilemma, where jumping was the lesser of the two evils. The photo appeared in The New York Times the following day and featured in hundreds of newspapers both nationally and internationally. There has been much speculation as to the identity of the Falling Man but he has never been formally identified. He is believed to be Jonathon Briley, who worked on the 106th Floor of the North Tower for Windows of the World.

20th Century Photos That Changed the World
Ruby Bridges escorted by U.S. Marshalls for her protection. listverse.com

7. “Ruby Bridges” photograph shows historic moment for civil rights activism.

The little girl in this photo is Ruby Bridges, who was born in Tylertown, Mississippi on September 8, 1954 (coincidentally the same year that the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that “racial segregation in public schools violated the Fourteenth Amendment”). When she was two years old the Bridges family moved to New Orleans. It was there, on November 14, 1960, where Ruby became the first African-American child to attend an all-white public elementary school in the American South.
Ruby’s attendance at the William Frantz School heightened the racial divide prevalent in a segregated society so much so, that for her protection, she had to be escorted to school by U.S. Marshalls. On Ruby’s first day a mob of protestors was gathered outside of the William Frantz School. Nearly all of the parents of the other children who attended the school had kept their children at home in protest to Ruby’s admission. As a result, no classes were to be held on her first day.
Ruby was escorted by the U.S. Marshalls to the principal’s office and spent the day there. More protests followed on Ruby’s second day. A woman threatened to poison Ruby and from then on Ruby was only allowed to eat food she brought with her from home. Another woman brought a coffin with a black doll inside. Only one of the teachers, at the William Frantz School, Barbara Henry, was willing to teach Ruby. For the rest of the school year, Ruby was Mrs. Henry’s only student as the protests continued. Mrs. Henry not only taught her but supported her through that difficult year.
The response by the school was not to renew Mrs. Henry’s contract when it ended at the completion of the school year. Thankfully, things took a turn for the better the following school year. Parents started sending their children back to the school. Ruby had classmates. The nightmare of the first year was behind her. Ruby went on to become a civil rights activist and established the Ruby Bridges Foundation in 1999 “to promote tolerance and create change through education.”

20th Century Photos That Changed the World
Zbigniew Religa and exhausted colleague following a successful 23-hour heart transplant surgery. listverse.com

8. Zbigniew Religa, first cardiologist to perform heart transplant – even with outdated equipment.

Yet another award-winning photograph, this one taken by James Stanfield in 1987 and published in National Geographic. It shows cardiac surgeon, Zbigniew Religa, sitting and monitoring a patient’s vitals, following a successful twenty-three-hour heart transplant operation. In the background his assistant is slumped in the corner, exhausted. Religa had to make do with outdated equipment to perform the transplant as it was conducted during a time of free healthcare in Poland, which had left the health service inadequately funded.
Religa studied medicine in New York and Detroit and later lectured and worked in Warsaw, Poland. He became the first cardiologist to perform a heart transplant in Poland. Religa was considered a pioneer of medical technology and in 1995 he successfully manufactured an artificial valve which he pieced together from human corpses. Following his notable accomplishments achieved in his medical career, Religa switched to a career in politics. He served as a senator for twelve years and then as Poland’s Minister for Health for two years. Religa died in 2009, aged 70.

20th Century Photos That Changed the World
Evelyn McHale, taken just four minutes after she had committed suicide. listverse.com

9. Evelyn McHale tragically jumped to her death and photography student snapped a shot of the aftermath. The media called it the “most beautiful suicide”.

Photography student Robert Wiles took this infamous photo just four minutes after Evelyn McHale had committed suicide by jumping from the Observation Deck on the 86th floor of the Empire State Building. Times magazine called it the “most beautiful suicide.” The day before, McHale had travelled by train to celebrate her fiancé’s birthday on April 30th, 1947. Afterward, McHale was said to be in “good spirits” as she departed. (Some reports suggest that McHale had, in fact, ended their relationship the previous day.)
McHale left a suicide note at the Observation Deck which stated: “My fiance asked me to marry him in June. I don’t think I would make a good wife for anybody. He is much better off without me. Tell my father, I have too many of my mother’s tendencies.”
McHale stated in her suicide note that she did not want “anyone in or out of my family to see any part of me” and asked, “Could you destroy my body by cremation.” Wiles infamous photo and its subsequent publication in Life and Times magazine denied McHale her wish. The photo also inspired a print by Andy Warhol, entitled Suicide, (Fallen Body).

20th Century Photos That Changed the World
“War is Hell.” rarehistoricalphotos.com

10. “War is Hell” – the photograph that said it all in the Vietnam Era.

One of the most iconic photos of the Vietnam War, taken by Associated Press photographer Horst Faas on June 18, 1965. The photo has a way of drawing you in to focus on the handsome young soldiers smiling face before you see the handwritten words on his helmet, “WAR IS HELL.” The soldier in question was unidentified for decades but was later revealed to be Larry Wayne Chaffin, who was just nineteen years old when the photo was taken.
Chaffin began serving with the 173rd Airborne Brigade Battalion in May 1965, and at the time of the photo was on defence duty at Phuoc Vinh airstrip in South Vietnam. When Chaffin’s wife Fran greeted him at the airport following his discharge from the Army, he had with him the issue of Stars and Stripes magazine which had published the now-iconic photo. Chaffin remarked to Fran that someday that photo would make him rich. Unfortunately, this never came to pass. Chaffin struggled to reintegrate into civilian society after the Vietnam War and suffered from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. He was just 39 when he died from diabetes-related complications.

20th Century Photos That Changed the World
Astronaut Buzz Aldrin stands beside the American flag on the surface of the moon, 1969. telegraph.co.uk

11. “Man on the Moon” remains iconic image despite conspiracy theories.

A sizable percentage of Americans (some polls have suggested as many as 20%) believe that the Apollo moon landings were faked. These conspiracy theorists suggest that the moon landings were staged in order to save face following President John F. Kennedy’s vow to put a man on the moon by the end of the 1960s. They cite a number of factors for their beliefs, from lethal radiation exposure that the astronauts would have been exposed to in the Van Allen Belt as well as supposed irregularities in the photos taken by the astronauts on the surface of the moon.
One of these images that were questioned, is the photo of Buzz Aldrin standing beside the American flag, which appears to be flapping in the breeze. Conspiracy theorists say this could not happen because there is no air in the moon’s atmosphere. The simple explanation for this is that because the Apollo crew did not want the flag to just hang down, they inserted a stiff wire into the fabric and pulling the edges taut, which caused the flag to stretch out so that it was fully visible to the camera.

20th Century Photos That Changed the World
“4 Children For Sale.” rarehistoricalphotos.com

12. The photograph “Four children for sale” is only the start of a tragic story for this family.

This shocking photo first appeared in the Vidette-Messenger of Valparaiso, Indiana on August 5, 1948. Ray and Lucille (pregnant in the photo) Chalifoux were facing eviction and Ray had recently lost his job as a truck driver. The couple, feeling that they had no ability to support their family, decided to sell their children. The photo shows Lucille, turning away and covering her face to prevent it from being photographed, while her four children sit on the steps in front her. The large sign at the front of the house reveals that these little children are for sale. The children range in age from two to six years old.
The photo caused a large public outcry and the time and offers of financial support, work, and housing poured in for the impoverished family. However, within two years of this photo, Ray had abandoned his family and all of the children had been sold to other families, including the fifth child who Lucille was pregnant within this photo. Two of the children, Raeann Mills and her brother Milton, were sold into an abusive family and allege that they suffered severe neglect and at times were chained in a barn. They claim that they were forced to work in the fields as “slaves” as Milton remembers being called by his adoptive father. Milton also said that his stepfather told him that if he was afraid that he would do what he was told.
Lucille later remarried and went on to have four more daughters. After a number of years estranged from their mother, the children reunited with her but found her to have no regrets about selling them, as well as being completely devoid of love for them. The siblings had conflicting attitudes towards their mother. David thought that his mother was acting in their best interests at the time and that “back then it was survival,” while Sue Ellen felt that “she needs to be in Hell burning” for what she did.

20th Century Photos That Changed the World
“Tank Man.” dailytelegraph.com.au

13. “Tank Man” not only became heroic icon for activists, it gives a very interesting backstory about the dangers of being in Tiananmen Square that fateful day.

One of the most iconic images of the twentieth century, taken by Associated Press photographer Jeff Widener the day after the Tiananmen Square massacre of pro-democracy demonstrators by Chinese government forces. Widener’s photo, known simply as “Tank Man,” shows one man’s courageous and defiant stance in the face of violent government suppression. The man who has never been identified stands his ground as a line of tanks approaches. Facing potentially being crushed to death, the man holds his ground, forcing the tanks to come to a stop.
The video footage of the incident shows that the driver of the first tank attempts to go around the man but he steps to the side and once more into the line of the tank’s path. The man then climbs on top of the tank and attempts to open the hatch. This anonymous man became a symbol of heroism, defiance, and opposition. His courageous stand, immortalised in Widener’s photograph makes it one of the most iconic images of the twentieth century.
An interesting aside to this story is that the photo was made possible by a man named Kirk Martsen. Widener recalls how dangerous it was for journalists trying to cover the occupation of Tiananmen Square that day. Widener says that government forces were using electric cattle prods to force journalists to give up their equipment. Martsen allowed Widener to use his hotel room to photograph the occupation. Widener says that there was a bullet hole in the wall behind the window of the hotel room he was taking photos from. When Widener ran out of film he asked Martsen to go out and get more film for him as it was too dangerous for him as a journalist to go out on the streets. A couple of hours later, Martsen returned with a single roll of film, and it was with this film that Widener captured the iconic “Tank Man” photo.

20th Century Photos That Changed the World
“Saigon Execution.” reddit.com

14. “Saigon Execution” riddled with tragic events leading up to the execution.

Another iconic image from the Vietnam War. This Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph captures the cold-blooded brutality of war. It was February 1, 1968, two days after the Viet Cong and the forces of the People’s Army of Vietnam had set off the Tet offensive by invading South Vietnamese cities. Associated Press photographer Eddie Adams was out on the streets of Saigon capturing the aftermath of the invasion. He came across what he thought was the interrogation of a prisoner.
The man holding the pistol was the chief of the national police, Brigadier General Nguyen Ngoc Loan, and the prisoner was Nguyen Van Lem, who was the captain of a terrorist squad who had reportedly killed the family of one of Loan’s friends. Adams watched in horror as Loan calmly raised his .38 calibre pistol and executed Lem in cold blood.

20th Century Photos That Changed the World
“Black Power salute.” washingtonpost.com

15. “Black Power Salute” details show that the two athletes carefully planned the moment to send a powerful message.

This famous image of American sprinters, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, captured by John Dominis, an American photographer, and photojournalist, shows the moment when the two athletes use their moment of triumph at the Olympic games in Mexico, 1968, to make a powerful political statement. As the Star-Spangled Banner begins to play, Smith and Carlos in a pre-planned gesture, raise a gloved fist – a black power salute. As Carlos later put it, “we knew that what we were going to do was far greater than any athletic feat.”
Apart from the Black Power salute the two men made, they both used what they chose to wear and not to wear as further symbols of solidarity with their fellow African-Americans. Carlos wore a black scarf, which was a symbol of black pride. Around his neck, he wore a bead necklace as a symbol of remembrance of all black men who had been lynched or killed. Carlos’s open jacket was an expression of solidarity with blue collar workers in the United States. Smith wore black socks, with no shoes as a symbol of black poverty.

20th Century Photos That Changed the World
“Flower Power.” vintag.es

16. “Flower Power” photograph turns a tense situation into a message of love.

This iconic anti-war photo was taken by photojournalist, Bernie Boston, on October 22, 1967, during the anti-war March on the Pentagon. At first Boston’s photo wasn’t recognised by his employer, the Washington Star, as being as significant as the image would later become. It did not feature prominently in the newspaper but would later earn Boston recognition and international acclaim. The photo was a 1967 Pulitzer Prize finalist and won a number of other photography competitions.
During the peaceful protest organized by the National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam, Boston, who was sitting on the wall of the main entrance to the Pentagon, watched as a National Guard lieutenant and his men formed a semi-circle around the protestors and aimed their rifles at them. The situation was defused when anti-war protestor George Harris, coolly and calmly began placing carnations in the gun barrels of the soldier’s rifles.


Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“New York Stories: How a celebrated image marking V-J Day in Times Square has taken on a sinister shade.” Andy Martino, nydailynews.com. September 2, 2016.

“Joe Rosenthal and the flag-raising on Iwo Jima.” Pulitzer.org.

“Wait for me, Daddy.” rarehistoricalphotos.com. October 22, 2016.

“Pulitzer Award-Winning Photographer Nick Ut Retires After 51 Years.” Catherine Bauknight, huffingtonpost.com. October 4, 2017.

“Meet the people behind a famous D.C. photo.” John Kelly, washingtonpost.com. September 22, 2012.

“The Story Behind the Haunting 9/11 Photo of a Man Falling From the Twin Towers.” time.com, September 8, 2016.

“The Falling Man – An unforgettable story.” Tom Junod, esquire.com. September 9, 2016.

Ruby Bridges. Biography.com.

“Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka.” Encyclopedia Britannica.

“10 Real Stories Of The People Behind Famous Photographs.” Kitty Wenham, listverse.com. August 16, 2014.

“The Tragic Story of Evelyn McHale And “The Most Beautiful Suicide.” Katie Serena, allthatisinteresting.com. March 7, 2018.

“4 Children for Sale,” 1948. Rarehistoricalphotos.com.

“Finding peace in a life sold for $2.” Nypost.com. July 14, 2013.

“Tank Man.” 100photos.time.com.

“Saigon Execution.” 100photos.time.com.

“Black Power Salute.” 100photos.time.com.

“Be the Flower in the Gun: The Story Behind the Historic Photograph ‘Flower Power’ in 1967.” Vintag.es. September 11, 2017.