Iconic photos that have changed the way we see the world

September 2020 _ Iconic photos that changed the world

They say a picture tells a thousand words, but what they fail to mention is how it can also create a revolution so deep and captivating, that the course of history changes, as we know it, forever.

It didn’t take long for the world's first photographers, in the 1900’s, to realise that this newly invented artform offered a very powerful way of sharing information and was beginning to impact societies ideas and understanding of the world.

At that time, the science behind taking a picture was a miracle in and of itself. The ability that this visual representation had, however, to directly transport us to a place and observe something that we may never have been able to otherwise, broadened our understanding of life exponentially.

We could learn from never having been, seen nor experienced. We could discover, debate and change our views without stepping a foot out of our living room.

The technology conversation, and how it has impacted and altered the course of existence is well and truly trending. However, we often fail to notice how photography and this visual artform has had a strong hand, and was perhaps even the catalyst in the way we share information today and has directly shaped the way we live. 

In saying that, there are only a handful of photos that have gained iconic status over the years and had a greater lasting impact than others. Ones that have managed to permeate our lives in more ways than we realise.

They’ve altered the way we communicate with each other, the way we travel, the way we love, how we perceive other cultures and nature. Photos have been used to influence the outcome of wars, document every aspect of human life, have been used as a tool of evidence in courts of law. Photos have enabled medical professionals to diagnose, treat and save lives, they’ve influenced the clothes we wear, the food we eat, and where we travel to. Photography showed us deep sea creatures, minuscule microbes and bacteria, it showed us the moon up close, it showed us the moon far away, it offered us great scientific discoveries and recorded history.

And last but certainly not least, photography brought us the Selfie. And although it’s definitely debatable if we should be thankful for the Selfie or not, What can not be debated, is that the art of photography has changed the way we see the world. And for that we should always be grateful. 

Where it all began - The first photographs ever taken

"View from the Window at Le Gras" (circa 1826)

This image was taken in 1826, by a French photographer Joseph Nicéphore Niépce and as the oldest surviving photograph, it is nonetheless an important part of photography. Taken directly from the windowsill of his home, Niépce named the image ‘View from the Window at Le Gras’.

To process the image Niépce used a process called "heliography" or sun drawing - and it demanded an exposure time of about 8 hours. The developing process was complicated: it required bitumen to be dissolved in lavender oil, and the resulting substance was then coated onto a lithograph. Once dry, an engraving was placed on the lithograph, and then exposed to sunlight.

After setting, the lavender oil was washed off along with any unhardened bitumen. The remaining areas on the surface of the lithograph were washed with acid to create the final image. Photography was born.

The first photo of a person ever taken

A little over 10 years after the first image was developed, another French photographer by the name of Louis Daguerre had developed his own method, whereby the exposure was reduced to only seven minutes or so. His method was called the daguerreotype process and was the first publicly available photographic process, widely used during the 1840s and 1850s.

The Boulevard du Temple would have been busy with people and horse traffic at that time of day, however because an exposure time of seven minutes was required, the only people who were (unintentionally) recorded were the only two keeping still – a boot polisher and his customer shown in the lower left corner of the photo.

The French were certainly leading the charge early when it came to this new visual artform! 

"Boulevard Du Temple" (circa 1838)


The Migrant Mother changed the way

One of the more iconic photos of American History was taken during the Great Depression by Dorothea Lange. During the 1920s and 30s, a staggering 15 million people were said to be out of work in the US, and struggling to survive in impossible conditions.

During these difficult years a U.S. government’s Farm Security Administration program was formed to document the experiences of those devastated by the Great Depression and raise awareness of and provide aid to impoverished farmers.

Dorothea Lange was employed as part of the program and travelled all through the American West, taking pictures of the crisis. She arrived to Nipomo, California, in March of 1936 where bad weather had destroyed the local pea crop, the pickers were out of work, and many of them on the brink of starvation. As soon as Lange saw the hungry and desperate mother that appears in the photo, she approached her, ‘as if drawn by a magnet’.

As the mother glances past the camera, with her children clinging to her, it’s plain to see the lines of hunger, worry and resignation drawn across her face. Seemingly consumed by the fate of her children and that of their futures.

Soon after the photos were published in a San Francisco newspaper in March 1936, the U.S. government announced it was sending 20,000 pounds of food to the pea-pickers’ campsite.

From that moment onwards, the image came to symbolize the hunger, poverty and hopelessness endured by so many Americans during the Great Depression.

The story of the Migrant Mother, Florence Owens Thompson, was misunderstood for many years, however the impact that the photo had on the situation was never doubted. It’s said to have done more than any other to humanize the cost of the Great Depression, it helped reveal the true cost of the disaster on human lives and shocked the U.S. government into providing relief for the millions of families devastated by the Depression. 

"The Migrant Mother" (1936)

"Teton and the Snake River" (1942)

Teton and The Snake River
change the way we see NATURE

Ansel Adams took this photo in Wyoming’s Grand Teton National Park, and he quickly became a symbol of conservation of the wilderness and offered a major turning point in environmentalism.

This particular image was chosen in 1977 as one of the 115 images to travel on the Voyager Spacecraft, which was to be sent to space with the hope of conveying images of the planet and human life to possible alien races.

During his career, Adams was an advocate of environmental awareness, and was vocal about the ravaging effect of so-called ‘progress’ was having on the environment – at a time when such thinking was not yet prevalent.

Adams’ photograph is an incredible example of how photography can be used to make a statement about the importance of the natural world. 

Black Power Salute changed
the way we see RACISM

It’s an iconic image, two olympic African-American medal winners standing on the winners podium with fists raised as a sign of black power and the human rights movement at large.

Gold medal winner Tommie Smith and bronze medal winner John Carlos competed at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics and chose to use their time on the podium as an opportunity to support the civil rights movement and highlight racial injustice. Martin Luther King had been assassinated only months before, and unrest and protests were at an all-time boiling point.

In response to their actions, the President of the International Olympic Committee demanded that Smith and Carlos be dropped from the US team and banned from the Olympic Village.

The US Olympic Committee refused to comply, threatening to ban the entire US track team instead. This threat led to the expulsion of the two athletes from the Games. However, contrary to popular belief, the two athletes were never forced to return their medals.

The acts of Tommie Smith and John Carlos were largely criticized and ostracized by governments, sporting establishments and some members of olympic committees, mainly in the U.S. However, the opinions of the wider community, and the positive impact that was created, meant the political statement that these two men made, has created significant international awareness of racial inequality.  

"Black Power Salute" (1968)

"Boston Marathon" (1967)

Kathrine Switzer has changed the way we view WOMEN’S RIGHTS

 Kathrine Switzer always loved to run, even though the medical community at the time worried that intense exercise - like distance running or heavy lifting - would compromise women’s fertility, she didn’t let it stop her. And in 1967, the defiant 20-year-old became the first woman to officially run in the Boston Marathon — even though race officials physically attempted to stop her.

When she decided to enter the Boston Marathon, along with her boyfriend, she used the name K.V. Switzer and wiggled out of the required physical by saying she had been cleared earlier.

During the race, marathon director Jock Simple spotted a woman running in the race and attempted to grab Switzer from behind and physically remove her from competing. Simultaneously, Switzer's boyfriend was able to intervene and shoved the director to the ground so that his girlfriend could continue. She went on to finish the race in 4hrs and 20mins.

"My message to young girls is that you can do much more than you ever can imagine, The only way you can imagine it is to do it. To take the first step. And if you take the first step, you can then take three steps. And then you can take 10. And someday maybe you can run a marathon. And if you can run a marathon, you can do anything."  


This photo was one of the biggest turning points in Women's Sports and also became one of the most galvanising photos of the Women’s rights movement also. The unbalanced gender dynamics of the late 60s was changed forever.

Earthrise changed the way we see our PLANET

Also deemed as "the most influential environmental photograph ever taken" this legendary photo of the Earthrising was taken from lunar orbit by astronaut William Anders on December 24, 1968, during the Apollo 8 mission.

It wasn’t the intention behind Apollo 8 to take photos of the earth, but when Bill Anders looked back on his home planet and saw the beauty that was shining back at him, he scrambled for his camera.

The photo did not have an immediate impact. It was only once it was marketed around the world, by the likes of Nasa and Time and Life magazine that it began to gain it’s iconic status. The shot shows just how beautiful, and in the same breath, fragile our planet really is. The legendary Carl Sagan once wrote:

“That’s home. That’s us,There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we've ever known.”

Carl Sagan 

"Earthrise" (1968)

Soldier Returning From Iraq (2007)

Photography has changed the way we see WAR

Terri Gurrola was a military doctor in 2007 and had just completed her year-long deployment in Iraq. Her daughter was only two when she left to go on tour and Terri’s biggest fear was that she would forget who she was.

When Terri finished her deployment, she made her way back home. And as she came into the arrivals hall and found her daughter - this photo was snapped. 

“I remember sliding on my knees and grabbing Gaby; I couldn’t let go of her for one second. She kept saying, “Mommy, I missed you.” I was crying tears of joy for the fact that Gaby hadn’t forgotten me. When I finally came up for air, I saw that every single person in that airport was crying, too. Men, women – I kid you not: they were all just bawling.

I had no idea the impact this photograph was going to have. I mean, wow: Gaby and I have appeared on buses and train stations; on army posters; even on a commercial for life insurance. Even now, looking at the picture brings tears to my eyes. It shows the true emotion of what parents in the military go through”. 


There are hundreds and thousands of war photographs that have successfully evoked a sense of bewilderment, anger, devastation and change, however many are on the battlefield and rarely show what soldiers leave behind. With thanks to technology, the photo of Terri and her daughter went viral and resumed the age-old debate of war and its effect on society.

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