Is this the most powerful image ever taken?
It’s been a powerful week for visual history which got me thinking about the impact of images on the way we remember events, particularly tragedy. The old adage that pictures speak louder than words is never more true than images that capture loss and horror. They remind us of some of the worst events in our recent history and symbolise the darkest aspects of our humanity: politics, greed and power. It’s impossible to forget them.
This picture has been everywhere this week as we remember the 23rd anniversary of Tiananmen Square, and it’s certainly one of the most powerful images we can think of in the history of photojournalism. “Tank Man” is the name given to this photograph that was taken on 4 June 1989 by Jeff Widener, then Southeast Asia Picture Editor with Associated Press in Bangkok.
To this day nobody knows what happened to the man standing in front of those tanks, but that does not take away from the power of this photograph - a juxtaposition of defiance and hopelessness. According to this interview, Widener was struck in the face by a flying brick, right after taking this photograph. He suffered concussion, but the camera saved his life and the photo remained intact.
Few accessories surpass the eeriness of a balaclava, but it’s also the position of this lone body, leaning forward that adds to the quiet horror of this photograph. Taken by Australian photojournalist Russell McPhedran in the early hours of September 5, 1972, 11 days into the Munich Olympic Games. The figure was believed to be a member of the Black September, a Palestinian paramilitary group who broke into the athletes village and held 11 Israeli Olympians hostage before killing them. As Mike Bowers writes this week in the Global Mail, the event changed the Olympics, and all other public events forever.
This photograph defines menace and horror for many people of my generation, perhaps because we can acutely remember what we were doing when we saw this on television or splashed across the newspapers. This particular shot is of the second plane, United Airlines Flight 175, that flew into the South Tower of the World Trade Centre at 9:03am on September 11, 2001. Even though this was approximately 20 minutes after the first plane hit the North Tower, it was the South Tower that fell first.
This photograph turns 40 this week and few images since have managed to invoke paternal instinct in the same way. The urge to protect drove its Vietnamese photographer, then 21 year old Huynh Cong “Nick” Ut who wasted no time after taking the photograph and rushed the young girl to hospital, flashing his press badge and demanded they help her. That young girl, Kim Phuc suffered third-degree burns to thirty percent of her body, is now 49 years of age and living in America. She told MSNBC reporters this week: “I can accept the picture as a powerful gift. Then it is my choice. Then I can work with it for peace.” Hope is the last thing you’d expect to feel from an image like this one, but it’s the ultimate message behind this picture.
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