Behind the World’s
Most Iconic Photographs
By Mike Diez
Pictures, they say, say a thousand words. But it seems that that is not always the case. Here we take a closer look at some of the world’s most iconic photographs, and the fascinating stories behind them:
Universally hailed as one of the greatest sports photographs of all time, this shot by Neil Leifer would not have been possible had he not been at the right place at the right time. You see, Leifer’s preferred seat was at the other side where this picture would eventually be taken. But a senior photographer pulled rank and got the seat near the judges’ table, and Leifer took his seat at the opposite side.
The rest is history.
Michael Jordan in flight
Renowned Sports Illustrated photographer Walter Iooss Jr. captured one of sports’ greatest photographs by doing a bit of research. In the 1988 Slam Dunk contest, Iooss approached Jordan as his Airness was warming up. “I explained that it was really important for me to get a good picture,” Iooss recalls. “And it would help if I knew which direction he was going.” Jordan obliged. For his last dunk, jumping off from the free throw line, Jordan motioned to Iooss to give him some room. The result is a photograph that would be seen in the rooms of teenagers who would dream of becoming an NBA player someday.
In 1960, a French ship carrying arms to Havana was blown up and 136 people were killed. At the funeral service, as Fidel Castro delivered his speech, photographer Alberto Korda caught a glimpse of Ernesto “Che” Guevarra as he stood up and looked out at the crowd. Korda was struck by Che’s expression: earnest, with silent rage–and he immediately took photos.
Understandably, the newspaper Revolucion ran Korda’s photographs of Castro, with fellow revolutionaries French writers Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. This photo languished at Korda’s studio for a long while. These days you can never escape Che’s image. Many of those sympathetic to the revolution decry the capitalist exploitation of the image of one of Communism’s most respected leaders.
The story behind this iconic photo is not as intriguing as the hysteria that surrounded it after it was released. For the album cover of Abbey Road, George Harrison, Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr and John Lennon thought nothing of it and simply walked out into the street outside of their studio. With the police holding traffic, photographer Iain Macmillan proceeded to shoot the group atop a ladder. The whole thing was done in 10 minutes.
Shortly before the release of Abbey Road, an American newspaper ran a story saying that Paul McCartney had died in a car accident. When the album did release, fans took a look at this photo and began analyzing every detail in it: Macca’s out of step pace, his bare feet, the cigarette on his right hand (Paul’s a leftie), even the license plate on the Volkswagen in the background was scrutinized. All of these convinced them that indeed, McCartney must have died and a look-alike has replaced him. If true, then the replacement was not a bad musician; he went on to have success with the band Wings, and embarked on a fruitful solo career which is still going strong to this day.
It was Albert Einstein’s 72nd birthday, and photographer Arthur Sasse was one of the many hounding the esteemed scientist for a photograph. As Einstein boarded his chauffeured vehicle, Sasse took photos. When he asked Einstein for one more, the playful scientist stuck his tongue out.
Sasse showed Einstein this photograph, and Einstein liked it so much, he had prints of it made. Several of these were sent to his friends as greeting cards.
A Buddhist immolates himself in Vietnam
The year was 1963. There was widespread persecution of Buddhists in Southern Vietnam under the rule of Ngo Dinh Dhiem. Dhiem was a Catholic, ruling over a predominantly Buddhist nation. Under his rule, Catholics were given preferential treatment, while Buddhists were discriminated against. Thich Quang Duc was a monk who has been protesting against the many injustices being done to people of his religion.
On June 10, 1963, U.S. correspondents were given notice that something important is about to happen in the protest outside the Cambodian embassy in Saigon. That day, Duc calmly sat in a lotus position in the middle of an intersection, chanted prayers, then his colleagues poured kerosene upon him and lit him on fire.
The image, caught by journalist Malcom Brown, so shocked the world that it pressured Dhiem into implementing policies to appease the Buddhist majority in Vietnam. But by then the divide between Dhiem’s loyal followers and Buddhists has become so wide that violence continued to erupt. Dhiem was eventually assassinated later that year.
The kiss at the end of World War II
The image which would be associated with all things romantic was anything but. The Japanese just surrendered and everyone in America were celebrating. At Times Square in New York, 21- year old dental assistant Greta Zimmer Friedman was walking along, joining the celebrations, when she was grabbed by quartermaster George Mendonsa and planted on her a kiss. Photographer Alfred Eisenstaedt captured the moment in 1945. People would not learn of the story behind the kiss until the 1980s.
Mendonsa said he was on a date with his future wife that day, and that at the moment it was announced that the war was over, he was overcome with emotion and saw Friedman, and instinctively kissed her on the lips.
A public execution
The photo is undeniably brutal. But there is more to this story than what you see.
In 1968, South Vietnam was overrun by Viet Cong death squads, who have been targeting police officers and their families. The man who was executed in the photo was Nguyen Van Lem, who was also known as Captain Bay Lop, and he was a leader of such a death squad. He was caught in the act at the site of a mass grave. As soldiers who captured Lem were bringing the prisoner to Major General Nguyen Ngoc Loan, photographer Eddie Adams saw them and followed.
The soldiers suddenly stopped and backed away. Adams took photos. He saw someone come in to the frame of his view finder. It was General Loan, and he took out his pistol. Adams thought the General would be interrogating Lem. Instead, Loan shot Lem. “They killed many of my people, and yours too,” the General said to Adams, then walked away.
This photograph became a symbol of the brutality of the Vietnam War, and those who saw it without knowing the context behind the image saw Loan as a savage war criminal. Loan would be severely injured after this photo was taken, and would be refused medical attention in Australia. He would be transferred to the United States. But once in the US, immigration wanted to deport him because of the photo. Adams testified in favor of Loan, and he would eventually be granted citizenship.
In 1975, Loan and his wife opened a pizza parlor in Virginia. In 1991, upon learning of his identity, Loan and his family received threats and were forced to close shop. Loan died of cancer in 1998.
Adams regretted being an instrument in vilifying Loan. “Photographs do lie,” he said. “They are only half-truths.”
Know of any other interesting stories behind iconic photos? Share them with us below!