It’s no wonder why people say “a picture is worth a thousand words.” A photograph captures a moment in history, preserving that moment in time forever. From there it can be admired and studied by countless generations to come.
Sometimes, though, a photo can spawn a conversation or debate. Images can fuel social change and force us to reconsider history, but this in turn often stirs up some serious controversy. In other words, they can be pretty powerful.
Below are some of the most controversial photos that forced conversation and heated debate all across the globe…
1. The Taking of Elián González: When he was six years old, Gonzales left Cuba as a refugee and was taken on a harrowing trip to America. However, after a custody battle took place between his father in Cuba and his great uncle in the U.S., his father won out. This Pulitzer Prize-winning photo captures the moment authorities seized him.
Alan Diaz / Wikimedia
2. Flower power: Calling for an end to the long war, the National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam protested before the 503rd Military Police Battalion. One protestor inserted a flower as a symbol of peace into the barrel of a soldier’s rifle.
Bernie Boston / Wikimedia
3. Abuse at Abu Ghraib: Made to wear a bag over his head and stand on a narrow box, the man in this photograph was the victim of a prisoner abuse scandal at Abu Gharib prison in Iraq. Sergeant Ivan Frederick was sentenced to eight years in prison for his role in the abuse, which reached levels far more graphic than what’s depicted here.
4. The Falling Soldier: Though recent years have cast doubts on its authenticity, this photo depicts a soldier in the Spanish Civil War immediately after he’d been shot. The photographer claimed he held the camera over his head while in a trench and, without being able to see, snapped a picture at the perfect moment.
Cornell Capa / Wikimedia
5. Sir Winston Churchill: This photo captured Sir Winston Churchill with a look of contempt and scorn for the photographer. Unaware his picture was going to be taken that day, Churchill was in a foul mood. When the photographer removed the lit cigar from his mouth, he was in an even worse one—and that’s when the photographer snapped the picture.
BiblioArchives / LibraryArchives
6. Orange Sweater: A self portrait, photographer Cindy Sherman sold this photograph for the whopping sum of $3,890,500 in 2011—the most money ever paid for a photograph. It depicted Sherman in a somewhat vulnerable position and was the subject of countless debates between critics.
Cindy Sherman / Akron Art Museum
7. Raising a Flag Over the Reichstag: Marking one of the final notes of the bloody World War II, this photograph captures the moment Soviet soldiers planted their flag over Berlin. However, the truth eventually spilled: the photograph was staged.
8. Sophia and Jayne: Cameras caught Sophia Loren sneaking a peak at Jayne Mansfield’s bosom in this 1957 photograph taken inside a Beverly Hills restaurant. Rumors speculated that Mansfield wore the low-cut dress in an effort to outshine Loren.
Vanity Fair / Wikimedia
9. Black Power at the Olympics: At the 1968 Summer Olympics, 200-meter sprinters John Carlos and Peter Norman held up a Black Power salute on the podium. This photograph was snapped as “The Star Spangled Banner” played in the arena.
10. McMinnville UFO photographs: Paul Trent snapped this photograph outside his McMinnville, Oregon, home back in the 1950s. Many question the photo’s legitimacy, doubting the UFO hovering a few hundred feet above the Earth—was real, but no one could exactly disprove it.
11. Himmler Inspects a POW Camp: The man in charge of the Nazi’s death camps, Heinrich Himmler, meets defiance in this 1941 photograph. The soldier’s contempt for the Nazi is on full display as other POWs watch the scene unfold.
Heinrich Hoffmann Collection / Wikimedia
12. Tank Man: Near Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, one man stood defiant to a line of tanks sent in to break up protests staged in 1989’s Democracy Movement. The man’s identity remains unknown, but his bravery in the face of danger is unlikely to be forgotten.
Jeff Widener / Wikimedia
13. Salvador Dali: Cat lovers, look away! Those cats weren’t airborne by choice. Assistants threw them on stage while another splashed buckets of water at them. The photograph took 26 attempts to execute.
Phillipe Halsman / Wikimedia
14. Nagasaki in 1945: No cities have seen devastation quite like that which Hiroshima and Nagasaki experienced after the detonation of atomic bombs. Soldier Charles Levy snapped this photograph from a B-29 Superfortress as the atom bomb destroyed Nagasaki. It’s hard not to think of the nearly 80,000 people who were killed by this bombing.
15. Rosa Parks: One year after refusing to give up her seat at the front of the bus, a photographer caught this picture of Parks. She was sitting in her iconic spot at the front of the bus one year after her arrest. At the time of this photograph, buses were integrated—thanks largely in part to her.
New York World-Telegram & Sun Collection
16. Vietnam Street Execution: An American photographer caught a surreal moment on camera in Vietnam when South Vietnamese policeman Nguyen Ngoc Loan executed an alleged Viet Cong fighter on the street.
Eddie Adams / Wide World Photos
17. The Dying Polar Bear: This photo of an emaciated polar bear went viral when its photographer posted the shot on Facebook. She linked the bear’s sad state to climate change and shrinking ice caps, which was met with controversy. Some believed the bear might have just been old.
Kerstin Langenberger Photography / Facebook
18. Marylin Monroe: This iconic, often-recreated photo of Marylin Monroe shows her dress blowing up as she walks over a sewer grate. The photo was part of a promotional shoot for the film The Seven Year Itch, and she wore two pairs of underwear to ensure mild modesty.
19. The Monkey Selfie: He may have a nice smile, but this monkey’s selfie launched a controversial debate: who owns this photo? The monkey who took it? Or the photographer, David Slater, who’d allowed this Indonesian monkey to play with his camera?
David Slater / Wikimedia
How many of these images can still spark discussion today? A fair amount of them are still politically charged.
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