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At 9.15 am on the morning of  October 21, 1966, a coal slag heap at Aberfan, near Merthyr Tydfil in Wales. Within five minutes, it had buried a school, several cottages and a farm. In total, 144 people were killed – 116 of them young children, studying at Pantglas school.

The National Coal Board (NCB), the creaky custodian of all nationalized coal assets in Britain blamed the accident on abnormal rainfall (although it had received earlier warnings). Its grandiose chairman Lord Robens — who was driven around in a Daimler bearing the plates ‘NCB 1’ and who was known as ‘Old King Coal’ — didn’t help the matters: upon hearing of the accident, he instead went ahead with his plans to be installed as chancellor of Surrey University and showed up in Aberfan only the following day — with an outsized cigar.

By this time, images of the wreckage of Pantglas Junior School had already been widely circulated. The most iconic was that of eight-year old Susan Maybank (later Susan Robertson) carried off from the school by policeman Victor Jones. Mel Parry, then an eighteen year old apprentice photographer, remembers the day:

“I got off the bus, saw it, rang the office and asked the chief photographer if he could bring some equipment down. As soon as he arrived, I just started taking pictures. The photograph that everybody’s aware of I have no recollection of...

It was where Galileo first displayed his telescope to the Doge and where Goethe first saw the sea. By the time it collapsed in 1902, Campanile di San Marco, the sixteenth century bell tower overlooking the piazza of the same name in Venice, had seen various historical and weather turmoils.

Margaret Plant recounts in Venice: Fragile City that although a crack had been seen on the tower at least a week before the collapse, no precautions had been taken. The visitors were still allowed to climb up the weekend before, even as cracks visibly multiplied, even reaching the fifth floor. On Sunday before the collaspe, the orchestras in the piazza (a planned concert by the 18th Infantry Regiment band) were finally silenced to avoid vibrations, but it was too late. On the early hours of 14 July 1902 (some said 9.47 am, others 9.52 am), the tower collapsed, injuring no one but killing a caretaker’s cat (named Mélampyge, weirdly after Casanova’s dog).

Various fake photos claiming to show the collapse circulated, and became famous around the world. The photos below are fake montages by Antonio De Paoli (left) and Giovanni Zanetti (right), both of which showed people running in the piazza away from the debris. The above more dramatic photo, produced by Angelo Zaghis, was more accurate in its portrayal of an empty square but is also likely to be fake, eventhough it...

At the end of each season for National Rugby League (NRL) in Australia, the winning team is given a trophy fashioned after one of Australia’s enduring sporting images. Two mud-soaked men embracing each other — a symbol of camaraderie and ‘mateship’ in rugby league.

Two men were Norm Provan (left) and Arthur Summons, after whom the current trophy has been named since 2013 (earlier versions of the trophy also featured them, but was named after the cigarette manufacturer Winfield, which was forced to withdraw their sponsorship of the Premiership, following the ban on cigarette advertising). Provan and Summons were respectively the captains for St. George and Western Suburbs, and despite the photo and its subsequent history welding two men together, the giant second-rower and the diminutive halfback initially did not get along. Summons noted that he had refused to swap jumpers with Provan amidst the rumors that the referee had bet £600 on a St George win, and that the photo captured the moment when he complained about the referee’s decision to Provan.

The photo, later known as The Gladiators, was taken by the Sun-Herald photographer John O’Gready on 24th August 1963 when St George beat Western Suburbs 8-3 for the eighth of their consecutive championships premierships. Another photographer Phil Merchant took a similar picture for the Daily Telegraph but his editors chose not to run it, because Merchant took the photo vertically, which didn’t fit...

What a crazy and tumultuous year it was! Many arenas of public life were rocked, by storms political and literal, by recriminations and distrust, by escalating wars and ethnic conflicts, tarnished by sexual assault revealations, buffeted by the rising nationalist, racist, and toxic rhetoric. I thought we should end the year with a fitting image of exhaustion, resilience, and hope.

Y.A. Tittle, the quarterback for the New York Giants, who died earlier this year showed all those qualities in his last game as a pro footballer. 1964. It was Sept. 20, 1964, and ‘Big John’ Baker – 6-foot-7, 279-pound Pittsburgh Steelers lineman – had ploughed through him. Tittle, suffering from a concussion and bruised ribs, knelt in the end zone, his helmet gone and bleeding from two cuts on his forehead. He looked double his 37 years, many newspapers commented, and he soon retired.

The moment produced one of the most enduring images in sports, a photo which earned a place in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Adding to the humanity was the background: a handful of fans sitting on the lawn chairs at field level, and mostly empty end-zone bleachers. It encapsulated the agony of defeat so well that it was for the longest time one of only three pictures in the lobby of the National Press Photographers Association headquarters, alongside with the...

When Coretta Scott King discovered that the press pool covering the funeral of her husband included no black photographers, she let it known that if Moneta J. Sleet Jr. was not allowed into the church, she would let no photographers into the church.

Sleet’s photo of Bernice King tearfully clasping her mother inside the Ebenezer Baptist Church, where her father had been the pastor for the last eight years won a Pulitzer Prize, making Sleet the first African American journalist to win that award. He remembered that emotion-fraught moment, five days after Dr. King was shot dead:

“I looked over and saw Mrs. King consoling her daughter. I was photographing the child as she was fidgeting on her mama’s lap. Professionally, I was doing what I had been trained to do, and I was glad of that because I was very involved emotionally. If I hadn’t been there working, I would have been off crying like everybody else.”

Sleet had known the Kings for over a decade, since 1956, when he photographed the couple with another daughter on the steps of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. He even travelled with Dr. King when the latter went to Stockholm to collect his Nobel Peace Prize in 1964.

The photo was titled Deep Sorrow by Sleet and was first featured in Ebony Magazine, for which he captured Dr....

“Could you vote for a party that will destroy this?” asked the bold headline in white above the photo in 1983. The party in question has been in power in Australia since 1975, led by patrician Malcolm Fraser. Fraser was a transformative prime minister, who gave the aborigines of Australia more control over their traditional lands, encouraged immigration from Asia, welcoming the Vietnamese boat people, and led the pressure against apartheid in Rhodesia and South Africa.

But by early 1983, the economy was in a rut, Fraser’s parliamentary majority had been reduced and the future of his government rested on an attempt to dam a river in Tasmania. For years, this dam had been festering on the public consciousness: a fledgling Green movement was trying to save the river through concerts, candle-lit vigils and a write-in campaign, which reached its feverpitch in late 1982 when 42% of voters wrote in “NO DAMS” at a by-election in the state of Victoria.

Central to these campaigns were photographs of Tasmania by Peter Dombrovskis, who photographed the state for widely-subscribed annual wilderness calendars. Morning Mist, Rock Island Bend, Franklin River showed a section of the Franklin River which would be submerged by the proposed dam; environmental groups took out full-page color advertisements featuring the photo in Sydney and Melbourne papers a few days before the election.

The photo was often cited as the...

Sometimes a photo is famous, not just because of the contents of the photo, but also because of the photographer behind the lens. Nicos Sampson has a dubious claim as an established photographer who had the most (in)famous second career. In the 1950s, as a reporter and photographer for the Times of Cyprus, Nicos Sampson would run to the scene whenever a policeman was murdered in Nicosia. His photos were raw and timely, as if he preternaturally knew where the next murder would happen.

In many instances, he did. Cyprus was then still ruled by Britain, and a militant group called EOKA was calling for an union with Greece; EOKA would regularly attack and killed civilians and British policemen in Nicosia’s Ledra Street. Nicos Sampson would scoop Ledra murders time and again, as he was secretly a member of EOKA and involved in the killings. He would twice face the death sentence as “the executioner of Murder Mile”, as Ledra Street was then infamously known.

Later, Sampson would also be accused of atrocities during the 1964 post-independence fighting that tore the Greek and Turkish communities apart on the island. He conspired with the Greek junta to violently overthrow Archbishop Makarios, the moderate president of the island who was amenable to both communities. After this overthrow, Sampson was himself president — something in the words of one Turkish Cypriot leader, “as unacceptable as Hitler’s becoming president of Israel”. In...

After the defeat at Diên Biên Phu, France’s attention turned to its African colonies, whose soldiers had fought in Vietnam and saw the imperial power humbled and humiliated. The insurrection in Algeria began on November 1954, just fourteen weeks after France signed the Geneva Accords, ending its disastrous war in Indochina.

Rather than face a series of conflagrations throughout the Maghreb, the new Socialist government of Guy Mollet gave Tunisia and Morocco independence in March 1956. Algeria was to be held on at all costs, but Tunisia and Morocco were dispensable, and thus they became first countries in Africa to regain their independence from a colonial power.

Yet France maintained a selection of bases across Tunisia (although the Fourth Republic fell and General de Gaulle was returned to power, he evacuated five bases and 50,000 soldiers off Tunisia), most notably at Bizerte, a strategic naval base on the Mediterranean, through which France was to conduct its operations during the war in Algeria. For the Tunisians, the base was an affront to their sovereignty, and in July 1961, they surrounded and blockaded it. De Gaulle’s response was swift and decisive — a rapid strike which killed 700 Tunisians — so decisive that by October, the Bizerte town council was able to crow: “Today’s Bizerte is essentially a French creation….. France managed in less than eighty years to change the face...

When he died early at the age of 52 in 1986, Pedro Luis Raota was already a celebrated photographer, both in his native Argentina and outside. The “Ansel Adams of Argentina”, he was dubbed, and his photos routinely won awards on international competitions. He cofounded and then served as the first director of The Instituto Superior de Arte Fotográfico and was also controversially a favored photographer of the Argentine military junta which loved his photos which sentimentalized and lionized the country’s working class poor.

Born in Chaco, one of the poorest provinces of Argentina, Raota himself had humble origins making passport pictures in rural areas. His first major success came when he was 32 years old when he won the first Prize in a photographic contest organized by Mundo Hispánico, a magazine in Madrid with his work on lives of the gaucho and their descendants. His lens focused on the dark wrinkles of the gaucho families, marking their hard lives, and unbridled horses of the Pampa Húmeda. (The gaucho — the nomadic horsemen who defined the Argentine and Uruguayan pampas from the mid-18th to the mid-19th century — enjoyed heroic status similar to that of the cowboys in the United States).

Like Adams, Raota was a master of the darkroom; his...

National Geographic named it one of the “greatest photographs of the American West.” David Schonauer, the famed editor-in-chief of American Photo wrote, “there is a fine line between cliche and archetype….. [this is] the latter,” noting that the photo reminded him of the elegiac song, “The Street of Laredo.” The photographer, William Albert Allard remembers taking the photo in Nevada in 1979:

“We are in this little Mountain City bar …. one of the buckeroos a big man named Stan Kendall, he was sitting on the bar stool at the very end of the bar. He had this kind of look on his face and I am always looking at faces because I think they are so revealing and faces are a part of so much of my photographs. When it comes down to it, what i really wanted to do in my pictures is to look into someone, rather than to look at them.

You know by looking at this photograph you get the feel of this place, the feel of the life, his attitude. Was I thinking consciously when I was looking into Stan Kendall? No. Oh, hell, no. Wasn’t thinking that. But I am reacting to what I am seeing.

This one is a moment. Everything there is absolutely a moment. And that look on Stan Kendall’s face — he kinda had that leaving look....

We don’t really hear much about a lot of countries until something horrible happens there; extra attention if that catastrophe happens to westerners. Then, glaring spotlight of international media becomes focused for one brief moment, and then disappears.

In April 1974, the world’s attention briefly turned to Chad, an African country bigger in area than South Africa or France, when in the northern part of the country, at Bardaï, in the Tibesti Mountains, a group of rebels kidnapped a German doctor and two French citizens. One Frenchman managed to escape and the doctor was ransomed by the German government, but the second archaeologist — Francoise Claustre — was held hostage.

Her ordeal put the Chad rebellion on the frontpages of newspapers, as did her husband Pierre’s status as a senior development bureaucrat for the French government. The French government which had deployed a thousand French soldiers in the region at the request of the Chad government to contain the rebellion of Tibesti, was in the midst of a fraught presidential election, and responded ineptly: it sent a soldier to negotiate with the rebels (with a secret mission to sow dissent among the rebels). When this plot was revealed, he was tried by a “revolutionary tribunal”, and hanged.

Here on Iconic Photos, we have seen many photos taken in modern Spain. The country loomed large in the twentieth century mythos and imagination — starting with a disastrous Civil War that drew in many public intellectuals of the day and now seen as a dress rehearsal for the Second World War.

In the 1930s, Catalonia attempted two declarations of autonomy, claiming itself a state within a federal structure. This, along with rising socialism, communism, and anarchism,  gave cause to the rightwing reactionaries and finally an all-out Civil War. As it took place as picture magazines are getting popular, the Spanish Civil War was covered by photojournalists and yellow journalists alike. The most famous images of the war were by Robert Capa and by Dora Maar, of her lover Picasso painting Guernica.

Post-civil war Spain was a hodgepodge of repressions and idiosyncrasies. The Castilian Spanish was declared the sole official language, with all foreign films (and films originally made in local regional tongues) were force-dubbed. Castilian names were the only ones allowed. Even the names of football clubs were changed into Castilian versions.

Deference to the Catholic Church was extreme; after all, Franco had ruled Spain as “Caudillo by the grace of God” as his coins proclaimed. civil marriage and divorce were made illegal and the Church was given power to censor any writing or speech it objected. Cleavages and legs in photos were covered up, James Bond novels lost its sex scenes, and over 4,000 songs were banned, mostly for hilarious...

In March 1991, when a series of earthquakes hit the western side of the island of Luzon along the Zambales Mountains, locals awoke to the reality that in the middle of the Zambales range, there might be a dormant volcano. Pinatubo — quiet since before the lands under it were named the Philippines — erupted a few months later, in June.

The explosion was to be the second largest of the 20th century (second only to that of Novarupta in Alaska in 1912). Unlike the Alaskan volcano, half a million people lived next to Pinatubo and several important river systems stem from its peak. A logistical and environmental nightmare loomed. Adding to the woes, a typhoon was ripped through the island, mixing Pinatubo’s ash with rains, which created concrete-like mud that collapsed roofs and buildings miles away.

Many photojournalists came to the area, and the most iconic shot of the explosion — and perhaps of any volcanic eruption — was that of a Ford Fierra fleeing a gargantuan cloud of pyroclastic flows, a fast-moving current of hot gas up to 450 mph and 1,000 °C strong.  [See a pyroclastic flow in action on video here.] The photo was taken by Alberto Garcia,  chief photographer of Tempo, a tabloid affiliated with the Manila Bulletin, who remembers taking the photo about 20-30 km away from the caldera:


The year 1968 began uneasily in Czechoslovakia. The previous October, a group of students in Prague’s Technical University staged a demonstration to protest electricity cuts at their dormitories; their shouts of “More light!” were a pointed rebuke towards the stifling rule by the Communist party. So, when the new year came, the party yielded by electing a new First Secretary, Alexander Dubček.

The 47-year old was a compromise candidate — Dubček had carefully cultivated his bland and ambiguous personality for years. Now, finally with power, he changed positions. A reform program — timid by international standards, but ambitious in the eyes of Communist cadres — was launched to create ‘‘Communism with a human face.’’ The flowering of freedom of speech and press, freedom to travel abroad, and relaxation of secret police activities followed, but it was brief. A worried Soviet Union rolled its tanks into Czechoslovakia in August 1968.

On the first day of invasion, German photographer Hilmar Pabel took the photo above of a distraught woman carrying a photo of Dubcek and Czechoslovak President Ludvík Svoboda. Pabel was a man whose stature as a humanist photographer would have been greater had he not been a propagandist for Nazism during the Second World War. In a photoessay for Berliner Illustrierte Zeitung, Pabel documented Jews living in the Lublin Ghetto as shifty and avaricious: living in dirt and hiding consumer goods and foods in the cellars.

Disclaimer: some opinions which follow may be upsetting to some readers. Sections IV to VI are my own personal opinions/rants. 



Trafalgar Square. March 1990.

London erupts in a frenzy of riots, protesting poll taxes — an unpopular tax reform that would mark the beginning of the end for Margaret Thatcher’s eleven-year premiership.

A photo is published, with the caption “A West End shopper argues with a protester”. The contrast is sharp: the well-dress lady, her gold watch glinting is across the barricades from a leather-jacketed punk, his hair tightly shaved, a half lit cigarette in hand. Except that by her own admission, the woman is shouting not at the man, but at the police restraining him. “I look like the typical conservative middle-England Tory voter (which I’m not), objecting to the protest. The truth is, I felt bloody angry that day,” she wrote to the Guardian.


Birmingham, Alabama. May 1963.

Martin Luther King Jnr is in the middle of a series of protests, boycotts, and marches in the southern city, which he has called the most segregated city in America.

A German shepherd lunges at a young Black teen. A white officer behind the dog looms large in his dark sunglasses. A photographer takes the photo. The New York Times publishes it across three columns on the front page, above the fold. The president notes...

On the morning of 25 June 1950, when the North Korean tanks rolled across the 38th parallel into South Korea, they found the latter’s troops completely unprepared. There were miscalculations from all sides. America’s supremo in the east, General MacArthur, dismissed CIA warnings that the North Koreans would attack in June. Stalin, emboldened by the American apathy towards the Communist coup in Czechoslovakia in 1948, insisted to Mao that Americans were too afraid to fight another war. As for President Truman, he had been roundly criticized by the Congress for the Communist takeover of China the previous year. With mid-term elections just a few months away, and he himself still intending to run for a second term, he wasn’t going to appear soft. “By God I’m going to let them have it,” he remarked on the evening of the attack.

Others have won Pulitzers for covering the war, but the greatest collection of pictures about the Korean War was produced by David Douglas Duncan (still alive as of mid-2017 at age of 101!). On September 4th, Duncan joined the men of Baker Company across the Naktong river — one of his images was later chosen for a commemorative stamp. He remembered:

“I cabled LIFE’s editors in August from Tokyo and I told them I was heading back to Korea to try and get what I called ‘a wordless story’ that conveyed the message, simply, ‘This is...

Keep Calm and Carry On, proclaimed the poster which is now overused and overparodied. Ironically, the poster was never used — the campaign was abandoned just as the Second World War began. Instead, various photos taken during the war, of ordinary people ‘carrying on’ conveyed the same message.

Most famous of these photos was Fred Morley’s milkman, who was seen doing his rounds, even as the Blitz reduced the apartments of his erstwhile customers into rubble. The day was October 9th 1940 — the 32nd straight day of bombing raids on Britain. The Nazi invasion plans had been thwarted, as the weather conditions deteriorated into winter conditions, making massive aerial campaigns harder to sustain. The Luftwaffe had just switched its main effort into night-time attacks, which became their official policy just two days prior on 7th October. Although not as serious as in a raid two months later,  St Paul’s Cathedral was hit on the early hours of October 9th, but the bomb failed to detonate.

A sea of destruction awaited Morley the next morning. Working for Fox Photos, he knew that if he took the pictures of the destroyed homes, his photos would not be published. A lot of his earlier work had been censored. In front of a back drop of firefighters struggling to contain a fire, he had an idea. He borrowed the...

On 22nd July 1983, thirteen soldiers were ambushed and killed in Thirunelveli, near Jaffna. In that part of northern Sri Lanka, the Tamil Tigers were staging a revolt of their Hindu minority from Sri Lanka’s Buddhist Singhalese majority – an independence movement that was quickly devolving into terrorism. What happened after the ambush would poison the Sri Lankan politics for decades.

In Colombo, a mob of goondas (thugs) assembled at the soldiers’ funeral, and handed out paperwork containing electoral rolls and company registrations – which denoted which businesses and houses belonged to the Hindu Tamils. Soon, the city was ablaze in a pogrom, where Hindu businesses were burnt, and the Tamils being burnt alive in buses. A Kristallnacht, noted John Gimlette in his travelogue, “Elephant Complex”. In the photographs of those days, later to be remembered as Black July, Gimlette saw:

“How gleeful the goondas look as they lay out the Tamils. There’s the happiness of looting neighbors, and the ecstasy of fire. A naked man is battered to death, to the obvious contentment of the crowd. For how many centuries must you detest each other, for that? Then there is the burnt-out minibus. It’s said that the thugs jammed the doors before setting it on fire, and then watched as the passengers screamed themselves to death.”

Photographic record was sparse,...

His biographers note that Ricardo Rangel (1924–2009) was the first non-white journalist in colonial Mozambique. He was definitely one of four or five photographers working there on its independence in 1975, and he had indeed contributed some of Mozambique’s most iconic images, even though many of his colonial-era photographs were banned or destroyed by Portuguese censors.

His best-known work outside Mozambique was a series of evocative studies of bar-girls he made in the 1960s. Under Portugal, the Mozambican capital Lourenço Marques (named after Vasco da Gama’s navigator, who sailed into its broad bay in 1544) was a thriving port and a pleasant vacation spot — Bob Dylan was to croon about its aqua blue skies soon; its red-light district at the Rua de Araújo attracted South Africans and Rhodesians escaping their puritanical regimes at home. With tongue in cheek, Rangel called his work on the Rua de Araújo, “Pão Nosso de Cada Noite” (Our Nightly Bread), a pun on the Lord’s Prayer.

In 1970, Rengel co-founded Tempo...

I have often been asked which photo of last ten years would enter the record books and retrospectives. There were many contenders, but as far as cultural impact, the photo above, taken in 2011 of President Obama’s National Security team during the raid that killed Osama bin Laden was a touchstone.

It is now a default scene against which political dramas and comedies are measured. Political Animals, a melodrama about an ex-president and his secretary of state wife, paid an early tribute in August 2012. In 2013, Veep (above) had a two-episode storyline which parodies Washington politics inherent in any politically charged moment/photo such as this.

In 2016’s House of Cards (above), Clare Underwood occupies President Obama’s position, and another woman replicates Hilary Clinton pose. Not just political dramas are playing the homage; in the corporate world of 2017’s Okja, the photo is restaged, with Tilda Swinton again having hand over the mouth — this is the closest reproduction.