The Five Most Iconic Images In The History Of Photography

Published October 11, 2011
Updated November 9, 2023

From the tragic photograph of "Napalm Girl" to the invasion of D-Day, a stunning look at the five most iconic images of photography.

Iconic Images Of Photography: Starving Child and Vulture, Kevin Carter, 1993

Starving Child and Vulture Kevin Carter

The most haunting image on the most iconic images of photography, Kevin Carter captured the devastating famine in Sudan with a photograph of a toddler crawling to a UN feeding center while a vulture stalks her as prey.

Carter won a Pulitzer Prize for his work but received harsh criticism for both the photograph and for not helping the child. A year later, gripped by the devastation and depression he had seen, Carter committed suicide.

Murder of Vietcong by Saigon Police Chief, Eddie Adams, 1968

Eddie Adams Murder of Vietcong Photograph

This powerful photograph shows General Nguyen Ngoc Loan of the South Vietnamese Army about to kill the captain of a Vietcong squad at point-blank range. The photograph, known as the Saigon execution, came to symbolize the brutality and harsh reality of the Vietnam War that was often shielded from Americans in the media and galvanized a worldwide anti-war movement.

Cottingley Fairies, Elsie Wright and Frances Griffith, 1917

Cottingley Fairies

The Cottingley Fairies was an elaborate hoax concocted by two British girls, Elsie Wright and Frances Griffith, that involved a series of five photographs showing the girls next to supposed fairies. When the photographs were first developed, many were convinced that these photographs were proof of fairies.

It wasn’t until 1983 that the girls admitted that the photos were fakes and the fairies were created using cardboards. While these images of fairies may seem like a trivial inclusion, the iconic photos confounded people for decades, raising significant debate and outlining the significance and potential hazards of the ability to manipulate images.

D-Day Invasion, Omaha Beach, Robert Capa, 1944

D-Day Omaha Beach Invasion Robert Capa Photograph

War photographer Robert Capa prided himself on getting in the thick of the action to capture the most stirring images. His blurry image of the horrific June 6, 1944 D-Day battle – where the Allies invaded the German-occupied French coast – is a testament to his skill.

Bombarded by fighting from all sides, Capa survived the fighting with this image, which perfectly captured the chaos and frenzy of the battle and became one of the most iconic images of photography.

The Most Iconic Images Of Photography: The Terror of War (Napalm Girl) – Huyn Cong Ut, 1973

Napalm Girl Iconic Images

The Pulitzer Prize winning photograph captures the devastation caused by American napalm bombing during the Vietnam War. The focal point of the image is Phan Thj Kim Phuc, the naked girl who ripped her clothes off after being severely burned on her back. Though controversial at the time because of its depiction of full-frontal nudity, the image brought the horror of the Vietnam War and its many innocent victims to the forefront of the world’s conscious.

If you enjoyed these historical iconic images, check out our other posts on famous photos and the life of Kevin Carter.

Alexander is a Brooklyn-based cofounder of All That's Interesting with an undergraduate degree from the University of Virginia in History and Economics and an MSc from the School of Oriental and African Studies in Economics. He specializes in American history, the Cold War, and true crime.