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5 photographs that changed the world

To say that these are five photographs that changed the world is no small claim – and yet, such is the colossal impact of these images, it genuinely can't be overstated how important they were.  

World Photography Day gives us the opportunity to look back at the history of the medium, and reflect on just how important the photograph was, is and continues to be for all aspects of our lives. 

From technological innovation and the examination of the natural world (and beyond), to documenting the horror of conflict and humanitarian struggle, the still photography possesses a unique power to convey messages beyond mere words or even moving images.

The team at The School of Photography have whittled down history's most iconic images to these five. Watch the brilliant video above, or read on for a description of these groundbreaking photographs – and make sure to check out the full School of Photography article for more information on these phenomenal photographs and their photographers. 

WARNING: The final two images are of a graphic nature. Discretion is advised.

Latticed window at Lacock Abbey – Henry Fox Talbot, 1835

(Image credit: Henry Fox Talbot)

Latticed Window at Lacock Abbey was taken by Henry Fox Talbot in August 1835, and is a positive from what may be the oldest existing camera negative.

At the time there were other photographic processes being created, but they were too expensive and the photographic images couldn’t be reproduced. They were one-offs, like a painting or drawing. Fox Talbot, however, was the only person thinking of photography as a printing production, like etchings and other print reproductions of the time. 

He invented the calotype process, whereby you create one negative and from this negative you can produce several positives. The calotype process changed and improved over time, but the basics of one negative being turned into several positive prints continued until the transition to digital photography.

It made photography cheaper and more accessible to people. This is the first example of that process, and clearly goes down in history as one of the photos that changed the world. Who knows; if this process wasn’t invented, photography may well be a completely different medium.

The Horse in Motion – Eadweard Muybridge, 1878

(Image credit: Eadweard Muybridge)

The Horse in Motion is a series of cabinet cards by Eadweard Muybridge, including six cards that each show a sequential series of six to twelve "automatic electro-photographs" depicting the movement of a horse. Muybridge shot the photographs in June 1878. An additional card reprinted the single image of the horse Occident trotting at high speed, which had previously been published by Muybridge in 1877.

The series became the first example of chronophotography, an early method to photographically record the passing of time, mainly used to document the different phases of locomotion for scientific study. It formed an important step in the development of motion pictures. 

Muybridge's work was commissioned by Leland Stanford – an industrialist, former Governor of California and avid horseman – who was interested in horse gait analysis. This was to settle a bet that he had made, saying that a horse lifts all four feet off the ground while running.

Earthrise – William Anders, 1968

(Image credit: NASA / William Anders)

Earthrise is a photograph of Earth, and some of the Moon's surface, that was taken by astronaut William Anders on December 24, 1968, during the Apollo 8 mission – the first crewed voyage to orbit the moon. Fifty years to the day of taking the photograph, Anders observed, "We set out to explore the moon and instead discovered the Earth."

In Life's 100 Photographs that Changed the World, wilderness photographer Galen Rowell called Earthrise "the most influential environmental photograph ever taken". Another author called its appearance the beginning of the environmental movement – indeed, the image spurred the annual Earth Day celebration (which retains the #Earthrise hashtag).

The photograph was taken on a highly modified Hasselblad 500 EL with an electric drive. It featured a simple sighting ring, rather than the standard reflex viewfinder, and was loaded with a 70mm magazine containing custom Ektachrome film produced by Kodak. It was shot using a 250mm lens, at 1/250 sec and f/11.

Execution – Eddie Adams, 1968

(Image credit: AP Photo / Eddie Adams)

Eddie Adams was an American photojournalist for the Associated Press, noted for portraits of celebrities and politicians and for coverage of 13 wars. His photograph of the execution of a Viet Cong prisoner won him a Pulitzer Prize in 1969.

Adams later recalled that he believed Brigadier General Nguyễn Ngọc Loan, Chief of the Republic of Vietnam National Police in the district, was going to "threaten or terrorize" Nguyễn Văn Lém – who had been apprehended after allegedly cutting the throats of South Vietnamese Lt Col Nguyen Tuan, his wife, their six children and the officer’s 80-year-old mother. 

Adams took out his camera to record expected threatening. The photo instead showed the microsecond that Loan's bullet entered Lém's head, on a Saigon street on 01 February 1968, during the opening stages of the Tet Offensive. It became one of the most famous and influential images of the war, and galvanized the anti-war movement.

The photo would come to haunt Adams. "I was getting money for showing one man killing another. Two lives were destroyed, and I was getting paid for it. I was a hero." He elaborated on this in a later piece of writing: "Two people died in that photograph. The general killed the Viet Cong; I killed the general with my camera."

Death of Alan Kurdi – Nilüfer Demir, 2015

(Image credit: Nilüfer Demir)

Alan Kurdi was a three-year-old Syrian boy of Kurdish descent, whose image made global headlines after he drowned on -2 September 2015 in the Mediterranean Sea near Bodrum, Turkey. He and his family were Syrian refugees trying to reach Europe amid the European refugee crisis. 

Photographs of his body were taken by Turkish journalist Nilüfer Demir and quickly spread around the world, prompting international responses. Because Kurdi's family had reportedly been trying to reach Canada, his death and the wider refugee crisis immediately became an issue in the 2015 Canadian federal election.

The picture has been credited with causing a surge in donations to charities helping migrants and refugees, with one charity, the Migrant Offshore Aid Station, recording a 15-fold increase in donations within 24 hours of its publication.

"Photojournalists sometimes capture images so powerful the public and policymakers can't ignore what the pictures show," said Nick Logan of Global News, that same year. He compared the images of Kurdi's body to the pictures taken during the 'Bloody Sunday' event, in which activists during the Civil Rights Movement were beaten by Alabama state troopers.

Read more: 

The best books on photography for beginners and pros
The best coffee table books on photography
The best books on street photography
The best books on portrait photography