A lone protest in Tiananmen Square

Beijing, 5 June 1989

Protester blocking tanks approaching Tiananmen Square
(Image by Bettmann/Getty Images)

When this image of a lone protester standing before a line of tanks in Tiananmen Square first appeared on newspaper front pages, its message seemed simple. Here was a powerful regime brutally dealing with protesters, and this was the point at which that regime would, and should, end.

Except it didn’t collapse or democratise; instead China became a huge economic superpower, making this image hard to interpret as part of a liberal historical sequence.

This photo pulls together the factors that have shaped not just events in 1989, but the whole trajectory of Chinese history: the supremacy of the state; the continuing impact of conflict; and the enduring power of the individual to re-emerge.

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Rana Mitter is professor of modern Chinese history at the University of Oxford


Apollo 8, 24 December 1968

Earthrise seen from Apollo 8, 29 December 1968.
(Photo by SSPL/Getty Images)

Few would argue the importance of this, one of the first images of Earth rising over the Moon, taken during the Apollo 8 mission – the first manned voyage to do a full lunar orbit. The image was soon circulated around the globe, allowing people to see the planet in a way that earlier generations could only have dreamt of. But its significance in our understanding of Earth as more than just somewhere we inhabit was slow to sink in – arguably it is still doing so.

Photographing Earth from space was a feat in itself, but its influence on our views of Earth as a living organism that connects us all, is ongoing.

OA Westad is professor of international history at LSE

Ali floors Liston

Maine, 25 May 1965

Muhammad Ali standing over Sonny Liston
(Image by Bettmann/Getty Images)

In the words of Malcolm X: “The revolt of the American negro” was part of “the rebellion against oppression and colonialism” that characterised the postwar world. It’s this rebellion that the image of the 23-year-old Ali, standing exultant over the defeated Sonny Liston during the rematch to retain his world title in May 1965, encapsulates.

When Ali (then known as Cassius Clay) first defeated reigning heavyweight champion Liston, in February 1964, sports fans were shocked. When Clay then converted to Islam and named himself Muhammad Ali, he captured the attention of the world.

By the 1970s, Ali’s was among the most famous faces on the planet and sport had been established as a global lingua franca.

Dr Peter Thompson is a lecturer in American history at the University of Oxford

The dead of Antietam

Nr Sharpsburg, Maryland, 19 September 1862

Photograph of dead Confederate soldiers
(Photo by © CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

Taken just two days after the battle of Antietam, this image is among the first in history to show dead soldiers on the field of battle. The impact of this and other similar images of civilians was extraordinary. One reporter wrote: “If he [Mathew Brady, who exhibited the images] has not brought bodies and laid them in our door-yards and along streets, he has done something very like it...”

This and other photographs like it found their way into the homes of tens of thousands of 19th-century Americans, who purchased stereograph images to view in 3D, presumably with a mixture of horror and disgust.

Antietam was the bloodiest day of the American Civil War up to that date, with 3,600 dead and 17,000 wounded. The battle triggered an escalation in the brutality of the fighting, marking the end of the first, more restrained period of the war.

Dr Adam IP Smith is senior lecturer in history at UCL

The nightmare of Hiroshima

Enola Gay, 6 August 1945

An aerial view of Hiroshima
(Photo by: Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty images)

Taken from the aircraft that dropped the first atomic bomb, this photograph of the giant mushroom cloud that rose above Hiroshima within minutes of detonation brought home to the world the sheer magnitude of what had happened.

Released on 11 August and published in the US press the following day, Caron’s photo captured the awesome power of modern military technology and prepared the world for other, more striking shots of an image that would most haunt the postwar imagination.

The photograph’s focus on the mushroom cloud distanced viewers from the horrific destruction on the ground – shots of which were censored for weeks – making it easier to rationalise the use of an atomic bomb on an urban area.

Dr Adrian Bingham is a senior lecturer in modern history at the University of Sheffield

Nelson Mandela’s walk to freedom

Paarl, South Africa, 11 February 1990

Nelson R Mandela and Winnie Mandela
(Photo by Allan Tannenbaum/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images)

When Nelson Mandela left prison after 27 years, he carried with him the great hopes of the majority of South Africans – but also the fears of those who supported white minority rule. To many, this image of Mandela – his right fist raised in the power salute of the ANC – symbolised the beginning of the end of apartheid.

No photograph had been seen of Mandela in a generation, so few people knew what he looked like. Just before his release, a photograph with President de Klerk showed Mandela standing stiffly, with grey hair. But his first steps to freedom showed that – now 71 – his commitment to the struggle for a non-racial, democratic future was undiminished.

Mandela’s walk to freedom was celebrated across the world. Four years later, he became South Africa’s first black president.

Dr Susan Williams is a senior fellow at the School of Advanced Study, University of London

Fear and pain at the Somme

July 1916, northern France

Soldiers at the battle of the Somme in the First World War
(Photo by Geoffrey Malins/IWM via Getty Images)

Although not technically a photograph – it’s taken from the 1916 film The Battle of the Somme – this image sums up the grim realities of trench warfare. A far cry from the straight, neatly sandbagged ‘stage trenches’ constructed in London’s Kensington Gardens, the real things on the western front were revealed as confused, crumbling and shallow – offering minimal protection.

Nearly half of all Britons saw the film, which was released barely a month after the bloody campaign, in which more than 1 million Allied and German troops were killed or wounded.

The fear and pain on this soldier’s face as he struggles with a wounded comrade still serves as a reminder of extraordinary lives forced upon ordinary men.

Dr Rachel Duffett is a lecturer at the University of Essex

Stalin erases Trotsky from history

Outside the Bolshoi Theatre, Moscow, 5 May 1920

Lenin addresses a crowd
(Photo by Time Life Pictures/Mansell/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)
Vladimir Lenin speaks in Sverdlov square
(Photo by Universal History Archive/Getty Images)

Stalinism as a system was peculiar in many ways but perhaps unique in one – in its morbid, almost paranoid, fear of its own revolutionary past. This is why Stalin killed the old Bolsheviks during the 1930s, why history was constantly being rewritten to fit into the needs of the Soviet state, and why one of the most famous revolutionaries of all – Leon Trotsky – had to be deleted from the historical record.

This image is one of the most famous examples of Stalin’s attempts to ‘airbrush’ history. In the top image, Trotsky leans against a wooden pulpit as Lenin rallies troops; in the second image, he is nowhere to be seen.

Its significance still resonates today. Vladimir Putin would of course deny that his own regime and that created after 1917 have anything in common, yet I think they do: they both believe in the old Stalinist maxim that ‘history’ has no other purpose than to serve the needs of the authoritarian state.

Michael Cox is emeritus professor of international relations at LSE

Raising the red flag over the Reichstag

Berlin, 2 May 1945

Red army soldiers raising the soviet flag over the Reichstag in Berlin.
(Photographer: Yevgeny Khaldei © Getty)

First published in the Soviet magazine Ogonek, on 13 May 1945, this image of a soldier flying the Soviet flag from the roof of the Reichstag in Berlin, high above the smoking ruins of Adolf Hitler’s capital, has become one of the most recognisable symbols of the destruction of Nazi Germany and the Allied victory.

Far from being a candid shot, the photograph was carefully staged by photographer Yevgeny Khaldei, and subsequently manipulated, yet it remains a symbol of some of the key aspects of 20th-century history, not least the appearance of the USSR as a power that would dominate Europe for the next 45 years.

The image resonated with war-weary Europeans as a symbol of Nazi defeat, the end of the bloody conflict, and the dawn of a new era.

Evan Mawdsley is professor of international history at the University of Glasgow

The burning girl of Trang Bang

South Vietnam, 8 June 1972

Children fleeing an accidental napalm attack during the Vietnam War
(Getty Images)

This image of nine-year-old Kim Phuc (left), her features contorted with pain and fear as she and other children flee their burning village, is not one that can be forgotten quickly.

The sight of Phuc – a victim of the accidental napalm bombing of civilians fleeing Trang Bang village, carried out by the planes of US-backed Saigon – prompted questions that revealed not just the horrific pain and disastrous personal impact of the Vietnam War, but war’s capacity to produce appalling consequences from grotesque error.

Anti-war sentiment was well established by 1972; it did not need this image to justify or sustain it. But it made the Nixon administration anxious in the build-up to the presidential election campaign. White House tapes for 12 June 1972 reveal Nixon’s aide, HR Haldeman, suggesting the image may have been “fixed” by Nixon’s political opponents for electoral gain.

Five days after this conversation, burglars operating for the Campaign to Reelect the President entered the Democratic National Committee’s HQ at the Watergate offices in Washington, the result of which really did change the world.

The terrified girl survived her injuries and later established the Kim Phuc Foundation, providing medical and psychological assistance to child victims of war.

Richard Carwardine is president of Corpus Christi College, Oxford


This article was first published in the January 2014 issue of BBC History Magazine