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20 Most Controversial Pictures in the History of Photography

Join us in our 20 most controversial pictures in the history of photography. Viewer discretion is advised.
Many documentary projects and images that photographers capture fall under controversial photography.
Either because the subject is hard to look at, or the story it tells is one that doesn’t fit with our own ideas of society.

20. Birmingham, Alabama – Charles Moore (1963)

Controversial pictures have helped to change our society. One of these issues was the Civil Rights movement between 1954 and 1968 throughout America.
One of these high-conflict areas was Birmingham in Alabama. Here, black residents and allies constantly clashed with white power in a struggle to end segregation.
Charles Moore, a photographer for Montgomery Advertiser and Life found himself part of these conflicts. This native Alabaman and son of a Baptist preacher saw the violence, and became appalled by it.
Although he captured many images focusing on this movement, it was the below image that captured the segregation as a reality. The violence was brutal, yet routine and casual.
The image, published in Life magazine allowed the rest of the world to see what was happening. The Civil Rights Act passed a year later, finally abolishing segregation.
Birmingham, Alabama - Charles Moore - controversial pictures

19. Behind Closed Doors – Donna Ferrato (1982)

Documentary photographers actively pursue being part of their subjects’ family. This allows for a realistic and true perspective of their subjects. Donna wanted the same for her Wealthy Swingers project.
She met Elizabeth and Bengt at a swinger party and soon became part of their circle of friends. Because of this relationship, Donna would spend days on end photographing the parties they held at their house.
Their lifestyle touched on alcohol, cocaine, and what Donna later found out, domestic violence. One night, Elizabeth hid their cocaine, and Bengt became furious.
Donna was in the house and saw them arguing in the bathroom. She entered and saw Bengt’s arm raised in an act to hit Elizabeth. Donna captured an image thinking he would stop. But he didn’t.
From then on, her project took her to women’s shelters and shadowing police to continue capturing incidents and victims. Because of her work, domestic violence came out of the shadows.
Policy makers were subsequently forced to confront the issue. where they passed the Violence Against Women Act. Penalties against offenders increased and Police were then trained to treat it as a serious crime.
Her images were the first published images to show domestic violence, a previosuly undocumented area of controversial photography.
Behind Closed Doors - Donna Ferrato (1982)

18. The Face of AIDS – Therese Frare (1990)

Therese Frare took this picture in 1990. Its purpose was to cement the idea of the family’s relationship, not get lost in conflicting colors.
The photographer was a student at a time. It isn’t often that a professional photographer, let alone a student, can see such an intimate situation.
You feel the strength and love of the family in this image. The father holding his son’s head, the mother comforting the dying man’s sister.
The protagonist, David Kirby, was an AIDS activist in the 80s. Here, he lies on his deathbed. This was at a time where homosexuality was illegal.
Kirby died shortly after the captured image. Two years later, AIDS was still very much a taboo topic. It was the number one killer of US men aged between 25 and 44 years of age.
This is when the image was part of a hard-hitting clothing advertising campaign. United Colors of Benetton hosted the image, chosen by the then-creative director at Benetton, Oliviero Toscani.
He saw his role as creating campaigns out of “meaning and issues that advertisers don’t normally want to deal with”. They colorized the image to add more realism.
It created an uproar. The public asked how such an image could be advertising for a clothing brand? Toscani used the image because of the impact it had. Controversial photography took the reigns again.
Rather than promoting United Colors of Benetton, he used the company’s brand and reputation. It was a great platform for showing images, designed to address problems with our society.
The Face of AIDS - Therese Frare (1990) - controversial pictures

17. First Woman to Officially Run the Boston Marathon – Boston Herald (1967)

Kathrine Switzer was 20 years old when she decided to run the Boston Marathon officially. Roberta Gibb had gatecrashed and finished the race the Previous April. This year, Kathrine had a number.
At the time, it was an all-male race. Women were not allowed to run – they were always ridiculed by organizers. No one believed fragile women could finish it.
Even the trainer of Kathrine Switzer believed the same, but she proved Arnie Briggs wrong. She creamed him in a trial run, which cemented the idea of her starting.
To cut suspicion, she signed the necessary paperwork with her initials. She set off alongside Arnie, joined by then-boyfriend, hammer thrower Tom Miller.
Camera crews and photographers from a press bus spotted and photographed her extensively. As this was happening, an official spotted her running.
Jock Semple, the race manager, ran after her in leather shoes and tried to rip off her number. ”Get the hell out of my race and give me those numbers!” he spewed.
Before he could pull her out of the race, athletic Tom shoulder blocked him away. He fell onto the side of the road like a pile of clothes. The idea of women running in the marathon was still one of the most controversial topics.
She finished the race, knowing that if she stopped, it would look like a publicity stunt. Five years later, women were officially allowed to run the marathon.
First Woman to Officially Run the Boston Marathon - Boston Herald (1967)

16. Cotton Mill Girl – Lewis Hine (1908)

It is hard to imagine that less than 100 years ago, children were still working at all, let alone in industrial areas.
Lewis Hine at the time was working as an investigative photographer for the National Child Labor Committee. He believed that images would force citizens to demand change. He set out with a large format camera, conning his way into mills and factories.
Sometimes he would be a bible salesman, and at other times an industrial photographer. He traveled all the way from Massachusetts to South Carolina to tell the plight of nearly 2 million children.
He photographed children laboring in meat packing industries, coal mines and canneries. The image below is of Sadie Pfeifer, a child manning a huge cotton-spinning machine in Lancaster, South Carolina.
Lewis made sure each one of his images remained pure, which meant no staging or retouching. Because of his images, the public saw the horrors of child labor.
This, in turn, led to regulatory legislation and the number of children working fell by half over the next decade. This controversial photograph helped to change that.

Cotton Mill Girl - Lewis Hine (1908)

15. Iraqi Girl at Checkpoint – Chris Hondros (2005)

This hard-hitting image of Samar Hassan took place in 2005 at the height of the Iraq war. Moments before this image’s capture, her parents were both killed at an American checkpoint.
The family was driving home from the Iraqi city of Tal ‘Afar. The American soldiers opened fire under suspicion that the car was either carrying insurgents or a suicide bomber.
These situations were not rare but never documented in real time. Stationed with the Army unit was Chris Hondros. He turned his camera towards the children when the shooting occurred. He transmitted the images immediately, published around the world the following day.
Because of this image, the US military revised their checkpoint procedures. They also came under fire because why were they killing the very people they were there to liberate?
This quickly became one of the most controversial images in the media. You can almost hear the girl’s scream.
Iraqi Girl at Checkpoint - Chris Hondros (2005) Controversial images

14. Si Quiero – Gonzalo Orquín (2013)

The world around us changes because people challenge the current status quo. Without the challenge, there is no change.
Photographers are no different, as you can no doubt see. Photography has the potential to encompass many other disciplines.
Gonzalo Orquin’s photography encompasses love, romantic nature, sociology, and current affairs. His 2013 photo series shows gay and lesbian couples kissing in Roman Catholic churches in Rome.
These images, planned for an exhibition titled Trialogo and scheduled to open at the Galleria L’Opera in Rome. However, it was not meant to be. Vatican City officials sent a letter threatening legal action should the photos go on show.
Spokesman Claudio Tanturri even told a newspaper that the photos violate the Constitution of Italy.
Orquín spoke to lawyers and decided not to exhibit the photos “for security reasons”. Even though the couples show strength, unity, love and in itself public worship, it turns out the Catholic religion is not ready yet.
Gonzalo managed to capture one of the most provocative photos in the history of photography.
 Si Quiero - Gonzalo Orquín (2013)

13. Immersions (Piss Christ) – Andres Serrano (1987)

Andres Serrano, by the looks of it, knows how to create controversy from icons and religious pieces.
Here, Serrano captured an image of a crucifix, submerged in his own urine. It had its place in galleries, and no one battered a blasphemous eye. This was until 1989 when the image found itself exhibited in Virginia.
A pastor made it his mission to stir up a fuss, and in no time at all, Congress was also involved. Due to this piece and the outspoken nature of the pastor, senators passed a new law.
The new law stated that all funding from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) had to consider “general standards of decency” in awarding grants.
This uproar helped to fuel the culture wars of the ’80s and ’90s. This piece and the work from another NEA fellow by the name of Robert Mapplethorpe divided the nation over one question. ‘Does the US Government have the right to censor art?
These two artists opened the doors for others to push the boundaries of their own artistic nature. Thankfully, in 1998, the Supreme Court overturned the new law.
Due to these controversial photographers, art is able to be created and interpreted free of laws and rules.
Immersions (Piss Christ) - Andres Serrano (1987)

12. Souvid Datta – In the Shadows of Kolkata (1978)

Over recent years, documentary photography award finalists have come under increasing pressure. Many have fell under the accusations of fakery and photo manipulation.
David Byrne had his stripped due to excessive editing. Giovanni Troilo had his revoked due to manipulating captions. And don’t get me started on the Anteater.
Documentary projects pushed for awards need to follow the strict rules carefully. Manipulating an image changes the very idea of what documentaries are all about – reality.
Here, we are looking at Souvid Datta and Mary Ellen Mark. Datta is an award-winning photographer who used his image to promote a photography contest.
The image titled In the Shadows of Kolkata was part of a series. They documented the cycle of sexual violence among adult sex workers and children in Kolkata, India.
Souvid claimed that the woman in the background was a veteran sex worker named Asma. The controversy arrived when Shreya Bhat realized something.
The woman looked similar to another woman in an image from documentary photographer Mary Ellen Mark. Ok, not a problem. Until they realise it wasn’t just the same woman, it was copy/pasted into Souvid’s image.
Mary Ellen Mark’s image, captured in Bombay, took place 40 years ago in 1978. Due to this, he lost many of his awards and reputation.
On top of this, Souvid was also accused of using images from other photographers under his own name. These controversial images in the media definitely created a backlash, where most documentary images are reviewed aggressively.

Souvid Datta - In the Shadows of Kolkata (1978)
Souvid Datta
Mary Ellen Mark photo of 4 women in Bombay
Mary Ellen Mark

11. 9/11 photograph – Thomas Hoepker (2001)

I like every image in this list for different reasons. However, this is the one that I am a little wary about liking. It is almost an accidental renaissance image in the positioning of the people.
We all know the story of this image, even before we see the title, and without having to see the scene from up close. We have seen those perspectives to death.
Here, Thomas Hoepker captures a group of men and women enjoying what seems like a Sunday afternoon at the bay. They are enjoying their time while the twin towers rage on in the background.
The scene looks juxtaposed, the viewers could mistake this for a lifestyle shot. This is where the actors/models are meticulously placed with purpose. They would be wrong, however.
Some viewers have called these people callous and uncaring in their stead and posture. One of the members did come forward after this images publishing in 2006 and explained they were in an act of complete disbelief.
I find this one of the most controversial pictures because of the contrast between the background and foreground.
9/11 photograph - Thomas Hoepker (2001)

10. Bosnia – Ron Haviv (1992)

Ron Haviv risked everything to capture this image. It happened before the war in the Balkans had even started.
The American photographer gained access to the Tigers, a brutal nationalist militia. They warned him not to photograph any killings.
He went out on a limb to capture this shot, a split-second decision that could have cost him his life. His determination to show Serbian cruelty towards Muslims allowed him to capture this image.
Time published this image a week after its capture, igniting a broad debate over international responses to the conflict. The war dragged on for three years after its publication.
Haviv was later placed on a hit-list by the Tigers. This image, like many others, became evidence in bringing Arkan to justice. He was later brought to justice for his crimes against humanity.
Bosnia - Ron Haviv (1992)

9. Famine in Somalia – James Nachtwey (1992)

James Nachtwey is one of the world’s most famous photographers, working as a photojournalist. He has more awards that most of us have had hot dinners. In 1992, he gained access to the famine in Somalia.
When I say he gained access, he did it all himself. He approached news outlets with the idea of covering the famine, but he couldn’t get a solid assignment out of it.
James received support from the International Committee of the Red Cross and entered Mogadishu. He was able to capture haunting images of the problem that arose from armed conflict.
The image in question depicts a woman in a wheelbarrow, waiting to enter a feeding center. The woman, too frail to move, reaches out her arm, asking for help.
At the time, the shared image helped to result in the largest public support operation since WWII. All with Nachtwey’s help. His controversial images in the media helped to change foreign aid, specifically for these Somalians.
The controversy I find is with consent. I’m unaware if James or any other photojournalist does, or actively tries, to inform each person of the image’s intent.
When it comes to photographing people, let’s say on the street, they need model releases. When it comes to environmental portraits and photo assignments, these are not needed.
I understand there is a world of difference between an image for commercial sake, and another for documentary. Yet, are we right to photograph those in compromising situations, without their approval?
Famine in Somalia - James Nachtwey (1992) - controversial pictures

8. Dying Polar Bear – Kerstin Langenberger (2015)

In mid-August 2015, Kerstin Langenberger took a photo of a startlingly skinny polar bear. She thought it was days away from death.
At the time, she was part of an Arctic nature tour around Svalbard, an archipelago in northern Norway. From aboard an expedition cruise boat, she saw something out in the distance that caught her eye.
On top of a small ice flow, she could see a yellow spot that she thought was a polar bear. She had no idea how thin it was until it stood up.
Langenberger suggested that the bear’s starvation was likely connected to climate change.
After posting the image on Facebook, the post created conversations among the followers. Some didn’t believe in a solid link between the scrawny bear and climate change.
Even the Polar Bears International’s Senior Director of Conservation released a statement, saying that Langenberger’s claim was ‘a bridge too far’.
There are biases to every image. Once an image enters the public domain with text that isn’t conclusive, you have the power to steer viewers’ minds.
As a photographer, you need to be aware of the ethics of what you show. Especially when the images turn into iconic photos.
Dying Polar Bear - Kerstin Langenberger (2015) - controversial photography

7. Comrade Stalin and Nikolai Yezhov

Before Photoshop, there was Stalin. Actually, before Stalin started doctoring images, Mao’s era in China saw many images altered to fit with the leaders’ vision.
In this image, on the left, we see Stalin and the leader of the NKVD (secret police) Nikolai Yezhov. In the right and final picture, Nikolai became replaced with a body of water, and convincingly so.
Between the years of 1937-8 came the Great Purge. 50-75% of all members of the Supreme Soviet and officers of the Soviet military found themselves stripped of their positions and imprisoned.
Nikolai Yezhov was responsible for the orders resulting in 1.3 million people arrested. Half of which, executed for ‘crimes against the state’.
Unfortunately for Yezhov, his fate ended the same way. Denounced, imprisoned, tortured and finally executed in 1940. The image that showed him alongside Stalin was then doctored, eliminating any evidence of his existence.

These controversial pictures change the past, rendering the future up for grabs.

Comrade Stalin and Nikolai Yezhov - controversial pictures

6. The Torture of Ali Shallal al-Qaisi – Anon (2004)

We like to think that we live in a peaceful time. There are no epic battles and daily struggles against people wielding weapons any longer. Torture is a thing of the past, never repeated.
Sadly, this isn’t the case. Either the situations aren’t reported, or remain hidden from our eyes to begin with. In many instances, there are more people dealing with war today than ever before.
In 2004, people’s eyes around the world were opened by images from Abu Ghraib. This Iraqi prison found itself occupied by American troops following their 2003 invasion.
Abu Ghraib was being used by US troops to detain thousands of Iraqi citizens – in the most repulsive and unsettling conditions.
This shameful photo of Iraqi Ali Shallal al-Qaysi’s torture has come to symbolize the American-led occupation. It was the first time citizens saw inside these prisons, and how the captors treated their fellow men.
These were not only the most controversial topics, but also the most controversial photos.
The Torture of Ali Shallal al-Qaisi - Anon (2004)

5. Alan Kurdi – Nilüfer Demir (2015)

If the world thinks of a a painfully sad image from the last few years, this photograph would be at the top. We wish it was a staged shot, as it would mean Alan Kurdi would still be alive today.
In 2015, Europe met with a huge refugee crisis. People from war-torn Syria, among others, fled their native countries to find refuge in European countries.
The EU couldn’t handle such large amounts of people appearing at the same time. So they closed most of their borders. Each country had its own problems, either helping or shunning those crossing the border.
Those that had, often, walked the entire way, used every means they could to enter Europe. Some took perilous trips by boat from Turkey to Greece.
In one instance, the boat carrying the Kurdi family (father, mother, and two sons) from Turkey to Kos capsized shortly after setting off. The mother and both sons drowned.
Alan’s body washed up near the coastal town of Bodrum a few hours later. Nilufer Demir of the Dogan News Agency raised her camera. She thought it was the only way she could express the scream of his silent body.
This image whipped around social media within hours, forcing European governments to open closed frontiers. As controversial photography goes, it is important to show how our systems often fail so we can fix them for the benefit of all.

4. Nan one month after being battered – Nan Goldin (1984) 

Nan Goldin is an American photographer. Her work explores LGBT bodies, intimacy, the HIV crisis and the opioid epidemic. She documents real life. It is truthful and gritty to the core – often about her own connections.
Her focus falls on the real everyday struggles of those on the outer limits of society. The image titled Nan one month after being battered is no different.
The title says it all, and even though it prepares you, it is still difficult to look at. Violence against women is a very taboo topic, and still very real.
Here, Nan, shown beaten by a lover who she had an intense sexual relationship with. They stayed together even when every other aspect of their connection failed. He almost blinded her in his act.
She wears her bruises and bloody eye with an almost pride. She withstood it and she is still here. Her injuries look so severe that we need to look closely. We could almost mistake it for makeup.
Her hair is glossy and obviously styled. Her lips bear red lipstick and her clothing and jewelry suggest she is going out. The violence doesn’t stop her living her life.
In an image such as this, we are bridging the gap between photographic evidence and a beautiful portrait of an outgoing woman.
This controversial image from one of the most famous photographers brings around ideas of how we view ourselves.
Nan one month after being battered - Nan Goldin (1984) - controversial images

3. White Skates – Sally Mann (1990)

Sally Mann was named “America’s Best Photographer” in 2001 by Time Magazine. She is best known for her third collection of images, aptly named ‘Immediate Family’.
These photos depicted intimate pictures of her children, 25% of which were nudes. Criticism surrounding these images questioned the line between pornography, fine art, and objectification.
What we see through these images is the discrepancy of power between artist and subject. Ideas of ethics in how we represent one another through photography are at the forefront when we read these images.
It is controversial as we are breaking into a family’s intimacy. The children’s innocence is on display for the world to see.
Sally said that she wanted to wait for her children to become older so they could acknowledge the images and give their consent. However, they wanted their mother to publish the images immediately.
This project was first shown in 1990 at Edwynn Houk Gallery, Chicago. It goes to show that we have to second guess our art or documentary projects as others could find them, sick, disturbing or vulgar.
This controversial photogaphy is still a hot topic for debate, especially as they became iconic photos.
White Skates - Sally Mann (1990) Controversial photography

2. The Falling Soldier – Robert Capa (1936)

The Falling Soldier or Loyalist Militiaman at the Moment of Death, Cerro Muriano, September 5, 1936 is one of the most famous war photographs to this date.
Robert Capa is no stranger to war. Later, in 1945, he would be part of the front lines that stormed the beaches at Normandy, only to find most of his negatives were unprintable.
Here, we see a member of the local militia letting his rifle slip from his hand as he falls. He was fatally shot in the head during the Battle of Cerro Muriano, in the Spanish Civil War.
Since the 1970s, there has been significant doubt whether this image was staged or not. Capa was not known to stage images, as the majority of his work was combat or adventure based.
However, looking at the image, there are a few inconsistencies. Firstly, staging photos was a common occurrence during the Spanish Civil War. This was due to limits imposed upon photojournalists’ freedom of movement.
Secondly, research suggests the image was not taken in Cerro Muriano. José Manuel Susperregui suggests the town of Espejo, about 50 kilometers (30 miles) away, was the actual scene.
Thirdly, Capa mentioned that the militiaman had been shot by a burst of machine-gun fire, not a sniper’s bullet. Capa also gave different accounts of the vantage point and technique he used to obtain the photograph.
There is also doubt about the identification of the subject. It’s believed that Frederico Borrell García was the subject. But he was actually killed at Cerro Muriano, shot while sheltered behind a tree.
Whatever the case, this is still one of the most famous and talked about images in the world.
The Falling Soldier - Robert Capa (1936)

1. Starving Child and Vulture – Kevin Carter (1993)

Kevin Carter was a South African photojournalist and a member of the ‘Bang-Bang’ club. This group soon found themselves photographing small African townships. This took place between 1990 and 1994, during the apartheid transition.
In 1993, the group found themselves in South Sudan, covering the famine. Kevin Carter took the image of the frail child, with a vulture eying him up in the background.
This image won him the Pulitzer Prize for Feature Photography. The New York Times published it in the same month, March 1993.
Newspapers all across the globe republished the image. There was an immediate response from the public in relation to the image.
When the image won the Pulitzer a year after its capture, Kevin gave a speech concerning the image. He became hounded by emotional public and journalists asking why he didn’t help the child.
This traumatic situation added to the weight of his experiences, and Kevin Carter took his own life four months later.
An image such as this allows the general public to see situations around the world they would otherwise be blind to. More often than not, an image falls out of context, as we only see what fell in the frame.
Controversial pictures, such as this, is important to change our view of the world. Even more so when the images are taken by famous photographers.
Starving Child and Vulture - Kevin Carter (1993) controversial pictures

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