What Was the Most Influential Photograph in History?

A big question

William Anders / NASA

John Stanmeyer, photojournalist and co-founder, VII Photo agency

One image that summarizes our fragility and the need to work for peace is the simple yet poignant photograph of Earth taken by the astronaut William Anders during 1968’s Apollo 8 mission.

Pete Souza, photographer and author, Obama: An Intimate Portrait

John Filo’s photograph showing a woman kneeling over a victim of the Kent State shootings, taken in 1970, won a Pulitzer Prize, and was the first picture that riveted my attention as a teenager, when it appeared in my hometown newspaper.

Steve McCurry, photographer, Afghan Girl

It almost doesn’t matter whether viewers know the backstory of Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother (1936), of a mother and her children during the Depression, because the photo instantly reaches deep down into our souls and grabs us at a visceral level. This woman’s humanity, adversity, determination, and fortitude will remain with us forever.

Joel Sartore, founder, National Geographic Photo Ark

Eddie Adams’s iconic Saigon Execution (1968) helped stop a war. This image demonstrates the power of still photography to make a single moment last forever. The impact of this photo motivates me in my work to take images that inspire people to stop a different battle: the extinction crisis.

Eddie Adams / AP

Charles H. Traub, photographer and educator, School of Visual Arts

Mathew Brady’s 1860 photograph of Abraham Lincoln is likely the first truly mass-distributed image during a political campaign. Because it was reproduced in many forms—lithographs, wood engravings, etc.—it was widely visible, in periodicals and on campaign buttons, postcards, cartes de visite, and the like. Lincoln exclaimed that this photograph helped make him president, and the rest is history.

Mathew Brady / Library of Congress

Tabitha Soren, fine-art photographer

With the Untitled Film Stills series (1977–80), Cindy Sherman turned portraiture into performance: She fooled us by dressing herself up in different guises and then capturing her own image. Sherman also prefigured the idea that people are presenting a “self” all the time—even when not on camera and even without Instagram and Photoshop.

Reader Responses

Ernest Davis, New York, N.Y.

Rosalind Franklin and Raymond Gosling’s diffraction photographs of DNA (1952) were crucial to James Watson and Francis Crick’s discovery of its structure.

Henry Burney, Syosset, N.Y.

The photograph of the atomic cloud over Hiroshima introduced the world to the bomb’s destructive power and ushered in the nuclear arms race.

U.S. Army

Don Gervich, Watertown, Mass.

Nick Ut’s photograph of 9-year-old Phan Th Kim Phúc—running, naked, and crying from napalm burns—captures war’s merciless cruelty. The 1972 image may have helped end the Vietnam conflict.

Nick Ut / AP

Brian G. Gilmore, Washington, D.C.

The photos of 14-year-old Emmett Till’s mutilated body that appeared in Jet magazine and other publications in 1955 energized the U.S. civil-rights movement. Rosa Parks later stated that what happened to Till was what made her decide to protest on the bus that day in Montgomery, Alabama.

Want to see your name on this page? Email bigquestion@theatlantic.com with your response to the question for our April issue: Which fictional house would you most like to live in?