The 19 Most Controversial Photographs In History

Image: aaron tam/AFP/Getty Images / Macaca nigra

Photographs can delight, intrigue and horrify. This set of images covers all three of those bases, featuring both historic moments and pictures that illustrate far less earnest happenings. What’s more, while photographs are generally seen as a definitive record of events – and some of these photographs certainly are – others challenge the idea that the camera never lies.

Image: Alan Diaz

19. The taking of Elian Gonzalez

Six-year-old Elian Gonzalez traveled to the US by boat as a Cuban refugee in 1999. The boy’s mother and ten of the twelve other passengers aboard died during the journey, but he was rescued by fishermen. Elian became the subject of a custody battle between his father back in Cuba and his great-uncle in the U.S. Eventually, the courts said that Elian must be returned to Cuba. Photographer Alan Diaz caught the moment that the authorities seized him.

Image: Bernie Boston

18. Flower power

Bernie Boston was the photographer who captured this image of a demonstrator inserting a flower into the barrel of a rifle. The demonstration was called by the National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam – a name that tells you all you need to know about what’s happening here. The rifle, meanwhile, was in the hands of a soldier in the 503rd Military Police Battalion.

Image: United States Armed Forces

17. Abuse at Abu Ghraib

This unsettling image was taken in 2003 at the Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad in the aftermath of the invasion of Iraq. The photographer, Sergeant Ivan Frederick, was later sentenced to eight years in prison for abusing prisoners. Since it includes no blood or nudity, it is actually one of the milder pictures of the abuses that occurred in the prison.

Image: Cornell Capa

16. The Falling Soldier


This iconic shot shows a Republican fighter in the Spanish Civil War in the split-second immediately after he has been fatally shot. Or does it? In more recent years, doubts have been cast on the authenticity of Robert Capa’s image. Nevertheless, it remains an undoubtedly iconic photograph.

Image: BiblioArchives / LibraryArchives

15. Sir Winston Churchill

Churchill was on a trip to the Canadian Parliament when this shot was taken. However, he hadn’t been told that a photographer would be on hand to take his picture. Then, to make his mood even worse, the photographer Yousuf Karsh plucked the great man’s lit cigar from his mouth. Karsh told Time, “By the time I got back to my camera, he looked so belligerent he could have devoured me. It was at that instant that I took the photograph.”

Image: aaron tam/AFP/Getty Images

14. Cindy Sherman sells at Sotheby’s


This photograph’s controversy is in fact all about money. It’s a self-portrait by Cindy Sherman and when it sold at Sotheby’s auction house it commanded an astronomic price for a photographic print – of no less than $3,890,500. In 2011, that was the highest price that had ever been paid for a photograph.

Image: via Wikipedia

13. Berlin, 1945

One of the best-known images of World War II captures the moment that Soviet soldiers planted the Red Banner atop the wrecked Reichstag. The act decisively signified victory for the Soviet forces in the bloody battle to take Berlin in 1945. Although the victory was real enough, however, this dramatic photo by Yevgeny Khaldei was later revealed to have been staged.

Image: via Wikipedia

12. Sophia Loren gets an eyeful


This risqué 1957 image catches Sophia Loren passing a surreptitious glance over Jayne Mansfield’s bust. Joe Shere’s image was taken at the Beverley Hills restaurant Romanoff’s at an event intended to honor the Italian actress. Mansfield’s low-cut dress, meanwhile, was said to have been part of a deliberate attempt to overshadow Loren.

Image: Angelo Cozzi

11. Black Power at the Olympics

At the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City, American Tommie Smith took the gold medal and his fellow countryman John Carlos the bronze in the 200-meter race. As the rousing notes of “The Star-Spangled Banner” echoed around the stadium, however, the two men raised their black-gloved fists in what was unmistakably a Black Power salute.


10. McMinnville UFO photographs

Unlikely as it may seem, this blurry photo received much media coverage when it emerged in 1950. One of a pair of images purporting to show a flying saucer, it was taken by Paul Trent at his farm near McMinnville, Oregon. The photos were widely concluded to be fakes. However, there are still those among the UFO faithful who believe that they are authentic.

Image: Heinrich Hoffmann Collection

9. Himmler meets defiance

This 1941 photograph of Heinrich Himmler, the man in charge of the Nazi death camps, shows him inspecting a prisoner of war camp. For many years the man staring defiantly at Himmler was believed to be a British soldier, Horace Greasley. However subsequent investigation has shown that the soldier was almost certainly Soviet. Whoever he is, his contempt for the despicable Himmler is clear.

Image: Jeff Widener

8. Tanks in Tiananmen Square


This powerful image of resistance juxtaposes the vulnerability of one defiant man with the military might of a convoy of tanks. It was taken in June 1989 during the pro-democracy protests in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. We know that Associated Press photographer Jeff Widener took the shot, but when it comes to the identity of the lone man and what his fate was, there is little definite information.

Image: Philippe Halsman

7. Salvador Dali

If you’re a cat lover you might find this extraordinary image of Salvador Dali just a little upsetting. And if you’re a lover of traditional portraiture, this photo might also be troubling for you. Philippe Halsman was the man behind the lens while various assistants threw the cats and a bucket of water into the frame. It took 26 shots to get the perfect image.

Image: Charles Levy

6. Nagasaki, 1945


Hiroshima had the unenviable distinction of being the first city in the world to experience the effects of an atomic bomb. Three days later, on August 9, 1945, a second atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki, where this shot was taken. Following the devastating impact of these two nuclear attacks, Japan surrendered just six days later.

Image: Library of Congress

5. Rosa Parks

It was in December 1955 that Rosa Parks refused to vacate her seat on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama so that a white person could sit. Parks was subsequently arrested, charged with disorderly conduct and fined $10. Here, we see her a year later, after Alabama’s transit system finally became integrated – in no small part thanks to her principled stand.


4. Street execution

In this shocking image, senior South Vietnamese policeman Nguyen Ngoc Loan summarily executes a Viet Cong fighter, Nguyen Van Lem, on a Saigon street. This 1968 incident happened during a major Viet Cong offensive and was captured by American photographer Eddie Adams. The photograph was to haunt Loan for the rest of his life. He died in 1998.


3. Dying polar bear

Conservationist Kerstin Langenberger took this shot of an emaciated polar bear in 2015 in northern Norway. Langenberger then posted the image on Facebook, connecting the polar bear’s plight to climate change and the shrinking polar ice caps. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the post quickly went viral. However, some experts weren’t so sure of Langenberger’s claims. Indeed, Professor Iain Stirling told Mashable, “[The bear] may be starving but it may just be old… I don’t think you can tie that one to starvation because of lack of sea ice.”

Image: Corpus Christi Caller-Times

2. Marilyn Monroe


This image of Marilyn Monroe with her dress blowing up over a subway grate has caught the attention of generations since it first appeared in 1954. The scene was in fact part of a promotional shoot for the film The Seven Year Itch. What’s more, Monroe was very careful about what was revealed in the shot. Indeed, she wore two sets of underwear to protect her modesty.

Image: Macaca nigra

1. The monkey selfie

British photographer David Slater spent three days tracking macaque monkeys in Indonesia. However, he was unable to get the close-up shots that he wanted, so he set his camera to automatic and allowed the monkeys to play with it. This turned out to be a great success – and indeed resulted in some stunning images. However, a complex set of copyright challenges followed involving Wikimedia and PETA, with some arguing that the monkey actually owned the copyright. Slater continues to reject this position.