The 100 Most Influential Photographs: Watch TIME’s Video Essays on Photos That Changed the World

We live in a cul­ture over­sat­u­rat­ed with images. Videos of vio­lence and death cir­cu­late with dis­turb­ing reg­u­lar­i­ty, only rarely ris­ing to the lev­el of mass pub­lic out­rage. Social media and news feeds bom­bard us not only with dis­tress­ing head­lines but with pho­to­graph after photograph–doctored, memed, repeat­ed, then dis­card­ed and for­got­ten. It’s impos­si­ble to do oth­er­wise than to for­get: the sheer vol­ume of visu­al infor­ma­tion most of us take in dai­ly over­whelms the brain’s abil­i­ty to sort and process.

As if insist­ing that we look and real­ly see, the judges of the Pulitzer Prize have giv­en the award for fea­ture pho­tog­ra­phy almost exclu­sive­ly to images of tragedy in recent years. In most cas­es, the con­flicts and dis­as­ters they depict have not gone away, they have only dis­ap­peared from head­line news. Whether we can say that pho­tog­ra­phy is los­ing its pow­er to move and shock us in the over­whelm­ing sea of visu­al noise is a sub­ject for a much longer med­i­ta­tion. But I can think of few recent images com­pa­ra­ble to those in the TIME 100 Pho­tographs series.

Of course the say­ing “time will tell” isn’t just a pun here: we can only know if a pho­to will have his­toric impact in hind­sight, but in near­ly all of the 100 pho­tos featured—which have been giv­en their own mini-doc­u­men­taries—the impact was imme­di­ate and gal­va­niz­ing, inspir­ing action, activism, wide­spread, sor­row, anger, appre­ci­a­tion, or awe. The emo­tion­al res­o­nance, in many cas­es, has only deep­ened over the decades.

The image of Emmett Till’s face, bat­tered into unrec­og­niz­abil­i­ty, has not lost its pow­er to shock and appall one bit. Although the spe­cif­ic con­text may now elude us, its details still mys­te­ri­ous, we can still be moved by Jeff Widener’s pho­to­graph of a defi­ant Chi­nese cit­i­zen fac­ing down the tanks in Tianan­men Square. Alber­to Korda’s 1960 por­trait of Che Gue­var­ra became not only icon­ic but a lit­er­al icon.

What will we see fifty, or 100, years from now, on the oth­er hand, in “Oscars Self­ie” (2014), by Bradley Coop­er? The pho­to seems to me an eeri­ly cheer­ful por­tent from the point-of-view of 2020, just a hand­ful of years lat­er, with its well-groomed, smil­ing, mask-less faces and lack of social dis­tanc­ing. It is an image of a gen­uine­ly sim­pler, or at least a pro­found­ly more obliv­i­ous, time. And it was also just yes­ter­day in the scale of TIME’s list, whose ear­li­est pho­to dates to almost 200 years ago and hap­pens to be the “first known per­ma­nent pho­to­graph.”

TIME itself, once a stan­dard bear­er for pho­to­jour­nal­ism, shows us how much our inter­ac­tion with pho­tog­ra­phy has changed. The so-called “turn to video” may have been most­ly hype—we con­tin­ue to read, lis­ten to pod­casts, and yes, pour over strik­ing pho­tographs obses­sive­ly. But hard­ly any­thing these days, it seems, can pass by with­out a mini-YouTube doc­u­men­tary. We may not need them to be emo­tion­al­ly moved by these pho­tographs, yet tak­en alto­geth­er, these short videos offer “an unprece­dent­ed explo­ration,” writes TIME, of how “each spec­tac­u­lar image… changed the course of his­to­ry.”

Watch all of the 21 short doc­u­men­tary videos cur­rent­ly avail­able at TIME’s YouTube chan­nel, with more, it seems, like­ly to come.

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

The Sto­ry Behind the Icon­ic Pho­to­graph of 11 Con­struc­tion Work­ers Lunch­ing 840 Feet Above New York City (1932)

The First Pho­to­graph Ever Tak­en (1826)

The First Faked Pho­to­graph (1840)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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