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.