The iconic image


WARNING: this post contains graphic images!


My Masters thesis explored the iconic image of crisis.   I have not been satisfied with the writing as a whole but there are aspects within it I am going to further explore.  In my thesis I utilised Robert Hariman and John Louis Lucaites’ propose that an iconic news image as:

“an aesthetically familiar form of civic performance coordinating an array of semiotic transcriptions that project an emotional scenario to manage a basic contradiction or recurrent crisis” (29).


I chose this definition because it was both succinct and had room for movement in my discussion.  I believe that the intention of an iconic image is to “project an emotional scenario”, however it is not simply to manage the situation but also to entice and keep a viewing audience.

Anyone who looks images of a disaster in any media organisation coverage of a disaster knows what an iconic image is.  They may not know it precisely by that name, at that time, but they quickly become familiar with images that are routinely shown alongside any information about their associated event.   The iconic images are used as examples of the devastation, they highlight the trauma and keep it in the public eye, they seek to manage what is seen and by whom and they explain it.  However this explanation is through the interpretation of the purchaser of the selected images.

When you think of 9/11 what image memory comes to mind?  For many people it is Richard Drew’s Falling Man.  That is an iconic image.

Image Source:  Richard Drew for Associated Press



Specific iconic images are easily evidenced in association with major events in the world.  They provide a visual connection to those events.  This remains a popular method for the transmission of information and for reception of it by a public awaiting news.  However, I believe that just as their are societally, nationally and globally accepted images there are also personal ones.  Maisel’s image of the hand from 9/11 is how my mind visually remembers this tragic event.  This image stuck with me because there were very few images of the human loss of life, primarily a consequence of the nature of the manner of death.  9/11 is the imagery of the architectural form and its downfall.

Image Source:  Todd Maisel for the NY Daily News


The longevity of iconic images is impressive.  Despite advances in technology a single still photograph remains the chosen format to transmit information.  In the increasingly popular #Hashtag activism images are often posted of a person (often famous) holding up the information they are trying to obtain support for.  In my thesis I used the example of
#BringBackOurGirls which sought the return of nearly 200 Nigerian girls kidnapped to
be sold into slavery (Olin para 1 & 7).  An iconic image from that action was of Michelle Obama photographed with the hashtag sign.

Image source:  Twitter/@Flotus/Associated Press


Alongside the longevity of the iconic image it is also rarely challenged once established. This can be even after evidence that the image was potentially fake in some way.  This happened with the iconic image from Iwo Jima with controversy about Joe Rosenthal’s photograph that is the most famous representations of it.  It is still recognised today and a facsimile of it was part of the 9/11 visual display.  it also does not matter how many similar images are taken at the same time, one is always promoted as the sole iconic image.


The images of Marines raising the flag over Iwo Jima remain icons to this day.
Image source:  Joe Rosenthal for the Associated Press
Image Source:  Tom Franklin of the Record

Iconic images fascinate me.  The fascination includes why they were taken and by who, who had the primary agenda in their selection for use and what was it, the changing roles from primarily photojournalist iconic images to the transition of photographs of the person caught up in the crisis, snapping shots as they flee for their lives and what they say about the society and time that they were created.  I hope that you can enjoy my fascination and that I can convey it in my writing.


Hariman, Robert and John Louis Lucaites. No Caption Needed: Iconic Photographs,
Public Culture, and Liberal Democracy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press,
2011. Print.

Olin, Laura. “#BringBackOurGirls: Hashtag Activism Is Cheap–And That’s a Good
Thing.” Time. 09 May 2014. Web. 11 May 2014.

The iconic news image as visual event in photojournalism and digital media : a thesis presented in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of Master of Arts in Media Studies at Massey University, Manawatu, New Zealand / Samantha Diane Kelly



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