6 Images That Ruined the Lives of People They Made Famous
It's easy to forget that the people involved in iconic photos are, well, people. For every image that instantly became a part of history, there were lives forever changed both behind and in front of the camera -- they are instantly famous, due to pure circumstance. And sometimes these lives are in no way changed for the better. We're talking about the bizarre and often tragic stories like ...
WARNING: SOME OF THESE IMAGES ARE DISTURBING. We have censored where necessary, but if you're sensitive, you might still want to stay away.
The White Guy at the 1968 "Black Power" Olympics Photo
You've almost certainly seen this photo somewhere, but may not know the background, other than "It was at the Olympics, right? Aren't they standing on that medal thing?"
It was at the 1968 Mexico Olympics, and American runners Tommie Smith and John Carlos won medals in the 200-meter finals. But what catapulted them into notoriety was this photo of them doing the "black power" salute at the podium. The photograph became an iconic image in the history of civil rights, but what's not often discussed is the awkward-looking white guy on the left.
"Man, I never know what to do with my hands during a photo. What do you guys usually- oh."
That's the Australian silver medalist, Peter Norman. While he looks kind of jittery in this scene (and is clearly not participating in the black power bit), he knew very well what was going to happen behind him -- he'd spoken to Smith and Carlos before the ceremony. Not only did he support their cause, but the black gloves were his idea, and he wore a civil rights pin on his tracksuit when he took to the podium.
Unfortunately for him, Australia wasn't any more progressive than the United States at that time, being under the grip of a whites-only immigration policy, so having one of their own support racial equality in front of the entire world was like a kangaroo punch to the groin.
It's the third leading cause of death among Australian males.
So even though he was a world class runner and No. 2 in the world, Norman was blacklisted from any future Olympics. And they really meant it -- with Norman out of the picture, Australia didn't send anybody to sprint in the 1972 Munich Games.
After he was ostracized from the Aussie establishment, Norman went through a severe period of depression and substance abuse. Although he'd hoped to receive recognition at the 2000 Sydney Olympics -- it being his home country and in a more enlightened world -- he was again snubbed, being the only Australian Olympian who wasn't given a chance to run a VIP lap of honor.
"Hey, it's only the year 2000; social issues take time ... try again in 2115."
All because he didn't, what, do a "white power" salute in response? In our opinion, that would have made things even more awkward. And speaking of stupid racist controversies ...
The Man Who Filmed the Rodney King Beating
George Holliday was a simple drain rooter (the guy you call when your drains are backed up from all the candy bar wrappers and cigarette butts you've flushed down there) who lived a happy life until the night of March 3, 1991, when he heard the sirens that would turn his life upside down. Grabbing his video camera and heading into the street, he wound up capturing the infamous scene of half a dozen police officers beating the living shit out of Rodney King. It was a tape that never found its way to the family memories collection.
Other notable exceptions: Cousin Steve's wedding and Mother's Day '89.
This being before the days of smartphones, there were certain police officers who figured they could do pretty much whatever they wanted in public, because who's going to believe the word of some doped-up black guy? And they were still kind of right -- despite the clear footage of cops trying to make pancake batter out of a near unconscious man, the police were acquitted of all charges, which sparked the LA riots that led to 54 deaths, almost 3,000 injuries, and hundreds of buildings torched.
And a "very special" episode of The Fresh Prince.
Everybody wanted somebody to blame for the wreckage, and although many pointed their fingers toward more deserving targets, a depressing number of people turned their ire against Holliday for having the presence of mind to film the events. He started getting death threats in the mail, and once the media put a face to his name, he became known locally as "the guy who started the riots," in much the same way that NBC is responsible for the trauma of 9/11, we guess.
Holliday lost his job and his marriage because of the media circus. He works as a freelance rooter these days, but can't advertise for fear of people tracking him down. And the final kick in the balls of the whole thing was that his trivia card in Trivial Pursuit misspelled his name as "Halliday."
"My only solace is having the best beard in the tri-state area."
The Other Guy in the RFK Assassination Photo
In June of 1968, Senator Robert Kennedy lived up to the family tradition of being shot dead by a madman for a stupid reason. In this case, it was by Sirhan Sirhan, who we can only assume was pissed off that his parents neglected to give him two separate names. At the moment of the assassination, this iconic photograph was taken as Kennedy lay dying, head propped up by some random, surprised dude.
Sirhan shot first.
That random dude was Juan Romero, a 17-year-old Mexican immigrant who worked as a busboy at the hotel that Kennedy was staying at when he was shot. He was snapped in the photo because Kennedy was shaking his hand at the moment when Sirhan took his life.
After the photograph circulated the world media, grieving citizens who have an unhealthy habit of blaming anyone but the crazy dude with the gun began to latch onto Romero as the culprit. Bags of mail flooded into the hotel where Romero worked, many accusing him of putting Kennedy in harm's way by stopping to shake his hand, or even demanding to know why he hadn't taken the bullet himself. In fairness, many praised him and hoped, we guess, to rub his head for luck.
If he had jumped in front of Kennedy, he probably would have gotten hate mail from racists for taking bullets away from "real Americans."
Being that he was just a simple immigrant from the projects, Romero couldn't deal with the newfound fame that now haunted him, and he fled from town to town in an effort to return to the simple life. It didn't help that he always harbored guilt over the role he believed he had in delaying Kennedy long enough for Sirhan to get a good shot in.
Similar to Jackie's "It's a beautiful day! Let's put the top down!" guilt.
While he did eventually settle down and raise a family, Romero missed out on attending college and, as of the last time a reporter forced him to talk, never fully learned to cope with the celebrity caused by the infamous picture. It's so weird, it's like some people don't want to be famous. Hey, speaking of which ...
The Sixth Man Who Raised the Flag at Iwo Jima
So how awesome would it be to do something in war so heroic and inspirational that a reporter actually takes a picture of you doing it and then the government uses it to inspire the whole country for decades after? You'd keep that goddamned photo in your pocket for the rest of your life, right? Cop tries to pull you over for doing 70 in a 30 zone, just whip out that photo. "Sorry, officer, I must have been distracted remembering that time I raised the fucking flag at Iwo Jima." And you can bet you'd never pay for another drink.
Hell, the above photo not only won the Pulitzer Prize in the category of Awesome and/or Badass Photos, but Clint Eastwood made two different movies about it.
"He said he has to do another to make up for Paul Walker and Ryan Phillippe being in this one."
Oh, the men in that photo became celebrities, all right. And, as we just established, that's not everyone's goal in life.
"Does my ass really look that big?"
The problem was, the raising of the flag was by no means the end of the fighting -- of the six men who appeared in the photo, three wound up getting killed in battle soon thereafter. Fearing that it would be a PR nightmare if all of the men lost their lives, the American military brass decided to pull the survivors out of the war and make them famous. John Bradley and Rene Gagnon were quickly identified and flown home, which left the third and last flag man, Native American Ira Hayes, to become the real life Private Ryan. But Hayes didn't want to be found.
Sure, Hayes knew that staying behind would likely kill him (it was the deadliest battle to date in the Pacific theater), but he didn't want to abandon his fellow men just because someone had taken a cool photo. He allegedly even threatened Gagnon with bodily harm if he named Hayes as the sixth man in the scene. But eventually, pressure from his superiors forced Gagnon to give up Hayes' name, and Hayes was pulled from combat, being a celebrity and all.
With a stare like that, who needs middle fingers?
So he came home, heard about how his friends back in the war were killed, one by one, and the resulting guilt ruined his life. Because it's not like the world would let him forget -- for the rest of his years, people tracked Hayes down at his home on the Pima Indian reservation to get his autograph, which just worsened the guilt he carried for having (in his mind) left his friends on Iwo Jima to die. Eventually, he succumbed to alcoholism.
Jesus, that's sad. Let's move on from the tragic stuff and look at a nice, peaceful painting ...
The Victorian Portrait That Killed Its Model
John Everett Millais' Ophelia is probably the most beautiful painting in history of someone dead in a river. It took the artist five months to complete. So how in the hell could a painting ruin anybody's life? It's not even showing a real person.
Actually, it is. Elizabeth Siddal, the model for the painting, was a hatmaker's assistant in Victorian England when she caught the eye of an artist who thought her pale skin and red hair made her a perfect portrait model. So Siddal spent the remainder of her days living as a kind of Victorian Lindsay Lohan, posing for some of the great Victorian artists and ultimately spiralling into drugs and an untimely death. And it all started going downhill with Ophelia.
"If only something could have foretold things involving Ophelia ending so tragically."
See, to simulate the scene, Millais had Siddal lie perfectly still in a bathtub. No problem, except it was winter, and as the heat lamps under the tub went out, the water turned frigid. With the consummate professionalism innate to every supermodel, Siddal stayed motionless for hours as Millais painted, plus five minutes while he stepped out to smoke a comically large pipe and toss ha'pennies at orphans.
But dedication takes its toll: Siddal contracted pneumonia and remained in poor health for the rest of her life. This was the 1800s, remember -- if the pneumonia didn't kill you, the treatment would. In this case, a common treatment was laudanum, a mixture of alcohol and opium that, while probably very enjoyable, wasn't a miracle cure for anything except sobriety. Siddal became addicted, and in 1862, with an unhappy marriage and a recent stillborn pregnancy probably caused by the drug, she overdosed in a probable suicide.
The only definite is that Victorian-era doctors were fucking awful.
Her husband, artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti, was overcome with grief and guilt, for which the only known cure is slipping a notebook of poems you've been working on into your wife's coffin. So that's what he did. But seven years later, regretting his rash decision, Rossetti had Siddal's body exhumed to recover the poems so that he could publish them. Because love is fleeting, but there's no regret like leaving your best poetic work to become worm food.
A douche by any other name ...
The Guy Who Snapped the Fireman at the Oklahoma City Bombing
What we're censoring in the above photo is a firefighter holding a bleeding infant as he carried it away from the aftermath of the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995. Despite being more disturbing than a lot of the gore photos 4chan users show to each other, the image became world famous (there it is on the cover of Newsweek, obviously). The photo was not, however, taken by a world-famous photojournalist, but rather a random gas company employee named Lester LaRue.
"The plan was to snap a picture of the guy who keeps stealing my sandwiches, but this is good too."
It was one of those once-in-a-lifetime shots, where he just happened to be in the right place at the right time to capture the perfect, heart-rending scope of the disaster.
After being approached by Newsweek, LaRue granted permission to publish the photograph, assuming that he owned the copyright to his own image. To make the most of having captured the human cost of terrorism, LaRue also started to bang out T-shirts, bronze statues, and other merchandising deals for the image.
The 9/11 coin would put up a good fight for most tasteless collectible
based on an American tragedy, but the champ still remains.
Unfortunately, copyright law is a strange, confusing beast. The mother of the infant, Aren Almon, voiced concerns that her child's death was being commercialized. Perhaps sensing a media disaster, the company that LaRue worked for stepped in and claimed ownership of the photograph (he was on the job when he heard the blast and ran to the scene). The argument was that, because the photo was taken on company time and using the company's camera, LaRue took it in his capacity as an employee, and so the photograph belonged to his employers.
"We're also claiming the baby you made during our company retreat."
After refusing to cede copyright to the gas company, LaRue was fired and entered into a long legal battle with Oklahoma Natural Gas Co., and, perhaps unsurprisingly, the big corporation won. To their credit, the company donated all profit from the photograph to charity, while LaRue lost his job and reputation and was left with nothing but a massive legal bill.
But wait, it gets even stranger.
We mentioned that you've likely seen that famous photo before, but what you actually saw was probably not LaRue's photo. Another photographer named Charles Porter was standing just 3 feet from LaRue when they both spotted the fireman and sensed a photo opportunity. Both snapped photos at the exact same moment:
Porter's photo on the right, black boxes added by us, obviously.
Porter's nearly indistinguishable photo went on to win the Pulitzer Prize, while LaRue only won a destroyed reputation and an unemployment check. Two people, in the same spot, taking the exact same action at the exact same moment. One is celebrated with worldwide acclaim, the other winds up ruined.
Eric Yosomono scours the Internet for crazy images for the GaijinAss webpage. You should go and like their Facebook page! Come experience Drew's wit and gastrointestinal fortitude at The Impulsive Buy.
Related Reading: For a look at iconic things that started as shallow publicity stunts, click here! You'll learn the Nazi origins of the Olympic torch relay. Follow up with some iconic movie scenes that happened by accident, like the infamous line-up scene in The Usual Suspects courtesy of Benicio Del Toro's farts. Last, learn about the iconic pop culture moments that were improvised at the last second- Mickey Mouse was meant to be "Mortimer" until Disney's wife stepped in.
And to further expand your noggin, check out Cracked's De-Textbook: The Stuff You Didn't Know About the Stuff You Thought You Knew.
It's loaded with facts about history, your body, and the world around you that your teachers didn't want you to know. And as a bonus? We've also included the kinkiest sex acts ever described in the Bible.