Iconic Photos With Little-Known Tragic Aftermaths
A picture is worth a thousand words. That’s not very many words at all. What is that, like 35 tweets? Sure, it’s more words than you could read during the three seconds you spend looking at the photo, but to fully understand what’s going on in the scene, you’d need even more words than that.
And so, we’d like to give you a few words about the following famous images. Once you know each one’s epilogue, you might feel compelled to say aloud a few words of your own. Four-letter words, mainly.
Half the Soldiers in the Iwo Jima Photo Died Right Afterward
When people look at Joe Rosenthal’s “Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima,” they think of America’s victory in World War II. This is a little weird because the photo was taken just five days into a five-week battle, which was in turn a full five months before Japan’s surrender. It depicts American forces claiming control of Mount Suribachi, but few who look at the photo think of that specific milestone. Many reproductions of the image don’t even make it clear that this is a mountaintop (though the mountaintop is kind of the whole point of the flag raising).
Since this moment marked the start of a battle more than it did the end, the men here didn’t exactly get airlifted out the next day. FDR actually requested such an airlift, to use the men in publicity/propaganda, but by the time he did, two were dead, and a third died soon thereafter. The man on the far right with the powerful glutes, Corporal Harlon H. Block, died one week afterward. A mortar round blew up his squad. Third from the left is Sergeant Michael Strank. He died the same day as Block, by friendly fire. An American ship fired a shell and killed him. Three weeks later, a sniper killed the most prominent man in the center, Private First Class Franklin Sousley.
The military, at least, note the significance of this photo just fine. The U.S. Marine Corps War Memorial, modeled after the photo, isn’t a commemoration of America’s victory but a memorial to those killed in action.
That Plastic Surgery Meme Ruined the Model’s Life
You might have seen this photo in a meme, captioned “Plastic surgery — you can't hide it forever.” You might also have seen it shared as part of a true story of a husband who sued his wife when he looked at their kids and concluded she’d secretly had plastic surgery.
The photo actually came from a 2012 ad for a Taiwanese plastic surgery clinic. “The only thing you'll ever have to worry about is how to explain it to the kids,” read the ad. The photo used the adult models’ real faces but digitally messed with the kids’ eyes and noses. For what it’s worth, as repulsive as the ad may be, it originally implied that both parents had gotten surgery. The “duplicitous bride” angle only got attached later, thanks to the hoax story.
But that hoax story spread wide. Though the original photo just appeared in print, a different clinic put it on its Facebook page, the photo went viral, and it got attached to the older (false) news story. The woman in the ad, Heidi Yeh, lost work as agencies associated her with the story, or as they figured audiences would. She also claimed her boyfriend broke up with her over it as a result, which just raises further questions. She talked of suing the ad agency, but nothing came of that. Last we heard, she’d downgraded from professional model to online influencer, and that’s a fate we wish on nobody.
The Sudan Vulture Photographer Took His Own Life
Obviously, the future doesn’t look too bright for the subject of this photo. That boy — the photo is titled “The Vulture and the Little Girl,” but that’s a boy — is in bad shape, hence the lurking vulture. The photo implies that he’s seconds from dying, and even if that’s not the case, that’s how people interpreted it. “A single piece of bread could save that kid’s life,” people said to themselves, looking at the photo. “And yet,” added the most critical of them, “instead of saving him, this photographer is just gawking and snapping photos?!” Though many people praised the photo, many others attacked it, calling it “poverty porn.”
Which was very unfair. The photographer, Kevin Carter, didn’t take this photo to satisfy some starvation fetish. The United Nations asked him to come to Sudan with them in 1993 to document the famine, and document it he did. He was with an agency that did help the starving, while Carter did his job of capturing images. He also chased the vulture away afterward, if you were worried that the scavenger bird was a real threat rather than just nature’s symbolism.
The photo won Carter the Pulitzer Prize for Feature Photography. Three months later, though, Carter killed himself by inhaling his pickup truck’s exhaust. He may have had motivations besides just backlash over the photo, but let’s just say he wasn’t feeling quite as satisfied with life as your typical Pulitzer honoree immediately after their victory.
The Vietnam Execution Photographer Hated What Happened Afterward
Here’s another Pulitzer-winning photo where the aftermath’s obviously bad for someone in it. Clearly, that North Vietnamese prisoner, Nguyễn Văn Lém, winds up dead. The South Vietnamese general shooting him, Nguyễn Ngọc Loan? He was later investigated for war crimes, and you might consider than the ideal response to the photo.
Unless you ask the photographer, Eddie Adams. “Two people died in that photograph,” he said. “The general killed the Viet Cong; I killed the general with my camera.” The general was not the villain in this situation, thought Adams, and yet his photo transformed him into one. The prisoner had been found above the mass grave of 30 civilians and was suspected of killing one of Loan’s colleagues’ entire family, including his wife and six children.
Which should prompt a trial, not an execution. Shooting a suspect in the head is not the right move. But Adams became friends with Loan afterward and regretted how notoriety from the photo kept the man from a peaceful retirement. “I didn’t have a picture of that Viet Cong blowing away the family,” he said, leaving his photo telling an incomplete story. “It was very detrimental — perfect propaganda for North Vietnam.”
The Hugging Ferguson Boy Was Killed by His Parents
The Associated Press photo below spread widely in 2014, a summer of anti-police protests. At a Portland rally, 12-year-old Devonte Hart hugged a police sergeant, suggesting reconciliation could be possible after all. If this was followed up years later by, say, a white officer falsely arresting Hart, you might call that a tragic epilogue to the photo. What actually happened was much worse.
Hart was one of six children living with Jennifer and Sarah Hart. The New York Times would later refer to the married white couple and their six adoptees as looking like “the portrait of a modern family,” while the New York Post would refer to Jennifer as the sick “woke” mom. The mothers abused their kids, depriving them of food and at least once earning themselves a criminal charge. When Hart held a “free hugs” sign and cried at the 2014 protest, it seems he may not have been crying over Michael Brown’s death; he may have been crying because his moms forced him to be there.
In 2018, the moms piled the family in an SUV, and Jennifer drove it off a cliff into the sea. She was drunk, but this was on purpose, a murder-suicide. We don’t know the motive.
Officially, the crash killed eight people. However, authorities only recovered remains of seven. Hart, though declared legally dead, was never found. This raises the possibility that he somehow survived, a possibility explored by the show Atlanta, which presented a fictionalized depiction of the crash in an episode last year. People who haven’t heard of the real-life Hart murders and learn of it through the episode think to themselves, “What the hell was that?” People who have heard of the real-life Hart murders and see it again through the episode think to themselves, “What the hell was that?”
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