Drowned Syrian boy photo joins long list of iconic news images

A photograph of a drowned Syrian boy face down in muck after his body washed ashore in Turkey has caused heartbreak among people worldwide, and refocused attention on the international refugee crisis. Here are six other iconic images that have had an impact through history.

WARNING: This story contains graphic images

A moving photograph of a drowned Syrian boy face down in muck after his body washed ashore in Turkey has caused heartbreak among people worldwide, and refocused attention on the international refugee crisis.

The bodies of the toddler, later identified as three-year-old Alan Kurdi, his older brother and mother were found Wednesday. The family, along with the father, who survived, were among Syrian war refugees in two boats that were attempting to cross the Mediterranean to get to the Greek island of Kos. 

The photos of Alan, which were shared around the world, have raised the profile of the plight of the four million Syrians displaced by the war, and others seeking refuge from wars and turmoil. 

Peter Bouckaert, emergency director with Human Rights Watch, who shared the image of the Syrian boy on Twitter, told CBC News that it has forced people to "become confronted with the horror of what's happening to Syrians right now." Canada's own immigration minister paused his re-election campaign to turn his attention to reports that relatives of the boy had tried to bring his Syrian family to Canada.

"There is a history in journalism of using the power of the photograph to bring attention to a crisis," said Alfred Hermida, a University of British Columbia journalism professor . 

Here are six other iconic images that have raised the profile of historic time of conflict:

Vietnam napalm attack

In this June 8, 1972, file photo, South Vietnamese forces follow behind terrified children, including nine-year-old Kim Phuc, centre, as they run down Route 1 near Trang Bang after an aerial napalm attack on suspected Viet Cong hiding places. (Nick Ut/AP)

Nick Ut's 1972 photo of five children fleeing an aerial napalm attack during the Vietnam War is widely believed by historians to have been a major inspiration for the anti-war movement.

One of the most recognizable photos in the world, it centres on nine-year-old Kim Phuc, whose terror-stricken face and burnt naked body became a catalyst for peace.

Phuc is now a Canadian citizen and runs the Kim Foundation International, a group dedicated to helping child victims of war.

NDP Leader Tom Mulcair referred to the image Thursday while answering questions about Syrian refugees.

"There are images that define an era. I remember an image of a young girl who had been severely burned by napalm during the Vietnam War that running down a road to flee," he said. 

"That became the symbol of that war. And I have to say that today's images of a young boy being picked up off a beach in Turkey will remain with everybody for a long time."

Abu Ghraib​

One in a series of shocking images, this photo shows an unidentified detainee standing on a box with a bag on his head and wires attached to him in the Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad, Iraq. (AP)

Abu Ghraib, an Iraqi prison west of Baghdad, was known for torture and deplorable living conditions during the Saddam Hussein era.

A shocking series of photographs revealed in 2004 by a U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Command probe demonstrate that this legacy of torture, humiliation and abuse continued after the Iraqi president's fall, this time at the hands of U.S. army and CIA personnel.

The pictures show smiling Americans posing with naked and hooded Iraqi prisoners. In some of them, the prisoners are piled on top of each other in human pyramids. In others, they are covered in feces or forced to masturbate or perform sexual acts on each other. Two dead Iraqi prisoners also appeared in photos.

The images drew international attention to American abuses overseas and resulted in the conviction of 11 soldiers on various charges. They have all since been released from prison.

Oka crisis

Canadian soldier Patrick Cloutier and Saskatchewan Native Brad Laroque alias Freddy Kruger, come face to face in a tense standoff at the Kahnesatake reserve in Oka, Que., Saturday Sept. 1, 1990. (Shaney Komulainen/Canadian Press)

The image of Canadian soldier Patrick Cloutier and Saskatchewan aboriginal protester Brad Larocque staring each other down has become one of the most iconic examples of Canadian photojournalism.

The 1990 Oka crisis grew out of an argument between the Mohawks of Kanesatake and the town of Oka, Que., over the municipality's plans to expand a golf course and encroach on a Mohawk cemetery that community members have always maintained was theirs.

Photographer Shaney Komulainen told J-Source in 2013: "That picture resonates partly because it's still like that today all over Canada."

Tiananmen Square

In this June 5, 1989 file photo, a Chinese man stands alone to block a line of tanks heading east on Beijing's Changan Blvd. from Tiananmen Square (Jeff Widener/AP)

In 1989, thousands of students gathered in Beijing's Tiananmen Square for weeks, demanding democratic reforms of the Communist country, culminating in a deadly crackdown that saw hundreds of civilians killed. 

One man stood in front of the tanks in protest. Known colloquially as Tank Man or the Unknown Rebel, he has never been identified, and it's not clear what happened to him after that moment. But his image remains etched in the public consciousness as a symbol of bravery. 

In a 1998 Time magazine essay about the photo, Pico Iyer wrote : "One lone Everyman standing up to machinery, to force, to all the massed weight of the People's Republic — the largest nation in the world, comprising more than one billion people — while its all powerful leaders remain, as ever, in hiding somewhere within the bowels of the Great Hall of the People."

Woolworth's sit-in

This May 28, 1963, file photograph shows a sit-in demonstration at a Woolworth's lunch counter in Jackson, Miss., where whites poured sugar, ketchup and mustard over heads of the demonstrators. Seated at the counter, from left, are John Salter, Joan Trumpauer and Anne Moody. (Fred Blackwell/Jackson Daily News/AP)

Jackson Daily News photographer Fred Blackwell stood on the countertop to capture this image of civil rights activists being bombarded by angry white Americans during a sit-in at a Woolworth's lunch counter in Jackson, Miss., on May 28, 1963. The black university students were protesting the department store's racially segregated lunch counter.

The photo shows Tougaloo College sociology Prof. John Salter and two students, Joan Trumpauer and Anne Moody, refusing to move from the counter as the angry mob dumps sugar, ketchup and mustard on them. The trio stayed there for three hours.

That Woolworth's is long gone, but Blackwell's famous photo remains at the site as part of a historical marker erected in 2013 to commemorate the protest. 

"Those are the bravest people I've ever seen in my life," Blackwell told The Associated Press at the time. "What they went through ... pictures don't tell the story."

Viet Cong execution 

In this Feb. 1, 1968, file photo, South Vietnamese Gen. Nguyen Ngoc Loan, chief of the National Police, fires his pistol into the head of suspected Viet Cong officer Nguyen Van Lem on a Saigon street, early in the Tet Offensive. (Eddie Adams/AP)

Another image believed to have galvanized anti-Vietnam War sentiment, this Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph shows South Vietnamese police Chief Gen. Nguyen Ngoc Loan executing Viet Cong prisoner Nguyen Van Lem in Saigon. Captured just after Loan squeezed the trigger, it became a symbol for the war's brutality.

But the image doesn't capture the whole story.

Photographer Eddie Adams later wrote in Time magazine that he regretted taking the picture that demonized Loan for the rest of his life. The prisoner, Adams said, was the leader of a Viet Cong squad that executed dozens of innocent civilians earlier that same day.

"Two people died in that photograph: the recipient of the bullet and General Nguyen Ngoc Loan. The general killed the Viet Cong; I killed the general with my camera," Adams wrote.


  • A previous version of this story called Nguyen Ngoc Loan an American general. In fact, he was South Vietnam's national police chief.
    Sep 04, 2015 8:59 AM ET


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