25 Powerful Historical Photos With Surprising Backstories

From “napalm girl” to “tank man,” we’ve all seen these powerful photos, but how many of us actually know the true stories behind them?

Powerful Photos Saigon Execution

This photo depicting the execution of Viet Cong soldier Nguyễn Văn Lém by South Vietnamese officer Nguyễn Ngọc Loan in Saigon on Feb. 1, 1968 became a symbol of the Vietnam War’s senseless brutality and helped turn American sentiment against the war. However, while the photo does indeed depict a sudden, violent, summary execution, few realize that Lém was no innocent civilian or even a prisoner of war, but instead a guerrilla terrorist who had just been caught murdering the wife, children, and 80-year-old mother of a South Vietnamese officer, a friend of Loan’s, by slicing their throats.
Vulture Near Little Child
Although millions have seen Kevin Carter’s 1993 photo of this starving child in famine-plagued Sudan, far fewer know that the child actually lived while Carter himself, who was criticized for not intervening, did not — he killed himself a year later, explaining in his suicide note that he was destroyed by guilt and pain over taking photos just like this one.
Powerful Photos Napalm GirlThanks to persistent propaganda, many, including NPR, believe this photo of nine-year-old Phan Thi Kim Phuc fleeing while suffering from napalm burns near Trang Bang, Vietnam on June 8, 1972 to epitomize the brutality of U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. However, in reality, this strike was a South Vietnamese operation with no U.S. involvement, and was actually a mistake by a plane not intended to drop its load on the village in question. However, on the brighter side, because photographer Nick Ut helped get Phuc to an American hospital, he was able to save her life.
Burning Monk Thich Quang Duc
Although this image of Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thích Quảng Đức setting himself ablaze in protest in Saigon on June 11, 1963 is known to millions around the world, what’s surprising is how few of those people (at least in the West) likely realize what exactly Đức was protesting. While the self-immolation has become linked wholly with the Vietnam War in the West, the act was actually a demonstration against South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem’s violent persecution of Buddhists, exemplified by a massacre of nine Buddhist protesters the month before the immolation.
Migrant Mother
Little-known tidbits about this 1932 photo of California “migrant mother” Florence Owens include the fact that she was just 32 years old when it was taken, her identity remained unknown for decades, and she was falsely promised by the photographer that the image wouldn’t be distributed. On the bright side, the widespread distribution of the photo convinced the government to send 20,000 pounds of food to the migrant camp in question.