A photographer knows they have succeeded when they capture an image that triggers a strong feeling in everyone who sees it. And as history has proven, that feeling doesn’t necessarily have to be a positive one. Many photos that have consumed public consciousness certainly aren’t universally adored, and perhaps those which provoked the greatest debate have been the ones which reveal the most about the world we live in.
Love them or hate them, these are five of the most controversial scenes ever caught on camera.
1. Kathy Griffin and the severed Trump head
Photographer Tyler Shields is no stranger to controversy. As ArtLife notes, “critics claimed [his] images of Glee actress Heather Morris with a bruised eye trivialised domestic violence, while he was chastised by both feminist groups and animal rights activists over photos of Mischa Barton posing with a slab of meat”. However, his impactful 2017 shot of comedian Kathy Griffin, holding a severed head resembling that of President Donald Trump, gained more attention than either of them could ever have imagined.
The photo divided opinion and the immense backlash had significant effects on Griffin’s life and career ever since. Not only did she lose a great deal of work over the image, but she was also placed on the Interpol list, and detained at every airport during her Laugh Your Head Off World Tour. Although she apologised, saying she “went too far”, Griffin later redacted this and even described the fallout as “faux outrage”. Meanwhile, Shields told TooFab.com that he believes his photo was “the perfect storm of that time,” and doesn’t think it would be as controversial if it was released today.
2. Alan Kurdi
The world was shaken by Turkish journalist Nilüfer Demir’s heartbreaking 2015 photo of the body of three-year-old Alan Kurdi, which served as a symbol of the human cost of the European refugee crisis. Kurdi drowned in the Mediterranean Sea, which his family had reportedly been trying to cross, with the goal of reaching Canada. As reported by CNN, Demir told sister network CNN Turk that the photo was the “only way [he could] express the scream of his silent body”.
Some commentators believed it was inappropriate to capture such tragedy on camera, while editor and columnist Brendan O’Neill deemed sharing the image “narcissistic”. Writing in The Spectator, he claimed: “It’s more like a snuff photo for progressives, dead-child porn, designed not to start a serious debate about migration in the 21st century but to elicit a self-satisfied feeling of sadness among Western observers.” However, the photo has also been credited with an upturn in charity donations for migrants and refugees, as well as instigating a more level of widespread concern among global policymakers. “It was something about that picture,” Kurdi’s aunt Tima told BBC Trending. “God put the light on that picture to wake up the world.”
3. Falling Man
Numerous shocking images were captured during the 9/11 attacks, and one of the most widely-seen is Falling Man, taken by Associated Press photographer Richard Drew. The picture of a man plummeting from the World Trade Centre is one of TIME’s 100 most influential photos, with the publication describing it as “a symbol of individuality against the backdrop of faceless skyscrapers […] a makeshift Unknown Soldier in an often unknown and uncertain war, suspended forever in history”. To this day, the identity of the man has never been officially confirmed.
Falling Man was published in US newspapers, including The New York Times, in the days after the attacks, but many readers did not respond favourably. As New York Magazine has explained: “The Times never ran Drew’s photograph, or anything like it, ever again; neither did most other American papers. Indeed, photographs of the so-called jumpers have been rendered taboo, vilified as an insult to the dead and an unbearably brutal shock to the living (though they have been printed abroad, and can be found on the Internet).”
4. The vulture and the little girl
South African photographer Kevin Carter won the Pulitzer Prize for this horrifying image depicting the 1993 famine in Sudan. The subject (who was actually a boy, though initially thought to be a girl) had collapsed on their way to a UN feeding centre, and was being sinisterly watched by a vulture, ostensibly seeking future prey. Carter said that he chased the bird away after taking the photo. The child reportedly made it to the feeding centre, but died 14 years later from malarial fever.
Though the photo was critically acclaimed, the public reaction was not all positive. Following its publication, Carter was heavily criticised for not doing more to help the child, provoking widespread discussions about when a photographer should intervene. However, it has been reported that photographers were instructed not to touch anyone, due to disease.
Four months after he won the Pulitzer, Carter took his own life at the age of 33, writing: “I am haunted by the vivid memories of killings & corpses & anger & pain.” Two years after Carter’s death, Welsh rock band Manic Street Preachers further investigated the photographer’s motives, and his ultimately fatal guilt (“Hi TIME Magazine, hi Pulitzer Prize/Vulture stalks white piped lie forever”), in their single ‘Kevin Carter’.
5. Starving Polar Bear
In 2017, photographers Paul Nicken and Cristine Mittermeier spotted a shockingly thin polar bear in the Canadian Arctic, so malnourished that it struggled to move, forced to eat out of nearby rubbish bins. As the footage and images rapidly circulated online, Mittermeier told National Geographic that they had been criticised for not assisting the animal, but insisted “we were too far from any village to ask for help, and approaching a starving predator, especially when we didn’t have a weapon, would have been madness”. However, the real backlash stemmed from National Geographic’s decision to share the content on their website with the caption: “This is what climate change looks like.”
Critics were outraged that climate change had been named as the definitive reason for the bear’s plight, despite the fact that nobody knew what exactly was wrong, not ruling out factors like age or disease as causes. In a subsequent piece for National Geographic, Mittermeier claimed that she and Nicken had “lost control of the narrative”, adding that the publication “went too far”. The website has since updated the caption and added a note reading: “While science has established that there is a strong connection between melting sea ice and polar bears dying off, there is no way to know for certain why this bear was on the verge of death.”