From the spacesuit-clad form of Buzz Aldrin on the moon to the middle-distance gaze of Che Guevara, some photographs really are seared into the public’s mind all over the world, research suggests.
While some images have long been hailed as “iconic”, experts say there has been little research to show that certain photographs are widely recognised and what people read into them. An international study by a researcher in the Netherlands set out to examine just that.
“My aim was not to find the best-known photograph in the world,” said Rutger van der Hoeven, a lecturer at the University of Utrecht. “My aim was to establish whether I could find evidence of a global visual memory – photographs of the past that are recognised by people all over the world.”
The research was based on online surveys distributed via an international sampling company. A total of about 3,000 people – 250 individuals representative of the national demographic in each of 12 countries, including the UK, US, China, Turkey, Brazil, India and Russia – completed the survey.
Participants were shown 25 photographs tied to history and widely considered “iconic”, and asked if they had seen them before. The images included Migrant Mother by Dorothea Lange, Alberto Korda’s portrait of Che Guevara and Jeff Widener’s picture of the so-called Tank Man in Tiananmen Square.
The results reveal that while some images were indeed well known, others met with little recognition. Overall, 86% of participants said they recognised Carmen’s Taylor’s photograph of a plane hitting the World Trade Center on 9/11, almost 80% recognised Neil Armstrong’s snap of Buzz Aldrin standing on the moon, and 70% recognised the image of Che Guevara. Napalm Girl by Nick Ut was recognised by 48% of participants.
“I was very surprised that there were two photographs that had 80% or more recognition,” said van der Hoeven. “To me it is mindblowing that so many people in the world could carry these visual memories of the past in their heads, because a photograph of a historical event is exactly that to me – a visual memory.”
Van der Hoeven said he was not able to unpick whether people recognised a particular image or the event itself, something particularly relevant in the case of 9/11. While the photo used in the survey was widely published, the media also used many stills from video footage.
Some images were less well known than might be expected. The Falling Soldier by Robert Capa was recognised by 9% of participants, and Migrant Mother by 13%. “Many academics consider them important but their recognition among a general population seems to be pretty low,” said van der Hoeven.
For many of the images, patterns of recognition were not that different across various age groups, possibly because many of them are still commonly reproduced today.
Gandhi at the Spinning Wheel by Margaret Bourke-White was widely recognised in India but less so elsewhere, while only 37% of participants in China recognised Tank Man, compared with a global average of 49%. “It is a photograph that’s actively banned from publication and circulation in China,” said van der Hoeven, although he said the Chinese figure was higher than expected.
He said it was striking that of the 36 participants in China who could name the event to which the Tank Man image related, 24 said it conveyed a pro-democracy message – something others have suggested is a western interpretation.
Other images included in the study included Abu Ghraib prisoner by Ivan Frederick, and Kevin Carter’s Vulture and Child – an image van der Hoeven found was far more widely recognised in countries in the global south, despite having won a Pulitzer prize in the US.
While van der Hoeven noted the sample sizes were not large for each country, he said a tradeoff had to be made to reach a wide range of countries, and he hoped to repeat some of the research with larger groups.