Protest photos possess a unique and undeniable power to inspire change. Through the lens of a skilled photographer, the raw emotions, determination, and resilience of protesters are captured in frozen moments of time. These images serve as potent reminders of the issues at hand, transcending words to convey the urgency and depth of social and political injustices.
These photos become icons of resistance, symbols that resonate with people around the world. They document the bravery of those who challenge oppressive regimes, systemic inequalities, and human rights violations. When shared through various media outlets and social platforms, these images have the potential to reach a global audience, sparking empathy and solidarity. They ignite conversations, compel viewers to reflect on their own values, and inspire collective action.
Moreover, protest photos are historical records. They bear witness to pivotal moments in our shared human history, preserving the narratives of social movements and the struggles for justice. As they circulate through the collective consciousness, they hold those in power accountable and, at times, have the capacity to propel systemic change. Ultimately, the power of striking protest photos lies in their ability to evoke powerful emotions, foster empathy, and drive individuals and communities to demand a more just and equitable world.
Here’s our list of the most powerful and iconic protest photos ever taken.
AMERICAN SOLDIER WEARS "WAR IS HELL" SLOGAN ON HIS HELMET - VIETNAM, 1965
AP photojournalist Horst Faas took this iconic photo on June 18, 1965, during the Vietnam War with the 173rd Airborne Brigade Battalion on defense duty at Phouc Vinh airstrip in South Vietnam. The headband message “War is Hell” typified an acerbic attitude of many young American soldiers who were likely drafted and sent to the remote southeastern Asia jungles to engage in deadly and terrifying combat. A lot of the soldiers wrote graffiti on their helmets with inscriptions of their attitudes about where they were and why they were there.
The contrast is what makes this photo iconic. His face betrays a sense of innocence, but when you look at his helmet, you can tell that he is anything but. You know that he has witnessed the horrors of war firsthand and is trying to cover it all up on the outside.
GIRL IN THE YELLOW DRESS
In this photo, a young Black woman is seen strolling across the solid wall of riot police in Brooklyn, New York, during the Crown Heights race riot. This racial riot, lasting three days between August 19-21, 1991, hosted a chaotic divide between the Caribbean American and African American communities against the Jewish community in the area.
TIANANMEN "TANK" MAN
Among some of the most famous and commonly viewed protest images over time is that of the person dubbed Tank Man taken June 4, 1989. Tank Man is immortalized in history as he stands defiant in front of a row of roaring tanks with nothing but a shopping bag in each hand. Just a day before this powerful photo was snapped, soldiers took Tiananmen Square by force with the goal of putting a stop to the political protests carried out by students.
While both the potential aftermath of this photo as well as the identity of Tank Man may never be known, the Associated Press photographer Jeff Widener who captured the image has always felt ‘Tank Man’ was like the unknown soldier. He will always symbolize freedom and democracy.”
THE SELF-IMMOLATION OF THÍCH QUANG DU
Serving as a Buddhist martyr, Thích Quang Duc set himself on fire at a busy Saigon intersection in June 1963. His message was that all people needed to do their part to fight oppression. Former American president John F. Kennedy later remarked that, “No news picture in history has generated so much emotion around the world as that one.”
EMMA GONZÁLEZ LEAVES AMERICA SPEECHLESS
Following the fatal February 14, 2018, school shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, Emma González, a student at the school, kept Americans everywhere silent during her emotional and poignant speech at the gun control rallies the shooting sparked. These marches were organized almost solely by students driven by a passion to make schools a safer place, making the photo particularly moving.
THE I-85 STANDOFF IN CHARLOTTE, NORTH CAROLINA
Protesters stand face to face with riot police along Interstate 85 in Charlotte, North Carolina, in a demonstration against police brutality following the death of Lamont Scott who killed by police on September 21, 2016, outside of an apartment complex. In this photo, Black protesters are seen with their hands in the symbolic “hands up, don’t shoot” pose that would later become a common chant during future protests against police brutality.
VANCOUVER RIOT KISS
In 2011, thousands of ice hockey fans swarmed the streets in a fiery, anger-fueled response to their home team losing the Stanley Cup Final. Alexandra Thomas, the woman in the photo, was pushed to the ground by the riot police on the scene during the riots, and her boyfriend Scott Jones was quick to come to her aid, throwing himself immediately to the ground beside her and giving her what is now such an iconic kiss.
As the photo began to spread across the world, it came to light that this was not the romantic kiss that it initially appeared to be. In this tender photo, Jones is seen kissing Thomas amidst the dangerous, chaotic environment in an attempt to comfort his girlfriend who was understandably in a panic over the occurrence. The couple is still together to this day.
THE WOMAN IN SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA
An elderly Korean woman sits with a smile on her face in front of an imposing wall of Korean riot police in an effort to block the path of the police and protect the protestors on the street. This protest was a part of a march against the government on April 24, 2015.
COLIN KAEPERNICK TAKING A KNEE
In what soon became a controversial move, this photo shows San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick kneeling during the national anthem in protest of the treatment of minorities and people of color in America. Kaepernick states, “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color. To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”
BATON ROUGE PROTEST
Ieshia Evans is seen in a flowing dress carried by the wind, looking light and free as she positions herself in front of the riot police she successfully stopped in their tracks. This protest took place on the Baton Rouge Airline Highway in the days following the fatal shooting of Alton Sterling at the hands of police outside of a Baton Rouge convenience store.
THE UMBRELLA PROTESTS
Though they are quite colorful and eye catching against the dreary scene, the umbrellas appearing in this image represent anything but cheerfulness. The photo was taken in August 2014 following the decision of the National People’s Congress Standing Committee of China to arrange an election for the reintegrated Hong Kong’s Chief Executive.
Chinese civilians took direct action in protest of this decision, and the umbrellas in this image show the power of organized, prepared resistance; the umbrellas helped to shield them from the tear gas and pepper spray while also highlighting just how many people came out to fight. It would later be dubbed the “Umbrella Movement” and the “Umbrella Resistance.”
"WAR IS IN VERY BAD TASTE"
An act of solitary peaceful protest was carried out by Dennis Stock, a pacifist who took to creating his own visually captivating image to share his opinions on the Vietnam War. In this photo, he dresses in distressed, decorated military garb and holds a custom-made newspaper with the headline, “WAR IS IN VERY BAD TASTE.” Its sub-headline reads, “GENERAL WASTE MORE LAND” is a play on the name General Westmoreland, the US Commander-in-Chief in Vietnam. This photo has since continued to stand as a symbol of personal resistance.