Memorable Photographs - How They Got That Way

Memorable Photographs – How They Got That Way

A friend writes to me:

I’m no photographer, and therefore I’ve never understood what makes a photograph amazing? Nationalist sentiments aside, what’s in the photo – “Heroes of Iwo Jima” that makes it so awesome and memorable? Also, the National Geographic Magazine picture – “Afghan Girl“, what’s so special about that?

What’s special about those photographs? Why are they ascribed the words ‘awesome’, ‘memorable’, ‘special’? I have the answer for you. It’s all in the camera. Back in the day, they didn’t have cameras that counted megapixels. They had special films, and it’s the film and the cameras that make these photographs special. Also, the world was black & white. Really! Not kidding! That’s why I have the highest megapixel camera I can afford to buy today. And believe me… I’ve got some memorable photographs.

Afghan Girl by Steve McCurry

“Afghan Girl” by Steve McCurry

 Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima by Joe Rosenthal

“Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima” by Joe Rosenthal

Ok, ok, so I really was kidding. I was trying to buy time, because the real answer isn’t as simple as that.

Step 1: The Image

The first step of creating an iconic image is actually the act of capturing it. Of course, the subject is important. Unless it evokes a sentiment in the viewer –  pity, hate, anger, lust … it stands no chance of being remembered. Think about it; do you remember any photograph from a newspaper or magazine that you don’t have some sort of emotional connection with? The stronger the emotion, the stronger the memory.

You’ll find that images with people are more memorable. Our protective instinct directs us even more towards children or vulnerable individuals.

Most photographers take a very high number of images at the time of shooting. Of these, only a few ever reach publication. These are the images that ever stand a chance of becoming ‘iconic’.

Step 2: Publication

You can’t have an image that has mass appeal if its not seen by the masses. Publishing images in places where thousands and millions of people see and talk about them is key. ‘Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima‘ by Joe Rosenthal, was published in innumerable newspapers less than 24 hours after it was photographed. It went on to win a Pulitzer Prize for Photography and later on caused controversy. Each time, it refreshed our memories, and association with it.

Associated Press, Rosenthal’s employer at the time says, “It has been called the greatest photograph of all time. It may well be the most widely reproduced. It served as the symbol for the Seventh War Loan Drive, for which it was plastered on 3.5 million posters. It was used on a postage stamp and on the cover of countless magazines and newspapers. It served as the model for the Marine Corps War Memorial in Arlington, Va., a symbol forever of the valor and sacrifices of the U.S. Marines.” Now that’s a LOT of showing.

‘Afghan Girl’ by Steve McCurry was published on the cover of the National Geographic in 1985. Everyone knows the National Geographic for the quality of the images their photographers produce. This haunting image of an unnamed, parent-less girl displaced from torn Afghanistan and living in a Pakistani refugee camp told a story and pulled at the heartstrings of thousands of people. It was used in fund raising campaigns for Afghanistan. Interest in it was raised again when Steve McCurry led a search for, and found her after many years, once more, gaining a huge number of views.

Step 3: Showing the Image Again, and Again, and Again: ad nauseum

When an image is published as much as these have, they get assimilated into our culture, into our conversations, everywhere that they find relevance (and sometimes even when they’re not relevant).

“What’s in The Photo”?

Now, lets leave the other reasons behind. What about the photographs themselves? Why are they interesting as photographs? Here are 5 quick points.

  1. Strong subject matter
  2. Simple, striking composition
  3. Emotional content
  4. Tells a story
  5. Leaves us with questions.

Here are some tips that will hopefully see you creating more memorable images.

  1. Be there: Show up at events, places and activities that people will want to remember for a long time.
  2. Be aware: Take note of your environment, the things that are really going on around yourself, and predict where you need to be for a great shot. This is hard, and is a lifelong pursuit for photojournalists, but the best make their own luck. Keep your eyes and your mind open, and sensitive.
  3. Context: You can’t be everything to everyone. So don’t worry if you’re not… The photographs here were taken by photographers who were simply involved with either capturing the moment, or portraying something in the strongest possible manner. In the end it doesn’t matter if your family photographs don’t put Richard Avedon to shame, they will still mean a lot to you and your family. Still, if you’re trying to grab head-turns, try to find subjects and situations that have the potential to connect with and mean something to a great many people.
  4. Uniqueness: How unique is your photograph? Were you the only photographer at a scene that the whole world wants to witness? Your photograph instantly becomes memorable if so. Being one of 50,000 photographers doing the same thing does not do that. At the same time remember that showing 5 photographs of the same moment dilute the uniqueness of each one of them. So edit down, and fix on the one photograph that says it all.
  5. Show, Show again: Why do you still remember the nursery rhymes of your childhood? Because you repeated them over and over again – until it was nauseating to your parents. And then you repeated them again. A photograph that is seen again and again will automatically be remembered better.

Do you have other answers to why these images are so memorable? We’d love to hear them. Do leave your thoughts in the comments below.