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.

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

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

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’.

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 fundraising 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.

3: Showing the Image Again, and Again, and Again

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, let’s 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.

Tips to Help You Create Memorable Images More Frequently

  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.

Susheel Chandradhas

Susheel Chandradhas

Susheel Chandradhas is a Product Photographer and Filmmaker based in India. He has been taking photographs (almost) all his life. He has a diploma and a bachelors degree in Visual Communication, where his classmates all believed that he would write a book on photography... Instead, he writes on this website (because - isn't a community more fun?).

His passions include photography, parkour, wide-angle lenses, blue skies, fire extinguishers, and fast computers.

In addition to writing for Beyond Photo Tips, Susheel is a staff writer for, and owns and runs ColoursAlive, a photography, and video production studio.

You can connect with Susheel on Twitter, Instagram, or LinkedIn.

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  1. The two photos used above have a more transient value that makes them iconic and memorable.

    Raising the flag at Iwo Jima.
    The second world war is ingraned in modern culture almost to the point of calling it a race memory. Unlike any war before it, WW2 was recorded with crisp, clear imagery that the general population had never seen before. WW1 photographs were far less common and nowhere near as clear.
    As mentioned above, the raising of the flag at Iwo Jima was plastered throughout the western world and to this day is used to represent American idealism (I am australian, not american).

    At the time, that it was taken, the world had been at war for many years and there wasn’t a country untouched by it at some level. The image, while being “very american”, was also a statement that the defenders (Germany and Japan being the aggressors) will continue to fight back and win. Every defensive nation in the world was represented by the photo, even if it did have an american flag.

    I agreee totally with Susheel Chandradhas that plastering an image everywhere and re-plastering it over and over helps to make an image memorable, but the image carries with it a very emotional component, especially considering WW2 is still current in living memory. It should also be noted that there are probably still many Japanese people who get angry at the image.

    The Afghan Girl
    The Afghan Girl, while also being part of a well documented conflict has another aspect, equally as ephemeral. She has the “Mona Lisa” effect.
    Technically, it is an excellent image. There is no doubt about that. She also has a very attractive face that lends itself to photography….and those eyes!!!!
    But the look on her face shows every and no emotions. She is not happy, sad, angry, pleased, tired, alert, etc. The girl is also ageless. And yet, she is all of these.
    It is also difficult to say if she is 12 years old or 32. The first time I saw the picture, I picked her for early 20s. Then, I saw an old, tattered copy of NG in a doctor’s surgery and she look around 30. I have seen crisp clean images of her on the net where I would pick her for being in her teens. This means that she is identifiable with many age groups, not just a narrow age band.

    As photographers, we try to elicit some emotion in portrate photography. Look happy, look sad, etc. We try to avoid enigmatic stares because generally, it creaps people out. But sometimes, everything comes together to create an image that you just can’t turn away from. Much of this is technique/technical. But there is always the “feel” for the subject and the moment.

    Iconic, memorable images need to be of a high, technical quality (usually) for anyone to consider publishing them in any manner. But how many landscapes have we looked at, say “wow, thats awsome” and then forgotten before we see the next one. Think of all the images that you have ever seen and remembered. As Susheel Chandradhas said, repetition is key. But if a photo doesn’t resonate to some internal emotion or memory, it is just another pretty photo on a wall somewhere.

    I hope this adds to Susheel Chandradhas’ post and helps the reader in some way.


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