Iconic Images of Protest

Photo essay – How Images Become Icons of Protest

Femke, Dam, Leontine Morgan-Poitier

In light of the reaction to certain political protests in recent history, Femke and I decided

to take a closer look at iconic images with this question in mind: How do images become icons of protest? We chose four images that we found powerfully moving. They ordered as follows:

  1. Je Suis Charlie: Iconic of image to the massacre at Charlie Hebdo in Paris, France
  2. After Shock, Loss of a Child: Iconic symbol of mother and child
  3. Bring Back Our Girls: Iconic image of kidnapping of 276 girls from a school in Africa
  4. Burning Man: Iconic image of Buddhist Monk who set himself on fire

In an effort to describe how and why these images became iconic, we turned to our research. In doing so we found three articles: Media Icons of War and the Instrumentalization of Images, Icons of War and Terror, and Symbolizing the Future. Each of the articles state to some degree or another that in order for an image to become iconic it must first, appeal collectively to a common ideology (i.e. suffering, despair). Second, it must be accepted by a large group. Third, it must be mass produced and distributed in different contexts. Images such as that of war function aesthetically because they aspire change. Per symbolizing the future, iconic images must also create a cohesive bond of ideologies based on some moral belief system.

When news broke that 276 young girls were kidnapped from a secondary school in Nigeria, Africa, public outrage ensued. The girls had been taken by a group of men who deem that women and girls should not be educated, but only married off, with child, and a specific religion. This image of bring back our girls resonates in the hearts of females the world over in that each can attest to some form of patriarchal suppression throughout the course of history.

Whether one is from the east or west the perception of authenticity of the image appeals ideologically to the masses. Once collective identification has occurred the image becomes iconic. The image of a man with his hand over the mouth of a crying young girl, is an image that has been mass produced in an effort to bring about change. The image symbolically condenses women and girls the world over to one. The image states that the girl whether black, white, Asian, etc. can be any one of us. In contrast, the image resonates with men in that the girl could be any man’s daughter, niece, sister, cousin, or neighbor. It resonates with men whom are not stuck in a previous century, and men who demand and fight for the freedom, and equality of the sexes. The acceptance of the image by both men and women, and its distribution across the social media spectrum has played a monumental role in this images iconography and use in protest.

Malcolm Brown’s Pulitzer Prize winning photograph of the Burning Monk from Saigon became iconic the moment the monk sat down in the street and lit himself on fire. In this harrowing statement the monk attests to the world the depths to which one should go for his, or her beliefs. The monk, without saying a word, asked: How far are we willing to go to put an end to injustice in the world? The monks cry is kept simple by Brown’s use of black and white as oppose to color which makes it resoundingly clear that there is no gray area where injustice is concerned. In this visually stunning act of protest, the monk made the political statement that he, like many others, are victims of war; alone emotionally and physically, as well as deprived of basic human rights. Not only was his central concern to protest, but also with audience reception.

His visual dynamic was not arbitrary. There was rationale behind his statement of protest. This image of polysemy demands that the audience retain a specific political ideology. This image will remain iconic of political protest as evidenced in its immediate emotional accessibility.





Tsunami in japan moving towards other countries

Malcolm Browne: The Story Behind The Burning Monk