New Icons, Old Horrors

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Editor’s note: Please be aware that the following post contains graphic imagery.

Every year a new crop of horrifying icons emerge to underscore the inhuman behavior that seems to never diminish and only increases in intensity. Although these iconic images sometimes speak for themselves, others function as components within a larger visual protest. Here are two from today and two from another time, another war—but all-too-similar roots.


Army combat photographer Ron L. Haeberle hauntingly captured the army massacre of around 300-500 villagers living in My Lai in South Vietnam in 1968. The Artists Poster Committee (Frazier Dougherty, Jon Hendricks, Irving Petlin) added a quote from a Mike Wallace CBS News television interview, which became the anchor of the poster. (Q: And Babies?, 1970)

On June 8, 1972, AP photographer Nick Ut took this photo of 9-year-old Kim Phuc as she ran from an aeral napalm attack.

On June 8, 1972, AP photographer Nick Ut took this photo of 9-year-old Kim Phuc. “I always remember that horrible day that we ran from life to death,” she told CNN in August 2015 from her home in Ontario, Canada. The image triggered empathy for the Vietnamese victims of war.

When these images (above) were originally published they supported the widely denied belief that America’s involvement in the Vietnam war was as barbarous as the enemy’s. It was a shockingly sad revelation to see the horrors of warfare exacted on the civilian population, and to so vividly see it on the national news and in mainstream magazines.


This photograph of a toddler’s lifeless body washed ashore in Turkey has brought attention to the tragedy of Syrian refugees attempting to enter the European Union. The little boy was photographed lying face down in the sand near Bodrum, one of Turkey’s major resorts. Photographs were taken by the Dogan news agency.


Shortly after the photo went viral, Milton Glaser and Sue Walsh created this digital poster to support Doctors Without Borders.

Vietnam war coverage busted the taboo against showing real-life violence at dinner time. News outlets began to compete for who could show the most gruesome imagery—within fungible limits, that is. The boundaries of reason have been pushed further because the horror of terror has reached new proportions and exacted more and more victims. With today’s ongoing refugee tragedy, it is not hard to find heartrending and guilt-inducing images.


In August, the New York Times reported Islamic State militants had razed a fifth-century Roman Catholic monastery and blown up one of the best-preserved first-century temples in Palmyra, one of the world’s most important archaeological sites. (Photo AP)


Sarejevo designer Bojan Hadzihalilovic created this poster for the 55th International Theater Festival in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, whose acronym is MESS. Playing off an acronym, he decided to use this image taken by the Islamic State, which shows a detonation in the 2,000-year-old Temple of Baalshamin, adding resonance to the words and image.

There is a terrorist epidemic but unless the visual evidence is vivid—and in the face—it is easily ignored. The increase of visual iconography is necessary to keep the world in the know, if not also vigilant.

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About Steven HellerSteven Heller is the co-chair of the SVA MFA Designer /Designer as Author + Entrepreneur program, writes frequently for Wired and Design Observer. He is also the author of over 170 books on design and visual culture. He received the 1999 AIGA Medal and is the 2011 recipient of the Smithsonian National Design Award.View all posts by Steven Heller →