There are some photographs that have the power to paint a thousand words, to render people speechless, to captivate them, to break their heart; the ones in the slideshow above are no different.
Many of the events that took place during the time these images were captured you have probably read about in history books, but it’s these photographs of the horrors of humanity’s darkest moments that seem to linger long after the facts and details have faded from our memory.
But if you were to just take a moment to skim the headlines in the news, you’ll see that there are still lessons to be learned from the past. War, famine, genocide, murder, enslavement, torture, and other inhumane acts continue to ravage the Earth.
1. The Shanghai Baby
The photographer, H.S. Wong, saw a man rescuing children from the tracks. The man placed the first young child on the platform edge before returning to help another—and that is the picture Wong took.
The injured, helpless child sitting among such devastation went on to be seen by over 130 million people around the world within a month and a half. It was key in turning international opinion against the Japanese, and Wong had to be evacuated to Hong Kong under British protection when the Japanese put a price on his head.
2. The Crying Boy Soldier
The 16-year-old boy in the above photos is Hans-Georg Henke. He was a member of the Hitler Youth, and the set was taken on May 1, 1945, the day before Germany’s surrender. The utter desperation and real tears would be moving enough from anyone. Yet it’s the boyish face and the body clearly too small for a soldier’s uniform that made the picture iconic.
3. The Spanish Flu Outbreak
The image above is less obviously horrifying. It shows people playing baseball while wearing masks. The crowd wear masks as well. And that reflects the most terrifying and devastating aspect of the 1918 pandemic in a way the other pictures don’t: It killed anyone. Young, healthy adults—of the sort that play baseball—normally rarely care about the flu, but the 1918 outbreak was different. It killed anyone, and we still don’t really know why.
The photo also represents a sad futility when you learn that the masks didn’t protect people. While cotton gauze may stop bacteria, viruses are much smaller. Yet pictures record large groups wearing them, frompolice in Seattle, to paperboys in Canada, tosoldiers in France, right down to thegeneral public. Not one of them was protected in any way from one of the deadliest events in human history.
4. The Atlantic Slave Trade
Yet this photo actually has a relatively happy story. It was taken aboard the British naval vessel HMS Daphne on November 1, 1868, and the children in the picture had just been rescued. Over the next three days, the British ship intercepted Arab dhows, rescued over 200 slaves, and transported them back to Africa. Daphne rescued 2,000 captives during its service.
5. The Berlin Wall Rescue
By reaching over to lift the boy to where he wants to be, the soldier is taking a risk—and the way he looks over his shoulder makes it clear he knows he shouldn’t be doing it. But the soldier lifts the boy across anyway.
After the photo was taken, the child got free, but the soldier was seen and removed from duty right after. No one has been able to find out what happened to him. While we can hope his punishment wasn’t too severe, we can’t be certain. The East German army was later happy to watch children die near the wall rather than help.
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