When you think of World War II, what images come to mind? What about the Vietnam War? In the course of modern human history, trillions of images have been captured and shared. Yet, it is the rare image that rises to the forefront of our collective, visual public consciousness and becomes the defining, enduring image of an event: U.S. Marines raising the American flag at Iwo Jima or a naked Vietnamese girl screaming out in pain following a napalm attack, for example.
Scholars, journalists, and the public call these defining images iconic. Iconic images have a discursive value that helps citizens navigate and understand the political and social contexts of complex events.
Traditionally, news photographs became iconic largely through their prominent placement on the front pages of elite newspapers across the globe. But, undeniably, in the age of digital news, mobile phones/tablets, and social media, the media component has changed the equation for the formation of iconic imagery and collective visual consciousness. With the speed, ease of access, and abundance of information sources available in the current age, a volume of images can now represent a significant (or not so significant) event.
Two colleagues and I developed a model to help predict when and how certain images may become widely known. Our article first traces the development of iconic image literature and then proposes our model, which is termed the “influence-network model of the photojournalistic icon.” This model can help to predict how photographs of events become iconic (or not).