Given the sensitivity of its subjects and its galvanizing potential, documentary photography naturally lends itself to debate. On the one hand, a single image of a sick child or the impacts of a devastating storm can incite public reaction and change on a scale that many activists spend their lives hoping to achieve.
On the other hand, people take these photos — and their motivations and choices in doing so may manipulate the “reality” of the captured scenes and thus the truth they offer a public audience.
Regardless of where you stand on the subject, these famous photos bear out the notion that photography yields far more than just elements of lightness and darkness on paper:
Family members pass Kosovar refugee Agim Shala, 2, through a barbed wire fence into the hands of grandparents at an Albania camp, March 1999.
The nail scratches of Auschwitz Concentration camp inmates.
Crowds gather at the Berlin Wall, November 1989.
Family members embrace in the wake of a devastating Alabama tornado, March 2012.
Thích Quảng Đức lights himself on fire in protest of South Vietnam's Diem government, June 1963.
President Bush receives word of the September 11th attacks while visiting a Florida classroom.
Bronze medal winner John Carlos raises a black power salute at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics.
78-year-old Bill Iffrig lies on the ground following the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing.
The Bolivian government poses with the corpse of revolutionary Che Guevara, 1967.
Christians and Muslims hold hands in solidarity during the Cairo uprisings, January 2011.
Dorothy Counts encounters adversity in 1956 as she makes her way to a recently integrated school in Charlotte, North Carolina. After days of harassment, she was forced to withdraw from the school.
An Alabama man reunites with his pet following a devastating series of tornadoes, March 2012.
Astronaut William Anders takes "Earthrise" during the Apollo 8 mission, 1968.
Timothy O'Sullivan's "Harvest of Death" features dead Union soldiers strewn about the Gettysburg battlefield, 1863.
A man falls from the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001.
8-year-old Christian Golczynski weeps at the funeral of his father, who died during the War in Iraq, March 2007.
A young boy rescues a stroller after Tropical Storm Hannah ripped through Haiti, 2008.
Influential Photographs: Helen Keller meets president Eisenhower, 1955.
Retired police captain Ray Lewis is arrested at an Occupy Wall Street protest, November 2011.
The Hindenburg zeppelin catches fire on May 6, 1937.
A South Korean man sheds a tear when parting ways with his North Korean relative, October 2010.
Annette Kellerman promotes women’s right to wear fitted bathing suits in 1907. She was later arrested for indecency.
A Chinese man stands defiantly before tanks in Tiananmen Square, June 1989.
Akan Ito cries among the rubble of Natori, Japan. A 2011 tsunami tore the town apart.
John F. Kennedy Jr. salutes his father at JFK's state funeral, November 1963.
"How Life Begins" is one of the first pictures taken with the endoscope, 1965.
14-year-old Mary Ann Vecchio cries before recently deceased Jeffrey Miller moments after he was shot by the Ohio National Guard during the Kent State shootings, 1970.
Apollo 11 crew members capture mankind's first physical brush with the moon, July 1969.
Robert Capa immortalizes the treatment of French women who were believed to have been Nazi collaborators during liberation "ugly carnivals" in France, 1944.
A missionary holds hands with a starving boy in Karamoja district, Uganda, 1980.
A Russian veteran weeps before a Soviet tank used during World War Two.
Robert Capa captures a soldier emerging from the waters on D-Day.
Obama, Clinton, Biden watch live footage of Navy Seals storming Osama Bin Laden's compound, May 2011.
Nightclub owner Jack Ruby shoots Lee Harvey Oswald, the man who assassinated JFK, November 1963.
Pearl Harbor survivor embraces a fellow veteran (from the War in Iraq), July 2004.
Bobby Moore embraces Pele at the 1970 World Cup finals.
The 19th century graves of a Catholic woman and her Protestant husband deny this Dutch cemetery the power of separating them.
A starving child in Sudan, 1993.
Teenager Juan Romero sits by Robert F. Kennedy’s side moments after Kennedy was shot by Sirhan Sirhan, June 1968.
A Russian soldier playing an abandoned piano in Chechnya, 1994.
Connie Kopelov and Phyllis Siegel embrace after becoming the first gay couple married in Manhattan, 2011.
A Sudan People's Liberation Army soldier during a rehearsal for the Independence Day ceremony, July 2011.
NASA's Mars Rover presents the world with a vision of Mars at dusk, May 2005.
An Afghan man offers a US soldier tea near Kabul, Afghanistan, 2009.
Robert Capa’s photo of a Republican militiaman meeting his death during the Spanish Civil War, 1936.
Terri Gurrola reunites with her daughter after serving seven months in Iraq, 2007.
Terezka, a girl who grew up in a concentration camp, draws a picture of her Poland "home", December 1948.
A four-month-old Japanese baby brings light to the March 2011 tsunami, which claimed thousands of lives.
Horace Greasely confronts Heinrich Himmler in a 1940s German prisoner of war camp. In love with a German woman, Greasely escaped from the camp 200 times.
Influential Photographs: Robert Peraza weeps before the 9/11 memorial, 2011.
For more powerful famous photos, be sure to visit our posts on life inside North Korea and the best photographs on All That Is Interesting Then, see how photographer Kevin Carter took one iconic image that changed the world and ultimately helps explain why he took his own life.