20 Most Iconic Photos in College History

Photos have more power than most people give them credit for. In a world where there are more photographs online than time to view them all, the value of photos is easy to underestimate. At their surface, they are a record of history: wedding photos that capture who was there for your celebration, war photos that show the sadness and devastation experienced halfway across the world. But beyond that, photos can impact the world. Joe Rosenthal’s historic photograph Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima not only preserved an important moment in World War II, it gave the American people an enduring symbol of victory that changed the perception of the war.

Not every photograph can have such a profound impact, but so many have. Important moments in college history have been preserved in photographs, changing the way people view college, whether through an understanding of racism, protests, tragedy, or celebration. Read on to learn about 20 iconic photos, offered in no particular order, that gave the world a glimpse into what college life is really about.

  1. James Zwerg: In 1961, a group of white and black college students, known as the Freedom Riders, took a bus trip through the segregated South with the goal of desegregating public transportation. James Zwerg, a white student, was one of them. When their bus arrived in Montgomery, Alabama, they were greeted by an angry mob, and Zwerg volunteered to be the first to exit. He was attacked and beaten to a pulp. Photographers captured what had been done to Zwerg, and the images of his blackened eyes and bloody suit were shared around the world. Zwerg’s actions and the photos from the event made him one of the movement’s first heroes, featured in documentaries and history books.
  2. 1969 Michigan vs. Ohio State Football Game: The 1969 Michigan vs. Ohio State football game was one of the biggest upsets in college football history. Ohio was the defending national champion, a top ranked team with a 22 game winning streak as they played Michigan for the Big Ten Conference Championship. In the final seconds of the game, Michigan turned over the ball and took a knee, running out the clock at 24-12. The crowd at Michigan Stadium rushed the field, and a photographer caught the image of the captain, Jim Mandich, being carried off the field crying with joy, creating an iconic photograph of the ecstasy of college football.
  3. Don’t Tase Me Bro: During his presidential campaign, John Kerry visited the University of Florida for a speech, where undergraduate Journalism student Andrew W. Meyer asked him some very probing questions. After Meyer asked Kerry about his membership in Skull and Bones, Meyer’s microphone was cut off, and he was approached by officers. He resisted, and was tased while screaming, “don’t tase me, bro!” Video of this incident went viral almost immediately, with millions of views. The video and still images that resulted from the event brought up issues of free speech and questions of excessive force, and the phrase, “don’t tase me, bro!” was designated as the most memorable quote of 2007.
  4. Bluto: Although the classic “college” photo of Bluto isn’t likely to have a profound impact on the world, just about everyone recognizes this image of John Belushi as Bluto in Animal House — it’s been used on posters and recreated as replica t-shirts many times over. This photograph has become a college staple, representing everything that is beloved by college party animals, Animal House fans, and everything in between.
  5. Einstein’s Tongue: After an event at Princeton honoring Einstein on his 72nd birthday, Einstein was photographed by Arthur Sasse. Instead of the smile that Sasse was trying to convince out of Einstein, he received the unexpected reaction of him sticking out his tongue. The gesture in the photograph captures Einstein’s rebellious nature, and love of both humor and defiance. This photo is universally loved by college students, and has reached iconic status in the education world and beyond, as it has graced many a classroom and dorm wall in poster form.
  6. The Miracle in Miami: Just like Michigan State’s epic photo, Boston College’s photo of Doug Flutie and his teammates celebrating with the score in the background could belong to any football game — it’s such an iconic moment of victory. But this particular photo celebrates Doug Flutie’s last second Hail Mary touchdown pass, that resulted in Boston College squeaking past the University of Miami with a 47-45 victory. The Hail Mary play, and the photo of celebration helped to bring Boston College to the forefront as a major national university, a status it enjoys today.
  7. Desmond Howard and the Heisman: In 1991, Desmond Howard was a frontrunner for the Heisman trophy, with amazing performance on the field. He caught 61 passes for 950 yards in that season, and made a touchdown on those passes 1/3 of the time. He earned his Heisman, and at the 1991 Ohio State vs. Michigan game, he knew he’d locked down the trophy, taking a moment to strike the classic Heisman pose in anticipation of receiving the award. The moment was aired on live TV and the photo widely distributed. Some found the pose arrogant, some loved it, but almost everyone agreed that he was right to claim the Heisman as his own-and he did.
  8. The Face of AIDS: This photograph is different than the other iconic images in this collection, as it’s not about college life, but rather, a product of a college student. As a visual communication graduate student at Ohio University in 1990, Therese Frare captured an image that brought the AIDS epidemic home. As a volunteer for an AIDS hospice, she was asked to take photos of a dying patient, David Kirby, as his family said their final goodbyes. The haunting image was published in LIFE magazine, allowing the public to see the truth about AIDS and its devastation. By some estimates, as many as 1 billion people have seen this photograph over more than 20 years.
  9. The Wrong Way Run: On New Year’s Day in 1929, The University of California, Berkeley took on Georgia Tech at the Rose Bowl. Roy Riegels picked up a fumble from Georgia Tech, and instead of running 30 yards to score in the appropriate end zone, got turned around and ran 65 yards the wrong way. Berkeley ultimately lost that game, and many blamed it on the blunder. Roy Riegels became a household name due to this stunt, and the nickname “Wrong Way” stuck for life. Even a children’s book was created to tell the story. His wrong way run, and the subsequent photograph, was selected as one of the six “Most Memorable Moments of the Century” by CBS and the College Football Hall of Fame.
  10. James Meredith at Ole Miss: In 1962, public school segregation was illegal but still carried on in some states, and the state of Mississippi was one of them. James Meredith wanted to attend the University of Mississippi, but was refused several times due to “administrative difficulties.” With assistance from Thurgood Marshall, President Kennedy, and the Supreme court, Meredith was permitted admission. He was escorted by US Marshalls to register on campus three times, who were stopped each time by state forces taking orders from a dissenting Mississippi governor. Finally, Meredith and the Marshals returned with a huge force, with federal agents numbering 538, all to protect just one man and his educational rights. This iconic photograph of Meredith being escorted on campus by US Marshals depicts the grim anxiety of the day that sparked riots on the Ole Miss campus, with 160 soldiers injured, 28 US Marshals wounded, and two people dead. Meredith persevered through the incident, and ongoing harassment, to graduate with a degree in political science less than a year later.
  11. Virginia Tech Vigil: In 2007, the Virginia Tech campus was rocked by a school shooting carried out by a student, Seung-Hui Cho. He killed 32 people and wounded 25, then killed himself. It was the deadliest single-gunman shooting incident in US history. The next evening, the university held an assembly and candlelight vigil with “1,000 points of light,” and an image was captured that showed an iconic moment of the university community coming together to mourn.
  12. The Four Horsemen: After a 13-7 victory over Army in 1925, four offensive Notre Dame players were deemed the Four Horsemen by a sportswriter, Grantland Rice. George Strickler, a student publicity aide made sure the name stuck, arranging a now-iconic photograph with the players on horseback. The image was picked up by wire services, creating a legendary status for the Four Horsemen of Notre Dame.
  13. Smoking in the Dean’s Office: In 1968, student riots and protests were nearing their height, and Columbia University in New York was among the campuses with unrest. On April 23rd, students took over the dean’s office, taking him and two other people as hostages for more than a day. During the situation, a photograph was taken by Blake Fleetwood showing student David Shapiro relaxing at the dean’s desk, smoking one of his cigars. The image became one of the most iconic photographs of student unrest, and Shapiro eventually became a professor at Columbia.
  14. Honoring Bonfire Victims: On November 18, 1999, the annual Texas A&M bonfire collapsed, killing 12 and injuring 27. Each year, the students of A&M built the bonfire as a symbol of their “burning desire” to beat their rival, UT. It was an important activity for the campus, and the collapse was tragic-bringing together more than 5,000 people at the memorial service. This iconic photo shares the once-celebrated tradition of A&M’s bonfire.
  15. Kent State Shooting: On May 4th, 1970, students were protesting against the American invasion of Cambodia. National Guard forces attempted to disperse the students by reading them orders and using tear gas, which was not effective. The situation escalated to the use of bayonet rifles, and during the confrontation, 67 rounds were fired over 13 seconds, killing four unarmed students and wounding nine. Kent State photojournalism student John Filo captured the now-iconic photo of a 14-year-old runaway, Mary Ann Vecchio, as she was screaming over the body of Jeffrey Miller, who had been shot dead. This photograph became one of the most important images of the event and the anti-Vietnam war movement, winning Filo a Pulitzer Prize.
  16. Tiananmen Tank Man: In 1989, students gathered in Tiananmen Square in Beijing to protest for economic and political reform following the death of CPC General Secretary Hu Yaobang, who was killed due to his support of political liberalization. The protests began on April 15th, and military action intervened on June 4th. On June 5th, an unknown man, believed by some to be a student, made history and forever created the image of Tank Man. He stood alone in front of tanks driving out of Tiananmen Square, unarmed and peacefully defiant. He was pulled aside by a group of people, and his outcome is unknown to this day, although speculation exists as to his identity and possible execution. Four different photographers actually captured the event, but Jeff Widener’s image is the one most commonly seen. He reported that the photograph almost didn’t make it-he had set the wrong shutter speed, and had to get help smuggling his undeveloped roll of film back to the Associated Press. Widener was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for the photo in 1990, and the photo has come to serve as the symbolic image of the events at Tiananmen Square.
  17. The Memorable Minute: Lorenzo Charles made the game winning dunk at the 1983 national college championship game. He dunked at the buzzer, giving the NC State Wolfpack a 54-52 win, and the NCAA championship. Their win came over the heavily favored Houston, which had the likes of Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler on their team. This pair of iconic photographs depict the moments immediately following Charles’ dunk-as reality sunk in for the players, and coach Jim Valvano ran onto the court to find someone to hug in celebration.
  18. Jackson State: On May 14th, 1970, just 10 days after the Kent State killings, students at Jackson State gathered to protest racism on campus. The protest escalated to fires, overturned vehicles, and rioting. Police responded and moved to disperse the crowd. Officers opened fire, with authorities claiming there was sniper fire. One hundred forty shots were fired in 30 seconds, blowing out every window on one side of the women’s dorm. People were trampled and cut by falling glass, and four students died. This photograph shows the aftermath of students in the protest, fists raised with a sense of defiance and solidarity. This incident was investigated as a part of The President’s Commission on Campus Unrest. No arrests were made, but the damage to the exterior of the women’s dorm is still visible.
  19. The First Earth Day: In New York City, April 22nd 1970, the first Earth Day was celebrated. Roads were closed to car traffic, a Chevy was put on trial for pollution, and students buried caskets filled with trash. But it’s this iconic image that serves to capture the spirit of the day most effectively. With simplicity and wit, it shows a young student smelling magnolias while wearing a gas mask. Although there’s no record of who took the photo, it has lived on as a symbol of the very first Earth Day that struck a nerve with the country. Long anonymous, the subject of the photo, Peter Hallerman, has now been identified as the young man in the mask.
  20. Playing Through: On November 20, 1982, during the Cal vs Stanford game, the Stanford Band thought the game was over, but Berkeley was still going strong. Using five laterals, the offensive team went 57 yards with no time on the clock, ultimately scoring a touchdown that would win them the game. But no one told the Stanford band what was going on, and in this iconic photo, Kevin Moen finished the last few yards flanked by saxophones and horns.

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