The Story Behind The Flag Raising on Iwo Jima by Joe Rosenthal (1945)

What’s up photography fans! It’s Martin from the All about Street Photography channel and today I want to talk about a very famous picture taken by Joe Rosenthal, a picture that represented a symbol of unity in the Second World War and earned him a Pulitzer Prize. Let’s take a look at Flag Raising on Iwo Jima.

The picture we are looking at is called the Flag Raising on Iwo Jima and was taken by Joe Rosenthal (who was working for The Associated Press at that time). It was taken in 1945 on a small but important Japanese island in the Pacific Ocean five days after the Marines landed there. The Island was important since the United States troops needed it as an airbase as it was a strategic piece of land 750 miles south of Tokyo. Joe Rosenthal just came to the top of Mt. Suribachi -- the highest point on the island -- when a group of American Marines after heavy fighting just raised a flag of the United States. The flag, however, was too small, so they decided to replace it with a larger one, so it could be seen from much larger distances to boost the morale of soldiers and demoralize the enemies. Six Marines were assigned to put up the larger flag.

So Rosenthal positioned himself to have a better framing for the act of flag raising with his big Speed Graphic camera which was actually standard for press photographers at the time. He was there with a marine photographer, Sgt. Bill Genaust, who had a motion picture camera and stood right next to Rosenthal when the flag went up. Rosenthal took one of the most iconic pictures of the Second World War.  

Flag Raising on Iwo Jima by Joe Rosenthal (1945)

Flag Raising on Iwo Jima by Joe Rosenthal (1945)

“Out of the corner of my eye, I had seen the men start the flag up. I swung my camera and shot the scene. That is how the picture was taken, and when you take a picture like that, you don’t come away saying you got a great shot. You don’t know.”  - Joe Rosenthal

Joe Rosenthal  (1911 - 2006)

Joe Rosenthal (1911 - 2006)

It was published 2 days later across the United States and the photo became one of the most re published and recognizable images. Rosenthal later recalled he did not realize the picture he just shot was anything special until he started receiving congratulations and even then he was not sure which picture was it. Millions of people actually saw the picture almost a week before he did.

It was also replicated in a sculpture at the U. S. Marine Corps War Memorial. The Post Office Department chose Flag Raising on Iwo Jima to honor the United States Marine Corps on a postage stamp, the flag itself still exists and is displayed in the national museum of Marine Corps. Sgt. Bill Genaust and 3 of the troops raising the flag later unfortunately died in the combat.

There is also a movie directed by Clint Eastwood based on a book written by James Bradley, the son of one of the flag-raisers. Let me know if you have seen that movie and what you think about it. Rosenthal was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1945 and the photo was selected among top 100 examples of journalism in 1999 by New York University. Rosenthal always denied the second flag raising was staged for him. He explained he would probably have ruined the photo if he attempted staging it by choosing fewer men and making sure their faces could be seen. The controversy started because Rosenthal actually staged a photo with the flag. But it was after the flag was already up; a different photo where marines posed in front of the flag. When asked if the photo was staged, he answered, was thinking about the other photo. By the time he realized what photo was in question it was already too late and the damage was done. A special meeting was held in Washington between military officials, editors of Life and AP to solve the controversy once for good. In the end the came to the conclusion that the picture was not posed.

The west side of the Marine Corps War Memorial in Arlington County, Virginia

Iwo Jima Postal Stamps

When we look at the composition the position of the flag is pretty much perfect. A moment earlier and the flag would have been too low. Waiting little longer and the pole would have been straight picturing just bunch of soldier standing at the flag. It is the strong diagonal and the anticipation of the movement that made the photo perfect from the composition standpoint (especially in the square format).

Rosenthal later mentioned he almost didn’t go to the summit when he learned that a flag had already been raised but he decided to go anyway. Remember this next time you want to give up your goals.


If you want to find more information here are some sources and interesting pages:

Newsreel US Marines raising the flag on Iwo Jima

Joe Rosenthal shot iconic WWII image of flag at Iwo Jima

Photog leaves behind famous WW II image

The Flag Atop Mt. Suribachi, Iwo Jima

Joe Rosenthal and the flag-raising on Iwo Jima


Time 100 photos

The First Flag-Raising on Iwo Jima

Raising The Flag At Iwo Jima: Story Behind The Photo | Flashback | NBC News

The inside story of the famous Iwo Jima photo

Iconic Photos The First Flag on Iwo Jima


The Official Website