The Man Behind the Photo


Photo courtesy of USMC Archives on Flickr

On February 23, 1945, an unknown photographer snapped a photo which became one of the enduring symbols of the U.S. Marine Corps. During World War II, at the bloody battle for Iwo Jima, five Marines and a Navy Corpsman took the crest of Mount Suribachi, the island’s highest peak and most strategic position to raise the U.S. flag. The moment was captured on this camera.

Graflex Speed Camera, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The film was sent back home, the photo developed, and the image went viral in those days before Instagram, Facebook and Twitter. It immediately appeared on walls (physical ones) around the country: movie theaters, retail store window, banks, factories, and billboards.


Franklin Roosevelt, the president at the time, made the photograph the theme for a War Bond Tour, which raised $24 billion for the U.S. Treasury. A stamp commemorating the photograph was issued. It was awarded the Pulitzer prize was awarded in 1945. It became the model for a 110-feet tall bronze Marine Corps Memorial in Arlington, Virginia. The six men who raised the flag in the actual photograph were ordered home and were treated to a hero’s welcome, but only three had survived.

Joe Rosenthal is the man behind the photo.

Joseph John Rosenthal was born to Russian Jewish immigrants in Washington, D.C. on October 11, 1911. His interest in photography began as a hobby during the years of the Great Depression. After many odd jobs as an office boy and reporter/photographer, he eventually landed a job with the Associate Press and followed the Army and U.S. Marines as a war correspondent into the Pacific during World War II. On February 23, 1945, Rosenthal took this iconic photo that became a symbol of victory and gave hope to entire nation. CNN goes so far to say that “Basically, this simple photo was so powerful it helped win World War II.”


How did a relatively unknown, obscure man make such an impact on so many lives in a nation? Look back at his story, and there are a few clues.


He had passion. He loved photography. He was not worried about success or a particular role. He simply loved taking pictures and looked for every opportunity to live out of his passion.

He developed skills. People with passion but no skill, get dismissed as fanatics. Rosenthal worked arduously to develop his passion and hone his art. Luck helps to be in the right place at the right time, but it was his skill that allowed him take advantage of the opportunity to catch his award winning photo.

He persevered. He was previously rejected as an Army photographer due to his poor eyesight. He did not let that stop him. He eventually followed the Army and the Marines into the Pacific as a war correspondent.

He was consistent. Daily he went to the island of Mount Suribachi on a Marine landing craft. Daily. Every day. In the end, consistency wins the day. Habits determine character and destiny.

He overcame limitations. Rosenthal was relatively small, measuring a mere five feet and five inches (1.65 m). To get the right vantage point for the picture, he constructed a pile rocks and a sandbag on which to stand.

He was humble. When Rosenthal was asked about the photo, he would say “I took the picture, the Marines took Iwo Jima.” He knew his role and was content with that; and he gave others credit for their role.

Rosenthal’s name does not appear on the Marine Corps statue commemorating the moment at Iwo Jima. In spite of some fame that came with the photograph, he made little money from it. He died of natural causes in his sleep in 2006 at the age of 94. The Hollywood movie, Flags of Our Fathers recounts the story behind the iconic photograph and its impact on the six men, one photographer and an entire nation.

What inspires you about Joe Rosenthal’s story?

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About Steve Morgan

I work in Global Leadership Development with my wife, Terry. We have been married for 36 years and have 4 grown children. I have a Masters in Global Leadership together through Azusa Pacific University. I generally write about 5 “L’s: Living Well, Loving Deeply, Learning Continuously, Leading Courageously, and Leaving a Legacy. I occasionally write about Laughing Loudly. Subscribe on the right side to receive an email whenever there is a new post. I invite you to leave your comments so we can dialogue on the various topics and learn from each other. If you are new to the site, you might start with looking at some of the top posts or doing a search on the right sidebar for one of the 5 “L’s” that interest you. Or you can view the blog archives for topics. Photo Credit:
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5 Responses to The Man Behind the Photo

  1. I love the background story. I’m impressed that he went day after day to catch a ride to Iwo Jima. I would say he was determined too. Nice blog.

  2. daylerogers says:

    I love that he never gave up. I love that he persevered because of his passion. How passionate am I about what I do? Thanks for this, Steverino. Rosenthal was a man of great character and purpose.

  3. Pingback: 7 Ways Being a Wandering Photographer Helped Shape Me into a Leader, Part One | Leader Impact

  4. Pingback: 7 Ways Being a Wandering Photographer Helped Shape Me into a Leader, Part Two | Leader Impact

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