The most powerful photo ever

Every year, we take billions of photos of ourselves and our loved ones. Photos of landscapes, buildings, vehicles, animals or just random strangers. The vast majority of those photos are entirely unremarkable except perhaps to the person who took them. A precious few are so good, they qualify for awards like the World Press Photo. These photos sometimes become iconic for our human struggle, capturing a dramatic event in a single frame. But no matter how good all those photos are, there is one photo that rises above all of them for me . The most powerful photo ever taken.

There are many things remarkable about this photo. For one, it wasn’t even taken by a person but by a machine. For another, the person who had the initial idea to take this photo died 17 years before it was taken. The photo shows no people, no landscapes, no buildings or vehicles or even random strangers.

The original

I am talking about the famous “pale blue dot” photo that was the brainchild of Carl Sagan, famed astronomer, cosmologist, astrophysicist and astrobiologist. The original image was taken by the Voyager 1 space craft. It was Sagan’s idea that Voyager should turn around one last time as it passed the orbit of Neptune and capture a final image of the beginning of its long voyage: Earth.

The original “pale blue dot” photo, taken by Voyager 1 on February 14, 1990. Earth is in the superimposed photo on the left, Venus in the superimposed photo on the right. (Source: NASA / JPL)

This is not the photo I am referring to when I say “the most powerful photo ever”. While the image above is remarkable and awe inspiring, the camera on Voyager 1 wasn’t as great as the space-going cameras that followed it. The final result is somewhat lackluster.

The most powerful photo ever taken

On July 19 of 2013, the Cassini space craft was tasked to take another photo of the Earth from its orbit around the planet Saturn. Having a more modern camera and being much closer to Earth than Voyager 1, Cassini returned a beautiful photo. It’s this photo I am talking about when I say it’s the most powerful photo ever taken. Showing the beauty of Saturn’s rings, a gorgeous dark blue background of space, there is a single pale, blue dot near bottom right of the photo. Earth.

The Cassini photo, entitled “The Day the Earth Smiled”. (Source: NASA / JPL-Caltech / Space Science Institute)

When I see that photo, I am reminded of the beautiful and haunting words that Carl Sagan wrote about the original photo:

Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there-on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space

Humility

To me, this photo shows how small, insignificant and fragile the Earth is. Not even on the scale of the universe or our galaxy but from within our own solar system. From this distance, our wars, our posturing, our self-centered attitude seem so utterly ridiculous. It’s the only home we have and yet we take it for granted. We fight wars to own a fraction of a speck of dust for a limited time. From out here, the rings of Saturn, you can’t even see any of what we do. You can barely make out the planet.

If it were up to me, this photo would have to be on the wall of every politician, every general, every king or queen, every captain of industry and every superstar, to remind them just how small, insignificant and fragile our planet is. This single image, captured by a machine, is the best teacher of humility that I know. We are all on this pale blue dot together. Let’s be kind to the Earth, our only home. And let’s be kind to each other.

What is the photo that speaks to you the most? A photo that inspires you? Share it in the comments below!