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9 Photos That Launched Popular Conspiracy Theories

They say that a picture is worth a thousand words. But whether or not those words are true is a whole other story.

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Retro film photo camera isolated on white background; Shutterstock ID 528068158Shutterstock (2)

Pictures don’t lie…or do they?

“Within the murky world of conspiracy theories, photography plays a crucial role,” the BBC noted in a 2017 examination of conspiracy theories and the images that inspire them. The reason? Photographs have long been an accepted form of eyewitness evidence. Like any narrative, however, photographs can be misleading, and sometimes intentionally so. Here, we explore some of the famous photos that inspired conspiracy theories, some of which persist to this day. Check out the craziest pop culture conspiracy theories of all time.

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MANDATORY CREDIT: NASA/REX Shutterstock Mandatory Credit: Photo by NASA/Shutterstock (3683583d) Buzz Aldrin salutes the U.S. Flag Apollo 11 Moon landing mission - 1969 FULL COPY: A team of NASA-funded scientists has solved an enduring mystery from the Apollo missions to the moon – the origin of organic matter found in lunar samples returned to Earth. Samples of the lunar soil brought back by the Apollo astronauts contain low levels of organic matter in the form of amino acids. Certain amino acids are the building blocks of proteins, essential molecules used by life to build structures like hair and skin and to regulate chemical reaction.NASA/Shutterstock

A faked moon landing

Roughly 6 percent of Americans believe the Apollo 11 moon landing was nothing more than a cinematic tour de force produced by a government bent on “winning” the “space race” against Russia at all costs, including by gaining the confidence of the public. This photo of Buzz Aldrin beside an American flag is often cited—for its eerie lighting and the “mysterious” flapping of the flag—by those who believe the moon landing was “just a movie.” Conspiracy theories aside, here are 13 moon mysteries scientists are still trying to figure out.

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This undated photo discovered in the U.S. National Archives by Les Kinney shows people on a dock in Jaluit Atoll, Marshall Islands. A new documentary film proposes that this image shows aviator Amelia Earhart, seated third from right, gazing at what may be her crippled aircraft loaded on a barge. The documentary "Amelia Earhart: The Lost Evidence," which airs, on the History channel, argues that Earhart and her navigator, Fred Noonan, crash-landed in the Japanese-held Marshall Islands, were picked up by Japanese military and that Earhart was taken prisonerAP/Shutterstock

Amelia Earhart didn’t die in a plane crash

Amelia Earhart’s plane disappeared over the Pacific on July 2, 1937, and more than 80 years later, people still really want to believe that she survived that fateful flight. There are a number of conspiracy theories about what happened to her, and here’s the latest, sparked by this photo: She was taken hostage by the Japanese military after accidentally ending up in the Marshall Islands. Presented in a 2017 History Channel special, this photograph shows a Caucasian woman with short hair who resembles Earhart (from the back, anyway). She’s the one sitting on the dock, and her navigator, Fred Noonan, is supposedly nearby. Plus, according to NBC News, “the photo shows a Japanese ship, Koshu, towing a barge with something that appears to be 38-feet-long—the same length as Earhart’s plane.”

It seemed like pretty solid proof…but shortly after the special aired, new evidence emerged that this image was actually published in a Japanese-language travelogue in 1935, two years before Earhart’s disappearance. But that hasn’t stopped people from believing that this is the real deal, especially since there were also local accounts of a plane crash in the area at the time and schoolkids who swore that they saw the famous aviator.

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Mandatory Credit: Photo by Susan Sterner/AP/Shutterstock (6530094b) INTERNATIONAL UFO MUSEUM Visitors to the International UFO Museum in Roswell, New Mexico examine a glass-encased alien prop used in the movie "Roswell" . Over 2,000 visitors walked through the museum Monday as tourists began to pour into town for the 50th anniversary of the Roswell incident UFO PARTY, ROSWELL, USASusan Sterner/AP/Shutterstock

The body of an “actual” alien

On July 8, 1947, the U.S. Army reported that a flying saucer from outer space had been found in the desert outside Roswell, New Mexico. Within a day, the Army retracted the statement, clarifying that the “saucer” was actually a weather balloon, but by then it was too late. Rumors of a dead “alien” recovered from the saucer had already begun fueling conspiracy theories that the U.S. government was covering up the existence of life on other planets. This photo, when cropped to exclude evidence that it’s merely an artistic rendering in a museum exhibit, is one of many used to support those theories. Learn more about the debunking of those theories.

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Mandatory Credit: Photo by Jeff Pappas/Shutterstock (387448e) ONE OF THE BUILDINGS OF THE WORLD TRADE CENTER BURNS ON SEPTEMBER 11TH 2001 VARIOUS NEW YORK, AMERICAJeff Pappas/Shutterstock

Satan in the smoke?

The terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, were so beyond what the ordinary human mind could grasp that those tending toward conspiracy theories began to superimpose the extraordinary onto the events that took place that day. That includes seeing the image of Satan in the smoke billowing out of the decimated towers…because how else could anyone truly explain such an inexplicably horrific event except to blame it on the embodiment of all that is evil.

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Mandatory Credit: Photo by Gulnara Samoilova/AP/Shutterstock (6476039a) WORLD TRADE CENTER Federal investigators believe the second World Trade Center tower fell much more quickly than the first because it faced a more concentrated, intense fire inside, officials said . Investigators have singled out this Associated Press photograph that they said may provide evidence to support their theory which shows a "kink" in the building's corner at the 106th floor TRADE CENTER COLLAPSE, NEW YORK, USAGulnara Samoilova/AP/Shutterstock

Why the second tower fell so quickly

Another popular conspiracy theory concerning the 9/11 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center is that it wasn’t a terrorist act at all, but rather, a controlled explosion orchestrated by the government for the purpose of justifying our declaration of war in the Middle East. For support, conspiracy theorists cite the swiftness with which the second tower to be hit fell, suggesting the possibility of a carefully planned explosion, carried out exactly according to plan. Photos like this one have been cited as evidence. Ultimately, investigators determined the second tower was simply hit at a higher speed. Here are 12 questions people still have about 9/11.

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Mandatory Credit: Photo by Photofusion/Shutterstock (2283305a) Model Released - vapor trails or chemtrails from jets in sky often forming grid or triangular patterns Pollution Photofusion/Shutterstock

Contrails…or chemtrails?

Contrails are visible aircraft trails made of condensed water. Ask virtually any pilot and they’ll tell you that contrails are harmless. But ask a conspiracy theorist and you might hear that the trails aren’t merely water vapor and aren’t anything close to harmless. In fact, some go so far as to suggest the trails are laced with chemicals intended to exert mind control on humans. In other words, they’re “chemtrails,” not contrails, at least according to the conspiracy theorists. Don’t roll your eyes too much, though, because some conspiracy theories actually turn out to be true…including all of these.

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Elvis is still alive

More than 40 years ago, Elvis Presley died suddenly of a heart attack, bringing his fans to their knees and spawning endless conspiracy theories that Elvis didn’t actually die but has merely been in hiding. So-called Elvis sightings over the years have fueled the “Elvis is still alive” conspiracy theories, and photos of such sightings serve as “evidence.” That includes this photo of the moon during an eclipse in 2001. If you look closely—and really want to believe that Elvis never left the building—you can “clearly” see an impression of Elvis’ face. There are also some conspiracy theories about Martin Luther King Jr.’s death.

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Mandatory Credit: Photo by Hap/Quirky China News/Shutterstock (1896976b) The Steve Jobs lookalike Rubbish collector looks like late Apple founder Steve Jobs, Xi'an, Shaanxi Province, China - 26 Sep 2012 A Chinese rubbish collector who looks surprisingly like the late Steve Jobs has been spotted Xi'an, capital of western China's Shaanxi Province. The man, who bears an uncanny likeness to the Apple founder, was spotted sitting on heap of rubbish in the back of a lorry. "I was terrified in seeing him. That's Steve Jobs," said Wang Wei, who took the picture with his cell phone.Hap/Quirky China News/Shutterstock

Holding out hope for Steve Jobs

The 2011 death of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs at age 56 was a blow to many, for multiple reasons, including the belief that money can buy medical miracles (such as a cure for advanced pancreatic cancer) and the fervent wish for more innovation from the man who invented that nifty little phone you’re holding in your hand. Just as there have been Elvis sightings, there have also been Steve Jobs sightings, including a recent one in Egypt and the one shown in this photo that was taken in the Shaanxi Province of China less than a year after Jobs’ death. These are the rumors—and truth—behind Steve Jobs’ last words.

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Mandatory Credit: Photo by Snap/Shutterstock (310267y) Marilyn Monroe singing 'Happy Birthday, Mr. President' to John F. Kennedy May 19, 1962 at a celebration of his forty-fifth birthday, ten days before the actual date MARILYN MONROE RETROSPECTIVESnap/Shutterstock

Happy birthday, Mr. President

This photograph of Marilyn Monroe singing “Happy Birthday” to President John F. Kennedy in May of 1962 has been inextricably intertwined with the mystery behind Monroe’s death less than three months later. Monroe’s sultry performance ignited the longstanding rumors of an affair between herself and Kennedy, according to Biography. It also marked the end of their interactions. The two never saw each other again. While many believe her death was an accident or a suicide, others believe it was orchestrated by someone who had a problem with the alleged affair (including, some think, Robert F. Kennedy, the president’s brother, who also was rumored to be having an affair with Monroe). Check out these 20 stunning, rarely seen photos of Marilyn Monroe.

Lauren Cahn
Lauren Cahn is a New York-based writer whose work has appeared regularly on Reader's Digest, The Huffington Post, and a variety of other publications since 2008. She covers life and style, popular culture, law, religion, health, fitness, yoga, entertaining and entertainment. Lauren is also an author of crime fiction; her first full-length manuscript, The Trust Game, was short-listed for the 2017 CLUE Award for emerging talent in the genre of suspense fiction.