These are the history-defining moments that shaped 2020

National Geographic photographers capture a year dominated by disaster, unrest, and uncertainty.

Photo Mosaic by Sakke Overlund
Photo Mosaic by Sakke Overlund

Taken at the height of Belgium’s COVID-19 outbreak, a black-and-white photograph by Cédric Gerbehaye shows a medical gown and a face shield discarded outside a hospital. The protective gown—shed just moments before by a doctor transporting a patient out of an ambulance and into the ER—still carries the doctor’s form, as if the person inside it had simply vanished.

An image of quiet courage amid crisis, it’s one of 47 photographs selected by National Geographic to represent a year dominated by disaster, unrest, and uncertainty.

Wildfires and cyclonic storms ravaged homes and communities across the world. In Beirut, Lebanon, government mismanagement led to an ammonium nitrate explosion at the capital city’s port that killed nearly 200 people, wounded 6,500, and left 300,000 homeless.

Millions of people rose up against police brutality and systemic racism in the U.S. after several police killings of Black people, including George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. Monuments fell and historical wounds reemerged.

Photographer Kris Graves drove over 3,500 miles in 23 days to photograph more than 250 memorials, monuments, and schools—90 percent of which were dedicated to the Confederacy. In Oklahoma, Bethany Mollenkof documented the unearthing of mass graves in the search for victims of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre. “The moment felt surreal,” she says. “For so long Black people in Tulsa have demanded the city look for bodies in that spot in the graveyard, so to know they found human remains there felt heavy. I felt responsible to show the emotion.”

Unrest convulsed the rest of the world as well. Long-simmering ethnic tensions between Armenian and Azerbaijani groups in Nagorno-Karabakh erupted into a 44-day conflict that ended with a tenuous ceasefire. China cracked down on Hong Kong’s student-led protests by imposing a new security law criminalizing dissent, effectively dismantling the city’s political and cultural identity. “What does it mean for a city to die?” asks photographer Laurel Chor, a Hong Kong native who has documented the city’s upheaval. “How do you mourn the loss of a place in which you are still living?”

There were also major milestones. For the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II, Hiroki Kobayashi documented how Japan remembers the trauma of the atomic bombs, while Robert Clark photographed veterans and survivors in the U.S., Japan, and Europe. In August, Americans celebrated the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, which granted women the constitutional right to vote.

And in November, eight of our photographers covered a presidential election whose stakes felt more urgent than ever. A record number of Americans turned out to vote for the future of a nation at a crossroads.

Through it all, the coronavirus pandemic touched every aspect of life in every corner of the globe, from how we celebrate to how we grieve. Over 1.4 million people have died. Millions have lost their jobs and struggle to feed their families. But the first doses of a vaccine are expected to be rolled out within weeks, offering hope for the new year.

These are the moments that will be etched into history, seen through the lenses of National Geographic photographers.

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A doctor’s personal protective equipment (PPE) is strewn on the ground outside a hospital in La Louviere, Belgium. The doctor stripped the PPE off to avoid contamination when entering an emergency room from an ambulance.

(From: A world gone viral)

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The coronavirus pandemic pushed people to adapt how they practice rituals. In Tver, Russia, mask-wearing worshippers congregate at a church to celebrate a modified Orthodox Easter, a significant religious holiday in the country.

(From: Surreal scenes inside Russia’s battle against the pandemic)

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Though early warnings about COVID-19 emphasized the risk to older people, the virus can be dangerous for the young people as well. Medical workers prepare to intubate a young man suffering from lung problems in the COVID-19 ward of Moscow’s Hospital No. 52.

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A nurse at Spallanzani Hospital in Rome takes off her protective clothing after visiting a patient with COVID-19.
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In April, after President Uhuru Kenyatta ordered a dawn-to-dusk curfew in Kenya, the country’s highways were largely deserted, including this one in the Kitisuru neighborhood of Nairobi.

(From: In Nairobi, quarantine is a luxury few can afford)

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Indonesia had one of the highest COVID-19 death rates in Asia. In East Jakarta, the Pondok Ranggon Public Cemetery, pictured in late April, cleared land to accommodate the influx of virus victims.
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At a nursing home in La Louviere, Belgium, a nurse restrains and stabilizes a resident so her colleague can perform a COVID-19 test. Nursing homes have been particularly impacted by the pandemic.
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Loved ones mourn the death of Esther Iyabode Akinsanya, who died after contracting COVID-19 while working as a health care provider at Queen Elizabeth Hospital in London, England.

(From: In the U.K., families of the dead still wonder: was it COVID-19?)

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During lockdown in Amman, a young Jordanian flies a kite on a rooftop. Businesses in the city distributed kites to encourage a recreational activity that could be done safely, away from crowds.

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California suffered its worst fire season on record this year. Here a firefighter walks through the Sierra National Forest, burned in the ongoing Creek Fire, which started in early September. The largest single wildfire in the state’s history, it has burned nearly 380,000 acres. Firefighters hope to contain it by the end of the year.

(From: Witness California's record blazes through the eyes of frontline firefighters)

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A devastating super cyclonic storm hit Eastern India and Bangladesh in May, killing dozens and leaving thousands homeless. In India, Sudhangshu Bera and his family carry their belongings to a nearby school after their home was flooded. Cyclone Amphan was reported to be the strongest storm over the Bay of Bengal in the 21st century.
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Hurricane Laura, one of the most powerful hurricanes to hit the U.S. on record, left marsh cane and mud throughout St. Eugene Catholic Church in Grand Chenier, Louisiana.

(From: How powerful hurricanes hasten the disappearance of Louisiana’s wetlands)

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Pedestrians walk past a crumbled building in the Mar Mikhael neighborhood of Beirut, Lebanon after a warehouse containing ammonium nitrate exploded at the capital city’s port. At least 600 historic buildings with heritage status were affected by the blast, according to a UNESCO report.

(From: Why must every Lebanese generation endure violent chaos—and its aftermath?)

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The day after China passed a national security law criminalizing dissent in Hong Kong, the police cancelled the city’s annual pro-democracy march. Here, journalists in yellow vests duck to avoid a police water cannon aimed at protesters and bystanders.

(From: Hong Kong mourns the end of its way of life as China cracks down on dissent)

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In July, a woman in Hong Kong pays her respects at a makeshift memorial for Marcus Leung, who died in 2019 protesting against China’s proposed extradition bill.
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Medical professionals at the Republican Medical Center in Stepanakert tend to a wounded combatant fighting on the Armenia side of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan.

(Read more about the history of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict)

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Military planes fly over Moscow’s Red Square on Victory Day to commemorate Germany’s surrender in World War II. Due to the pandemic and stay-at-home orders, the commemoration was not well attended.
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Lauren Stocker and her daughters pause in front of the portrait of the four women Supreme Court justices at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. a day after Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s state funeral in September.

(From: See how Americans are mourning Ruth Bader Ginsburg in the nation's capital)

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This year, Matilda McCrear was identified as the last known survivor of the last known slave ship. She was brought to the U.S. aboard the Clotilda as a two-year-old in 1860, and is believed to be buried in an unmarked grave at the Martin Station Cemetery near Safford, Alabama.

(From: The last slave ship survivor and her descendants identified)

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Black Lives Matters demonstrators congregate outside the Barclays Center in New York City as they prepare to march over the Brooklyn Bridge.

(From: Systemic racism and coronavirus are killing people of color. Protesting isn't enough)

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Marchers demonstrate against police brutality at a Black Lives Matter Protest in Brooklyn, New York.
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The night before the Commitment March on Washington, a pedestrian stops in front of a mural depicting 26-year-old Breonna Taylor, who was fatally shot by police in Louisville, Kentucky. Her death sparked outrage across the United States.
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The Tuskegee Confederate Monument was erected in 1906 by the United Daughters of the Confederacy. After the monument was vandalized in June, it was covered with blue tarp by the city of Tuskegee, which is looking for ways to remove the monument completely.

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Reverend Robert Turner prays in front of an excavation site at Oaklawn Cemetery in Oklahoma, where scientists searching for victims of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre discovered a mass grave. The bodies have not yet been identified.

(From: Coffins unearthed as the search for victims of the Tulsa Race Massacre continues)

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Staff at Lucille’s 1913, a non-profit pop-up kitchen run by owner Chris Williams, prepare free meals for communities in need in Houston, Texas. One in six Americans could go hungry in 2020 because of the pandemic, according to Feeding America.
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Karla González and her mother Mirelis Toro wait in line to purchase materials for Karla’s quinceañera at a bazaar in Havana, Cuba. The country’s economy has been severely damaged by a decline in tourism and a drop in remittances sent from abroad, creating a devastating food shortage.
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In Queens, New York, a community refrigerator allows people to donate or pick up food. An early epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic, the borough has seen widespread unemployment and high rates of food insecurity.

(From: Queens, one of the first COVID-19 epicenters, faces a new crisis: hunger)

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As they wait to learn the result of the U.S. presidential election, Trump supporters attend a campaign press conference held by Donald Trump Jr., at the Georgia Republican Party Headquarters in Atlanta.
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A crowd celebrates Joe Biden’s imminent victory over Donald Trump in the presidential election at a “count the vote” event in Philadelphia on Election Night.

(From: The election is over. See photos of America’s divided reaction)

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Trump and Biden supporters clash on the steps of the Michigan State Capitol in Lansing after the election results are announced.

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Following Joe Biden’s win in the presidential election, Cooper Sherwin and Joan Taylor share a kiss while holding a framed copy of the Declaration of Independence. Sherwin and Taylor canvassed for the president-elect in Pennsylvania.

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Ali, from Pakistan, celebrates the win of the Biden-Harris campaign with his family in Times Square. Kamala Harris marked a series of firsts with her election to the vice presidency in November. Harris is the first woman, first Black person, and first person of South Asian descent to be elected to the office.

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A long-exposure of the SpaceX’s Crew Dragon craft lifting off into orbit from Kennedy Space Center in November. The launch was a major milestone in privately-funded spaceflight.

(From: SpaceX launch kicks off regular commercial flights into orbit)