The chaotic headlines, broken records, and remarkable strength that defined 2021

The year began with vaccines and optimism. But a new Covid-19 wave, violent conflicts, and the climate crisis made 2021 one more year we'd need resilience to survive.

Sept. 17-19 | Washington, D.C.

Planted on parkland around the Washington Monument, the small white flags were both tributes to and symbols of each life lost to COVID-19 in the United States. Artist Suzanne Brennan Firstenberg devised the installation to express the enormity of the national death toll—and also the pain of individual deaths, as mourners decorated flags with loved ones’ names and photos. During the roughly three weeks that the installation was in place, the U.S. passed a grim milestone: 700,000 COVID fatalities. To create this composite image, Stephen Wilkes took hundreds of photos from the same vantage point during 30 hours spanning three days. He then merged select photos into this single scene. Learn more about Wilkes’s “Day to Night” technique in the story below.
Photograph by STEPHEN WILKES

In July 2021 the Indonesian photojournalist Muhammad Fadli drove with his cameras to a cemetery on the Jakarta outskirts and understood, again and more profoundly, how wrong he had been. Over a stretch of weeks during March and April, Fadli had let himself believe that life as he knew it was righting itself: He saw a nationwide inoculation campaign, markets starting to bustle again, malls reopening. 

But no. It was like that lull in the horror movies, the brief fake serenity before the thing roars up again. Now in this new burial area, one of six commissioned when the pandemic filled the city’s main public cemetery, earthmoving machinery was clearing more ground even as mourners bent over fresh graves. 

At the entrance gate, Fadli noted, hearses pulled up every few minutes to deliver the dead. Frequently they converged and had to wait in line for their turn. When drivers swung open their rear doors, Fadli realized that many of the hearses held more than one casket. “Some were carrying four,” he told me in early September, and as both of us paused to picture this, our phone conversation momentarily fell silent. 

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